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Princeton University Press
A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society

A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society

by Harold T. Shapiro
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Universities were once largely insular institutions whose purview extended no further than the campus gates. Not anymore. Today's universities have evolved into multifaceted organizations with complex connections to government, business, and the community. This thought-provoking book by Harold Shapiro, former president of both Princeton University and the University of Michigan, and Chairman of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Bill Clinton, explores the role the modern university should play as an ethical force and societal steward.

Based on the 2003 Clark Kerr lectures, A Larger Sense of Purpose draws from Shapiro's twenty-five years of experience leading major research universities and takes up key topics of debate in higher education. What are the nature and objectives of a liberal education? How should universities address the increasing commercialization not only of intercollegiate sports but of education and research? What are the university's responsibilities for the moral education of students?

The book begins with an expanded history of the modern research institution followed by essays on ethics, the academic curriculum, the differences between private and public higher education, the future of intellectual property rights, and the changing relationship between the nation's universities and the for-profit sector. Shapiro calls for universities to be more accountable morally as well as academically. He urges scientists not only to educate others about the potential and limitations of science but also to acknowledge the public's distress over the challenges presented by the very success of the scientific enterprise. He advocates for a more intimate connection between professional training and the liberal arts--in the hope that future doctors, lawyers, and business executives will be educated in ethics and the social sciences as well as they are in anatomy, torts, and leveraged buyouts.

Candid, timely, and provocative, A Larger Sense of Purpose demands the attention of not only those in academics but of anyone who shares an interest in the soul of education.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691123639
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/16/2005
Series: The William G. Bowen Series , #48
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Harold T. Shapiro served as President of the University of Michigan (1979-1988) and as President of Princeton University (1988-2001). He is currently Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton. The coeditor of Universities and Their Leadership (Princeton), he served as chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission from July 1996 to October 2001, and from 1990 to 1992 as a member and vice chair of President George Bush's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Read an Excerpt

A Larger Sense of Purpose

Higher Education and Society
By Harold T. Shapiro

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12363-9

Chapter One


We can and must help create a better world, but every opportunity pursued involves a wager on the future.

IN CHOOSING as the title of this volume A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society, I meant to convey the notion that universities, like other social institutions and even individuals, ought to serve interests that include but move beyond narrow self-serving concerns. The epigraph of this volume, the Latin phrase non nobis solum, "not for ourselves alone," echoes this thought. To my regret, this is one of those ideas that, while applauded in principle, is easily lost in the challenge of meeting one's day-to-day responsibilities. This makes it even more important to pause once in a while to adjust our sails and correct our course.


All higher education institutions, both public and private, both nonprofit and for-profit, and from state colleges to research universities to community colleges to a wide variety of technical and professional schools, serve a public purpose. Considerable variation in quality, purpose, and aspirations exists in each of these sectors. Nevertheless, they each playa distinctive and important role. The resulting heterogeneity of America's institutions of higher education not only matches the wide spectrum of achievement and aspiration of entering students, but is one of the principal sources of strength and vitality of American higher education. The opportunity for Americans to more fully realize their educational aspirations through a variety of paths and at a number of different points in their life cycle is an important and distinctive aspect of American higher education. The idea that all young people develop in lockstep, so that at age eighteen we can sort this age cohort into their final positions within the educational opportunity system, runs counter to everything we know about human development and early childhood experience. The American system of higher education offers an unusually large variety of entry points, relatively speaking, to the so-called elite programs. If you do not do so well in high school, you can begin at a community college, but if you do well enough there you can transfer to an excellent university, and if you do well enough there you can participate in a distinguished graduate or professional program. Moreover, there is a healthy flow of human capital and ideas among these sectors. As a result, maintaining strength and quality in each of higher education's sectors contributes to the strength of every component of the system. In my judgment it would be a mistake for each of these different sectors to lose their distinctiveness by, for example, becoming too much like one another or trying to emulate the so-called elite institutions. Although this tendency is understandable, I believe it should be resisted as a matter of public policy at both the state and the federal level.

Indeed, given the increasing globalization of our social, cultural, economic, and political environment, the quality of American higher education depends not only on sustaining its heterogeneity, but also on the strength and vitality of institutions of higher education elsewhere, which have their own distinctive approaches. The American university continues to be enriched by the flow of talent and ideas from abroad, and it increasingly depends on it, just as talent and ideas from abroad increasingly depend on us. The health and vitality of American higher education will remain unfulfilled if our counterparts abroad are not prospering.

