The Aims and Institutional Structure of the University

The Aims and Institutional Structure of the University

How is the university to be organized institutionally? This question has been much discussed recently, and many universities have been reorganized according to certain models which are now in fashion. But there has perhaps been too little systematic recognition of the fact that different institutional models are ordered to different ends; that is to say, it is the ends that are to be served that determine – or anyway should determine – the structure of an institution dedicated to those ends. If this is so, it is a mistake to focus too intensively on any one institutional model and to try to re-form every important institution according to a single paradigm.

I want to distinguish here between institutions of several different kinds and to consider the way in which their differences reflect their different ends. In particular, I will consider three central examples. This selection is by no means intended to be exhaustive; but it is meant to be instructive, and to indicate what I believe is being wrongly done within many universities and university systems.

Before I get down to brass tacks, let me just say that I believe that the happy and effective functioning of society in the 21st century will depend on how well we succeed in getting the various types of institutions to work together in harmony, each preserving its own character without any one them overwhelming the others. As I said, the difference between these different types of institutions rests in the difference between the fundamental goals or values to which each is ordered; and these fundamental goals and values determine the sort of ordering or organization that is appropriate for the institution and its proper mode of operation or work. My argument depends upon my conviction that there are inescapably many kinds of central values and that these cannot be reduced to any single common denominator. These different kinds of values include worldly goods, such as money, mental goods, such as aesthetic experience, and moral goods, such as justice.1

My idea is that each institution, or kind of institution, is ordered first and foremost to one particular type of value, even if values of other kinds are important for that institution and for those who populate it. Conflicts can easily arise between different, incommensurable, types of values, both within the institution and in connection with its external relations. The solutions to such conflicts consist in understanding and respecting the main objective to which the institution is ordered.


Three types of Institution

The first type of institution which I will discuss here is the nation-state. What are its fundamental values? The authors of the Constitution of the United States gave what is perhaps the most succinct account of the values to which their newly-founded nation-state was dedicated – its fundamental goals. They mention justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and liberty. Perhaps not all of these would have to be considered the fundamental goals of every nation-state, but it is hard to imagine a more convincing list for any state that expects to secure the general welfare and to hold up its head within the family of nations in the modern world.

So, accepting this list, the nation-state must be ordered or organized in a way appropriate to the achievement – or at least the attempted achievement – of these fundamental goals. This will mean, for example, that many important decisions must be taken democratically; for this is, among other things, the best way we know to secure liberty. Slavery, although it could be a profitable way of generating wealth, must be disallowed by the nation-state, because it conflicts with liberty and justice – and perhaps even with domestic tranquility. Certain bodies, themselves institutions, will need to be set up to constitute the nation-state: bodies such as legislatures and courts for example. And other bodies will need to be maintained in order to make the operation of the state possible, even if they are not constitutive of it: examples might be police departments and tax offices. These latter types of institutions may have different immediate goals than the nation-state itself and may be organized in different ways internally: for instance, a police department might not (and probably will not) be organized democratically. The organs of the nation-state, however, whether or not constitutive, must respect, and in no way undermine, the fundamental goals of the nation-state itself, for these organs exist to support the project for which the nation-state is established. Thus, it might help the police in carrying out their duties to be able to invade the privacy of a citizen at will, but this would be a breach of liberty, and perhaps of justice, and can lead to civil unrest. The nation-state itself may pursue various goals in addition to its fundamental ones – for instance, it might seek economic profit by engaging in commerce – but such an effort would have to be in rigorous accord with the state’s dedication to its fundamental goals. Otherwise, the nation-state becomes distorted into something else which cannot claim legitimacy on the grounds upon which most modern states do claim legitimacy.

The second type of institution is the business corporation. Such an institution has, as its fundamental goal, economic profit, which it pursues by producing goods or providing services and selling them on the market, and it will be ordered to this end. Thus, there will be workers and managers, and in all likelihood a hierarchical chain of command. Democracy will generally play only a minor role, if any, in decision-making, although some companies have been experimenting with various kinds of decision-making models. Part of the organization will be dedicated to the management of cost-efficiency and will look for ways of eliminating inefficiencies and of producing the corporation’s products or services more cheaply. Part of the organization will be dedicated to marketing and image-building, part of it to the development of new products, and so on.

This type of institution has no inherent commitment to any of the fundamental values of the nation-state. Indeed, individual corporations may be so preoccupied with profit-making that they threaten the values of liberty, justice, the general welfare, and, potentially, any of the values or ends to which the nation-state is fundamentally dedicated. Thus, one of the chief tasks of the nation-state must be to keep business corporations within limits, establishing certain ground-rules which insure that their operations do not undermine those values fundamental to the nation-state in the inherently-unlimited search for profit to which corporations are dedicated. Business corporations may, to be sure, set other objectives for themselves, such as protection of the environment or support of the arts. And there are, of course, various factors which keep the behavior of the business corporation within certain bounds. There is the need to retain the confidence of the public, for instance, and perhaps there are the moral scruples of individual businessmen. But these have proven very weak controls in situations where the state itself is incapable of drawing and enforcing some fairly stringent boundaries.

