Nicholas B. Dirks in 2015 (Kore Chan/Senior Staff for The Daily Californian/Wikimedia Commons)

Nicholas B. Dirks is president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences, a professor of history and anthropology, and former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. His new book is City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University (Cambridge University Press). He spoke recently with Commonweal editor Dominic Preziosi for the Commonweal Podcast about the challenges facing higher education and the humanities. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length, but you can hear the full episode below:

Dominic Preziosi: I want to ask about speech on college campuses, especially since the October 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s ongoing response in Gaza. Universities are under pressure on one side from donors and alumni, and on the other from academic departments and student bodies about how to respond. Politically, they’re getting challenged from both the Right and Left. Last fall, Tom Ginsburg, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, made the case for university silence in the online publication Persuasion: “When school administrations speak authoritatively about contested questions, they not only discourage individual inquiry, but also unleash a politics of lobbying that can never be satisfied.” What should universities do in moments like these? Should they be silent?

 Nicholas Dirks: I was chancellor of U.C. Berkeley at a time that was pretty contested in terms of political debates. So I feel like I’ve lived through a lot of this. The University of Chicago has a position that is quite distinctive among universities today. It goes back to the 1967 Kalven Report, which enunciated a position of institutional neutrality. It’s important to remember that in 1967, there was growing pressure on university administrators around things that began in Berkeley with the Free Speech movement in 1964, but that, of course, took off in relation to civil rights and increasingly around Vietnam, and then Cambodia. Universities were contested places in those days, so none of this should be entirely new. What Chicago was trying to figure out was how not to take positions on political issues around, for example, military recruitment on campus or support of the war in Vietnam. I wasn’t in university yet, but I soon would be, and I felt that universities needed to be more outspoken and certainly needed to accommodate the concerns students had about involvement in what we thought at the time was an unjust war.

Having said that, I was younger then, and I have since been a student, a professor at every level, a dean, and then a chancellor. I have increasingly come to recognize that in positions of administrative authority, one has to adopt a somewhat neutral and independent perspective precisely in order not to chill the conversations taking place, the positions that are held, and sometimes even the protests conducted from very different political positions. So, I came to hold that a certain level of institutional neutrality was, in fact, necessary.

Now, lobbying takes place, and I’ve been lobbied repeatedly to make comments. I tried not to make comments that were directly about, say, foreign policy. I tried to say that the purpose of the university was to encourage deep and learned study, but also serious and impassioned debate about issues of the time. And, therefore, the university as such should not take a position with respect to them. But I also recognized that statements I made, and statements that colleagues across other universities made, articulated values of the university that were seen by some (mostly on the Right, but sometimes on the Left as well) as political. It’s very hard to actually draw a line and say, “This is where I’m going to be neutral. And this is where I’m going to talk about values.” 

DP: You’re a vocal proponent of the humanities in higher education. Yet it seems that humanities are on the budget chopping block not only at public universities, which rely on state funding and so face greater cost pressures, but also at the nation’s most prestigious and well-endowed institutions. How do you make the case for the importance of the humanities, especially when people seem to see higher education mostly as a way to train for careers?

 ND: I’ve been a passionate advocate for the humanities for my entire career, and I’ve been watching the decline with growing alarm. The decline began in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008–2009. I think there was a direct correlation between the shakeup of our financial system and the growing concern of students and their parents to focus increasingly on an education that could yield a well-paying job. I understand that. Of course, universities from their origins have been concerned with preparing students for careers. But the move away from the humanities is more than just a reflection of that, I think. It goes back to a growing belief that the humanities are not really that important.

In some ways, the modern humanities began when the university stopped teaching theology, religion, and moral values in a direct way. In the aftermath of World War I, when there was the sense that Europe was going to seed, there was an explicit effort on the part of universities like Columbia, Chicago, and others to install a general humanities curriculum that would show students the great works of art, literature, and culture to restore trust in Western civilization, and to use that civilization as a kind of moral compass for the lives these leaders would go on to have. But in the aftermath of World War II, intellectual, political, and social movements increasingly began to debunk high culture, and the humanities played a role in that critique. Rather than just celebrating the past, they called attention to issues of exclusion around race, gender, ethnicity, and engaged in radical forms of deconstructive theory that took everything, as it were, as an object of critique. Even the text itself was destabilized as a result.

So you could say the humanities have hoisted themselves on their own petard. Then the cost of higher education goes up, and students are no longer thinking about what they’re doing as a rite of passage; they’re thinking about it in relation to what kind of career they can get, and whether they can pay back their loans. 

You could say the humanities have hoisted themselves on their own petard.

But the humanities are still the place to ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human, what it means to lead a good life, what it means to try to construct a decent society, and how to understand not only ourselves but our neighbors, and indeed, not just our proximate neighbors, but neighbors around the world. In many respects, humanities are more important than ever. When you confront issues ranging from fear of dramatic climate change and extinction risks to the role that artificial intelligence plays in our everyday life, there’s a growing space for the humanities. The function they have in our education seems to me ever more critical, and I believe we need to find a way to re-valorize the role they play. 

