The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Guest opinion: Remembering what public universities are about

Tom Jorgensen
The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

University of Iowa students, faculty, staff and alumni, and for that matter the citizens of Iowa generally, have been treated in recent months to vague and insubstantial comments by newly appointed President Bruce Harreld and the state Board of Regents about what the future might hold for the UI. Their latest “plan” proposes a top-down, corporatized, “path-forward, strategy implementation team” composed largely of university administrators to “be based on continuous insights on external factors, direction of higher education, weighing alternatives, etc.”

We’ve been told about the need for transformation and for the imperative to make the university greater. Comments on and off the record, largely incoherent and pointedly indecipherable, give no clue about the vision of “greatness” they may have in mind.

One of the more poignant features of the demonstrations protesting the appointment of Harreld has been the costumed presence of past presidents, living and deceased, and their messages about what makes a public university great.

One former president, the late James O. Freedman, offered a powerful rendering of such a vision when he spoke to the faculty at the beginning of the academic year in 1985. Freedman’s talk, “Moving to the Measure of the Scholar’s Thought,” revealed the kind of deep understanding of what universities are about and what makes them unique spaces in public life that is so lacking from the current president, his top administrators, and the regents.

Freedman asked the question, “What does it mean to say that a university moves to the measure of a scholar’s thought?” His conclusion: “Distinction in teaching and scholarship is the source of our vitality as an institution. Nothing else, not even the most lavish favors granted by Mammon, has value except as a means to that end.” In Freedman’s view, what lies at the core of excellence in the university is the creative work that faculty and staff do, with all of its attendant risks and intellectual rewards, and the benefits that creative work produces for students and society. He noted that “it is difficult for those outside of academe to understand what a professor must do to teach well” and more difficult still to understand what it takes “to contribute to new knowledge.”

RELATED: An open letter to Bruce Harreld

“Professors may not have faced the need to meet a payroll, in the vernacular of the marketplace, but they have experienced a severe trial of their own … Does this finding truly shed new light on a murky problem? Is this experiment as well designed as it should be? Has this idea been expressed with sufficient clarity? … Because the search for knowledge is open-ended, for a professor there is no point of conscientious rest.”

Further, he noted, “during the unending struggle to make sense of the unknown, the scholar’s identity hangs in the balance. When a professor [or other creative person] confronts the emptiness of the unwritten page, the silence of the laboratory instrument, the blankness of the computer screen, all certainties evaporate.

“As W.H. Auden wrote of his own experience as a poet:

In the eyes of others, a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own, he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry — perhaps forever.

“So it is with the woman or man who is a scholar. The identity of the true scholar, no matter how much he or she has already achieved, is always at risk. The next book, the next poem, the next scientific finding, the next work of art, may never come — or so it seems in that darkest hour of a scholar’s soul, when the capricious muse of scholarship has departed, leaving only the gathering fear that it will never return.”

The university exists, as Freedman well understood, to nurture an environment of free and open inquiry that fosters the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. Professors and staff and graduate instructors “need to recognize that their teaching will create a ripple of influence which will be felt in the lives of students years after graduation.” And their scholarship, though seemingly obscure and arcane, “may set an agenda for research that will shape a discipline for years to come. They need to be reminded that future generations will indeed move to the measure of their thought.”

We need to be mindful of what lies at the core of what institutions like the UI have been and should be in the future, as Freedman reminded us, and not be distracted by a transitory siren song for change or the imperatives of marketplace values whose fashions and frills will come and go. And we must challenge the corporate-speak that masks an agenda for undoing a tradition of creative inquiry that universities must uphold, as Freedman so well understood and so powerfully articulated.


[The full text of James O. Freedman’s talk, “Moving to the Measure of the Scholar’s Thought,” (Sept. 17, 1985) may be found at]


Shelton Stromquist

Professor Emeritus

UI Department of History

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