It should be quite evident from this why the state should not be run on the model of a for-profit business – which is not to deny that the nation-state and its organs might need to rely upon certain “sound business practices” in their own operations, like meticulous book-keeping and the avoidance of waste.

The third category is the educational institution. What shall we say are its ends? In fact, this is a disputed matter, not least because there is more than one sort of educational institution. Michael Oakeshott has reiterated a very traditional view of the university, which is one of the principal types of educational institution in any advanced society:

A university is a number of people engaged in a certain sort of activity: the Middle Ages called it Studium; we may call it “the pursuit of learning”. This activity is one of the properties, indeed one of the virtues, of a civilized way of living; the scholar has his place beside the poet, the priest, the soldier, the politician and the man of business in any civilized society. The universities do not, however, have a monopoly of this activity. The hermit scholar in his study, an academy famous for a particular branch of learning, a school for young children, are each participants in this activity and each of them is admirable, but they are not universities. What distinguishes a university is a special manner of engaging in the pursuit of learning. It is a corporate body of scholars, each devoted to a particular branch of learning: what is characteristic is the pursuit of learning as a co-operative enterprise. The members of this corporation are not spread about the world, meeting occasionally or not at all; they live in permanent proximity to one another. And consequently we should neglect part of the character of a university if we omitted to think of it as a place. A university, moreover, is a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended, and where the necessary apparatus for the pursuit of learning is gathered together.2

Here, Oakeshott describes the end to which the university is dedicated. It is an activity - the pursuit of learning, or studium. If this is the case, we may ask what the order or organization of an educational institution must be like in order to fit that end. Here we need to notice that organizational principles ordered to studium may differ among different sorts of educational institutions. For instance, the organization appropriate to an elementary school will differ, in important respects, from that appropriate to a language-school for adults, or from that of a university. The differences are, most of them, obvious enough, and I will not belabor them here. But clearly, any educational institution must differ institutionally from a business corporation. An educational institution must take studium as fundamental. Schools of various sorts can, it is true, be run for profit. But no institution in which considerations of profit can override or undermine the pursuit of learning is a true educational institution.

Even if profit cannot be the main objective of an educational institution, cost limits must be set for any such institution, profit-making or not; and they are set by what taxpayers and fee-payers will tolerate or find it appropriate to pay for studium, which – although the fundamental goal of an educational institution – is not the fundamental goal of the nation-state or of society at large. Institutional learning can always be improved by making it more costly: an educational institution can always benefit from more teachers per student, better teacher training, more books in the library, and so on. Of course, making education more costly does not necessarily make it better; but there are always ways of making it better which make it more costly. So there is an inherent built-in tendency to increase costs, which must be constrained in the service of other values. But, again, if an educational instituion is organized as a business corporation, then, in addition to these natural and proper limitations, its internal ordering is liable to be in conflict with its fundamental goals.


The University as an Institution

Let us now have a closer look at the university. The university obviously falls within the category of “educational institution”. But, as we saw earlier, the university is an educational institution of a particular kind: Oakeshott described it, as we saw, as a “corporate body of scholars” in various branches of learning, engaged in the pursuit of learning “as a cooperative enterprise”. What does this view, which I share, imply about the organization of the university?

First, the university must function as a corporation of scholars, teachers, and students, who share the same basic values of a free inquiry into whatever subject they want to understand. It must be, and must see itself as, a collectivity responsible not only for the specific tasks that each of its members may accomplish within the institution but responsible also for the larger academic community and the promotion of its basic values. The university community proper consists of those sharing a dedication to the pursuit of learning, in whatever field of study, and committed to the cooperation necessary to support this pursuit in an academic collectivity. I therefore think that university needs an academic body (or, in some organizational plans, more than one) which participates in the governance of the university: an academic senate, or some such institution. This kind of body needs to exist as a venue for making clear the needs, desiderata, and critical views of scholars in all the different fields which are material to their effective participation in the cooperative pursuit of learning which is the business of the university. In other words, the corporate body of scholars must, to a large extent, govern itself collegially. This is a traditional mode of governance within universities which is ill-understood by many people outside the academy. Neil MacCormick3 has explained collegiality as follows:

The principle of collegiality says that the participants in an activity should conduct themselves co-operatively and on the basis of mutual respect and shared responsibility for decision-making about that activity. Levels of mutual trust tend to be, and in fact have to be, quite high. Strongly or permanently hierarchical relations of authority and subordination are suspect and a substantially egalitarian attitude prevails among members of a relevant ‘college’ – though this is often markedly absent in dealings with outsiders to the college, in a way that is usually regrettable.

It is fairly obvious why this principle is appropriate within a corporate body of scholars, which depends upon the initiative and responsibility of each member, and upon the support, criticism and academic vigilance of the members of the community with respect to each others’ scholarly work. Collegiality is a main feature of governance at the level of faculties and departments, for instance, the units which bear special responsibility for organizing and making possible the cooperative pursuit of learning within a given field of scholarship or a set of related disciplines. This is true academic governance, focused first and foremost upon the pursuit of learning.