 DP: Access to an education like this is a real issue. At the moment, there’s the question of who gets to attend college, who can afford it, and how to bring the cost of a college education within reach. Last year’s Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and President Biden’s debt-relief plan gave these issues new resonance. What are some ways to ensure greater accessibility? Does this compel us to ask what and who higher education is for?

 ND: These are always good questions, and we have to ask them with a new kind of urgency. The amount of debt around higher education is staggering. It plays a huge role in the lives that people lead after they leave a university, hopefully with a degree but many times not, and in the way they think about higher education and who it’s for. Disallowing affirmative action, which began in California in 1996, has had a chilling effect on the sense of possibility for many young people, particularly from backgrounds that have not been well served by our society and certainly not well served by higher education. Affirmative action was an important way of acknowledging that and using admission to colleges and universities to try to redress the effective exclusion of people from various backgrounds from the best of higher education.

In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, places like Berkeley were beacons of opportunity. They were publicly funded and the cost was very low. I was reminded of this periodically by Gov. Jerry Brown, who kept telling me that when he went to Berkeley in the early sixties, he only paid seventy dollars a semester. I reminded him that was because the state was paying the rest. The state was contributing far more; it was giving 75 percent of the budget, whereas when I was at Berkeley, it was providing only 12 to 13 percent. To address questions of accessibility and cost, we have to find other ways to fund students who can’t otherwise afford to go. 

This is not a conversation we can defer much longer. But it’s going to require talking about more than just affirmative action. It requires us to think about cost, to think differently about what accessibility means and how to create a more diverse set of opportunities. 

 DP: This leads to another question. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies recently announced a $250 million initiative to create new high schools around the nation that will graduate students directly into high-demand health-care jobs with “family-sustaining wages.” Is this the kind of program that could impact higher education in a positive way, or are there drawbacks? 

The question then is, in part, has the university just become one of those institutions that, like the Church, has been jettisoned in favor of something else, or found wanting when it comes to actually addressing young people’s concerns?

ND: I feel a certain level of ambivalence about these kinds of programs. On the one hand, they provide a well-funded fast track for jobs that are important for people to have and critical for our health systems. But on the other hand, I see a lot getting lost in the shuffle. I’ve always felt that one of the great things about America versus Europe, for example, was that we don’t track students at an early age and separate them into either a higher education track or a vocational track. Although I see the urgency of having real pathways, I also fear that this becomes a way of simply avoiding the kind of discussion I was just referring to, which is that we need public support for public higher education at an excellent level, both in high school and in post-secondary educational contexts.

 DP: You write in your book City of Intellect that agency is primarily about the quest to find and make meaning. What are some of the challenges today in that quest? Where and how do you think it can still be fulfilled?

 ND: In the preface to my book, I talk about issues of human agency at two levels. First, there was a course I took in college on free will and necessity. It was taught by a philosopher of religion on the one side and a behavioral psychologist on the other. One thought that human agency was basically governed by a sense of freedom, the other was of the conviction that human agency was basically dictated by stimulus and response. I found that incredibly interesting, in part because two very smart people with arguments that seem to be endless could agree to disagree in a very amiable way. I thought that kind of model was what a university should be, and it has certainly informed my idea of the university going forward. 

The second level, as I confess, is that I lost my own religious faith when I went to college. To some extent, I took up questions of philosophy, literature, and even politics as a way of thinking about issues of meaning that were new, in the sense that they were no longer being governed by my relationship to a church and, in particular, the church I went to when I was growing up. So, I think a lot about the role of the university vis-à-vis these kinds of questions, especially when institutional pillars of community, church, family, and the like no longer seem to have the pull they did once upon a time. Because of the age of their students and the things that universities allow you to do—namely, to delve deeply into the thoughts, cultural expressions, and musings of very interesting people across time and place—universities are ideally suited for this kind of search for meaning, and for finding a social anchor for that search. They provide a community that will support those reflections and the conversations that advance one’s own sense of self and how one thinks about these questions.

But the same generation yearning for meaning isn’t taking courses in the humanities. The question then is, in part, has the university just become one of those institutions that, like the Church, has been jettisoned in favor of something else, or found wanting when it comes to actually addressing young people’s concerns? Here, too, I’m concerned that the hyper-professionalization of the university has gotten in the way. I’m also concerned that some of the debates in humanities have gotten in the way. You have, on the one hand, the sense that everything has to be critiqued, and on the other, the sense that the literary sources considering what it means to be human can only be accessed around a sense of who I am, and not who somebody else is. 

What is the condition of our humanity more broadly? If we’re abdicating a role we might play in that search for meaning, all the other questions affect this as well. If college costs so damn much, and it really is a luxury, it’s not going to be a viable place for people to seriously take on those questions. So they turn to the internet, or they turn to other forms of privatized exploration. And that is something the university has to think very long and hard about, to try to recapture the role it used to play. It’s a great question you ask, and it underwrites a lot of what led me to write this book. But it also fills me with concern about what we’re not doing right in the university today. 

Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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