Opening Comments for the University Senate open forum discussion regarding the UO mission statement, February 14, 2001 by Jim Earl, president, University Senate

There's no more general, vague, elusive and protean topic for our discussion than the University's mission. The FAC, which meets weekly with the President and the Provost, has been grappling with the mission issue this year, and they've found it very difficult to focus the discussion. Perhaps inviting the whole Senate to join in will helpÐor maybe not. Perhaps we work best when we stick to discrete problems, and legislative process. But I don't think so. Every institution needs to return periodically to the question, What are we? What are we trying to accomplish, and how well are we doing? It's on big questions like this that shared governance seems to me most crucial. I've asked several professors to speak to the question today, to suggest various directions for the discussion. Everyone has a different way of coming at the problem. The mission is often clearest when we think it's being forgotten, compromised or betrayed. Many of us will want to talk about the mission in terms of particular problems. But I'd like to take a few minutes at the outset to make a some general remarks about the mission, to remind us that the mission is a positive ideal, a source of inspiration, not just an basis for complaints. Then I'll take a couple of minutes to address a particular problem that concerns me. And then I'll give the podium to Sandi Morgen of Sociology, who's been helping to direct the FAC discussion.


When OSU got Bend, Greg Bolt of the Register-Guard called me. Has the University been damaged? Are we in decline? If we can't go over the mountain, does it mean we're over the hill? I said to him, "No, Greg, the ideal of higher education, the mission of a research university like this, of a residential college with a liberal arts core, is quite solid; it's deeply traditional, it's centuries old, it's withstood bigger shocks than this, it's stable and it's very durable. This ship can't be blown off course by winds like these."

Obviously I'm a complete egghead, and a Platonist. For me, there's the university (with a small u)--which is an institution, a lovely campus, a state agency (under funded), a Eugene community (a little weird), a particular faculty (underpaid), etc.; but then there's the University (with a capital U)--an idea (an ancient one), an ideal (a high one), the community of scholars, higher learning, and all that. Our mission is largely defined by this ideal, capital-U University.

I'd like to say how proud I am of John Moseley and his team, that when they were asked to present a proposal for a new college, they took the high road, and offered Bend a University with a capital U. They offered unapologetically to build the very embodiment of the University ideal, a small liberal arts college. They argued for liberal education in a state where liberal is a suspect word.

We all have our versions of the history of the capital-U University. In my version, it's as old as Socrates, the gadfly. He too managed to annoy the State, and the relation of the Academy to the State has been vexed ever since. One of the University's most stable features is the distrust it's always inspired in the State. The Academy tends to shelter, if not foster, non-conformity and critical thinking The State has reason to lament that its hired intellectuals are doing some pretty strange and impractical research, that there are no controls on how and what they teach the young, that their usefulness and productivity as state employees can't be measured very well.

As a medievalist I see another root of the University, in the monastery. It was such an oddly disinterested institution. What was it for? It was for learning--but not for profit, rather for the love of God. We still ask of the modern, secular University, What's it for? It's an open question, it has lots of answers.

Eight hundred years ago, the University as we now know it was founded at Paris; later at Oxford, Wittenberg, Harvard. Already In Chaucer's day universities were thought to be subversive. No matter how unclear and impractical their purpose, however, the ideal has been durable; it has survived inquisitions, persecutions, revolutions, world wars, depressions, and the 60's. The ideal has evolved, though: first there was secularization, then democratization and professionalization, and now globalization.

Today, some see the University as an engine for the economy, some as an engine for social change; there are any number of views, and any number of metaphors. I don't like the engine, because it's more mechanical and practical than a university. I prefer nautical metaphors, like the ship not being blown off course, or an anchor, or a safe harbor for free inquiry. That one especially: a safe harbor for free inquiry. I see the University as the freest of all the institutions in a free society. When I taught at the University of Virginia, I looked out my office window at Jefferson's motto inscribed over the door of the Administration Building, "Here we will tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it." The liberal in liberal education is just the Latin word for free. It's freedom that's always found suspect by a practical-minded world.

[Put Mission Statement on overhead]

Now let me walk you through the elegant, eloquent mission statement developed by the University only last year. (underlines key words in statement) Any problem we're having with our mission isn't due to the mission statement.

SPORTS Now, the particular problem I'd like to addressÐand this will come as no surprise to many of you--is sports. Sports is a problem at the University, though it wasn't always. For those who think, We've always had sports, and we've always had professors who didn't like them, so what's new? I beg you to think again. In the last decade college sports has changed--fundamentally. College sports has become a billion-dollar business driven by the national entertainment media. Universities are beginning to wake up to the new situation. [Beer and Circus, Game of Life, NY Times, New Yorker, Chronicle of Higher Ed, NCAA News, Knight Commission, Drake Group, Ron Bellamy]

Who could have dreamt when I entered the profession, or even ten years ago, that a university like ours, so short of funds that it can't pay its faculty competitive salaries, and facing yet another round of major budget cuts from the state, would still be willing to spend 80 million dollars to build luxury sky boxes in its stadium? Who would have dreamt that one day we wouldn't be able to hire a coach for under than a million a year? I know the arguments, I've done my homework; I know the 80 million isn't really 80 million, that the money hasn't been drained from the academic enterprise, that the project will increase revenue, that coaches' salaries are just a market issue; I know we need sports to recruit students, to stimulate donations, to enhance our reputation, to placate a public skeptical of the educational mission. And I know the ultimate argument too, and that is that "the horse is out of the barn." I hear that all the time.

But my point today is that the mission statement contains no shadow of a reference to big-time sportsÐwhich used to be a part of student life, but which have now become an independent industry driven by outside forces, especially by the money made by the media, and the public's insatiable appetite for sports. Student attendance is dropping fast, because the cost is too high. College sports is now an industry with its own independent dynamic. It's in a period of very fast growth, but by its nature it never brings money home to the universities that support it--though I realize there are ways of arguing that it does. It's a highly debatable question. I recently wrote the President, "It's not just that we've hitched our wagon to the wrong horse; we hitched it to a rocket ship, and we haven't a prayer of controlling it. It now controls us." It's now commonly argued that we can't fill our classrooms without itÐwhich means we have to do whatever it demands.

The horse may be out of the barn, but it should be obvious that our job is to catch it and put it back. No one is thinking of eliminating or even cutting back sports; the object is to slow its growth, to bring it back under our control. Nothing so distant from our mission should be allowed to have such control over it. (proceed to introduce panelists for their comments)

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