Second, a university must be, and must see itself, as a unity: as one body capable of acting as one person, for the sake of maintaining the cooperative framework which is the basis of all individual academic endeavor. And for this it needs, I think, a strong governing body whose function is to work for the unity of the institution, for its independence and autonomy, given both the limits that are set for it within the wider society and the diversity of individual aims and opinions within. This point is rather obvious. All institutions – be they public services or private companies – need people who represent them, whatever they may be called (say, “administrators”, “managers” or “directors”). This person must never lose sight of the fundamental aim of his institution; especially, he must work as hard as possible to keep this aim from being undermined by other considerations. In this connection, I like Clark Kerr’s image of the university president as a “gladiator” fighting for “freedom and quality”.4

Third, it needs to be recognized, and is indeed easily evident, that the university is also an organization within the economic, social and political community which fosters it. I once asked a university president what his main concern was for the future of his university, and he replied: “To get more parking space”! A university is thus, to no little extent, an organization which has to manage its affairs like a city, a town, or an enterprise, with attention to its economic and material conditions. For this purpose, it will need other sorts of administrative bodies: accounting departments, technical services departments, buildings and grounds departments, a student registry, and so on. Such units are necessary to the institutional functioning of the university. However, their internal organization is normally quite different from that of bodies dedicated to academic administration, and properly so, but it would be unwise to try to remake the latter in the image of the former, or to imagine that this might improve things in the university.

How are these various elements of governance to interact within the university? This is too complex a matter to discuss here, particularly as various, but equally successful, plans are possible and are, indeed, exemplified in practice. In general, however, I agree with MacCormick that the principle of subsidiarity should be a main rule of university governance. This principle says:

… that, in any hierarchy of authority, decision-making on any given subject matter should be reserved to the lowest level of hierarchy that is capable of effective and efficient decision making in relation to that subject matter. Subsidiarity so understood is favorable … to local knowledge and sensitive to local condition and expertise.

Here, I have again quoted from MacCormick.5

What I have just been saying reflects what I suggested at the beginning of this talk: We need to think of the university first, as a corporate community of scholars engaged cooperatively in critical conversation, but with various academic values and interests, second, as an institution dedicated and ordered to the advancement of learning, and third, as an organization which has to be managed and operated in an effective and efficient manner, but in a way that is consistent with its institutional order.



What have we learned from these reflections? Despite what many people are saying and thinking, I have found no reason to abandon the traditional idea of what a university is that is so well expressed by Oakeshott. In particular, I have argued that the rapid changes in the world and in society which we see all around us do not give us grounds for putting aside this traditional vision.

What is true is that the changing world provides new contingencies to which universities must react. Many of these changes are threatening to the university, at least potentially. In the current climate, universities must devote more and more of their energies to the acquisition of funding, to recruiting students (for whom they compete with other universities), and consequently to presenting an attractive face to “the market”. These things are threatening not because they are bad in themselves – indeed, they have often led to real improvements in the academy – but because they encourage people both inside and outside of universities to lose sight of what is essential to academia. The university must, to a certain extent, compete on the “education market”, but it must resist assiduously the internalization of a “market mentality”. Other high-profile contemporary changes, such as the computer revolution and the advances in communications technology, are changes that can help the community of scholars in its pursuit of learning. But none of these changes suggests to us new academic values. Those are the same as ever, as far as I can see, and given that those values are fundamental to the academy, its organizational skeleton will not be removed.

When we come to the university – as students, as teachers or researchers – we are recognized and accepted as members of an association of preoccupation with knowledge or understanding, an association which is universal in nature and with no clear boundaries whatsoever. This is the idea of the university which is reflected in various ways by individual universities, each of which may give this idea a particular interpretation.

A nation-state may want to rule the world. A business corporation may want to produce and sell everything it can. A university does not want to rule nor to produce or sell anything. It wants to educate by creating conditions for humankind to study and seek understanding and truth about the world and everything. The university does not ask for agreement on anything except the right to question and discuss whatever one may want without having to worry about the intervention of worldly powers, be they political, economical or religious.

The future of civilization depends on the globalization of these conditions of learning and studying for all humankind. And for this globalization, universities are our best hope.




1 I have discussed these matters in my book Siðfræði (Ethics), Reykjavík 1990, pp. 24-40.

2 Michael Oakeshott: “The Idea of a University”, in The Voice of Liberal Learning, Yale University Press 1989, pp. 96-97.

3 In an unpublished paper given at the University of Iceland on March 1st, 1999, under the title “Subsidiarity and Collegiality in Academic Governance”. Neil MacCormick is formerly Professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh and currently a member of the European parliament.

4 Clark Kerr: The Uses of the University, pp. 28 and 109. Kerr’s ideas about the university president is in fact much more complex than I indicate here, but is indicated by the comparision with the gladiator. “The president in the multiversity,” Kerr says in the same work (p. 27), “is a leader, educator, creator, initiator, wielder of power, pomp; he is also officeholder, caretaker, inheritor, consensus-seeker, persuader, bottleneck. But he is mostly a mediator.”

5 From his lecture, “Subsidiarity and Collegiality in Academic Governance”; see earlier note.


Aims and Structure of the University

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