In these lectures, however, I will focus primarily on the American research university, because this is an area of higher education in which I have spent my entire academic career and to which I have given my most careful consideration. Within this sector, however, I will not distinguish between the private and public research universities because their differences, which are significant, are not central to the particular issues I have chosen to address. My view is that despite some significant contrasts, private and public research universities have an enormous amount in common. Most important, they are members of a common educational and scholarly community. Moreover, they are quite dependent on one another, and faculty, students, ideas, and even academic resources move quickly and relatively freely among them. For the most part, faculty and students who move from one to the other can adapt easily because the basic nature of their work will be largely unaffected. Though senior administrative officials need to relate to somewhat different constituencies, many constituencies, such as students, faculty, alumni, and the federal government, are the same. Of course, one key difference is the special relationship of university officials and trustees of public universities with state government officials.

As I reflect on my own experience first as president of the University of Michigan and then at Princeton, many obvious distinctions come to mind-their differences in size, their relative commitments to professional education, their different but overlapping constituencies. Less noticed, but equally important and interesting, were two important distinctions relating to presidential leadership and overall governance. For the president of a flagship state university such as the University of Michigan, a constant challenge was to convince those groups with political influence in the state (e.g., legislators and governors, various unions, important corporate interests, etc.) not only that their interests and the university's interests overlapped at least somewhat, but that the university had legitimate objectives of its own that they should recognize and support because these interests also served the citizens of the state. As a result, the university's objectives and exactly what the university was and who it should serve were always in the process of negotiation.

At Princeton the analogous challenge of mobilizing the university's constituencies was somewhat different. By and large, the broader Princeton community shared a common set of objectives. Thus the board's discussions-or any intrauniversity negotiations-were more likely to focus on strategy as opposed to objectives. On the governance front, there were at least two interesting differences. First, Michigan's regents were elected in partisan statewide elections, whereas Princeton's were either elected by the alumni body or selected by the board itself. Second, the Michigan board met in public. In both cases, many dedicated and thoughtful persons came to occupy seats on the governing board. However, the Michigan board's public meetings often provided a venue or platform for the discussion of largely irrelevant but popular public issues and causes that became confused with university business and priorities. Ironically, that meant that, in order to avoid certain public discussion, and as long as a certain level of trust existed between the board and the president, the Michigan board was more likely to delegate its authority to the president.

Trust between the president and the governing board is an essential ingredient in achieving the potential of any American university or college. The establishment and maintenance of this trust is the responsibility of the president and is primarily an educational function. In this respect it is important to acknowledge that although final authority over all matters rests with the board, the board's responsibility is to use this authority wisely. The board may indeed be in charge, but they are in charge of an institution that serves a public purpose. Presidents must also act judiciously, but any time they believe that board actions present a serious threat to the institution's informing values, they must say so publicly.

Finally, I return to the two most critical characteristics that public and private universities share: they serve society as both a responsive servant and a thoughtful critic. Thus, although the modern research university must serve society by providing the educational and other programs in high demand, the university must also raise questions that society does not want to ask and generate new ideas that help invent the future, at times even "pushing" society toward it. In this latter respect the contemporary research university is a prototypical liberal institution, always looking for a better set of arrangements within a wide spectrum of our individual and community lives. These two roles define the nature of the university's public trust, whether it is a public or private institution. In fact, many public universities have been rapidly privatizing some of their programs in the sense of substituting federal resources, private giving, and tuition revenues for state subsidies. This process, especially marked in areas of professional education such as law and business, has narrowed even further the difference between public and private research universities. We deployed this strategy among others in dealing with the financial crisis we faced in the early 1980s at the University of Michigan, although we seldom referred to it in these terms. Certainly, it was not our preferred path, but it was one line of attack within a broader overall program aimed at sustaining the quality of our programs.

Although public and private research universities meet their various obligations in somewhat different fashions, they share the same central responsibilities as public trusts. The idea of the public trust, in somewhat different form, preceded the research university. For example, in 1833, Harvard's president, Josiah Quincy, in an appeal to the legislature of Massachusetts, made a point of emphasizing the public character of Harvard's library assets while the relevant senate committee, in response to his petition, referred to the Corporation of Harvard University as trustees for the public interest. The character or shape of this public trust will change over time. It is shaped most importantly by the public policies, cultural and political traditions, and legal framework of the liberal democracy of which colleges and universities are a part. Thus, when we think about the priorities of the research university we must be attentive not only to its special privileges, from its intellectual and educational autonomy to its special tax status, but also to its public obligations. A private university such as Princeton is not some kind of private social club conferring benefits, earned or unearned, on its members. The major decisions of private universities must take the public interest into account. Princeton, for example, needs to be continually conscious of how much of its assets, all of which exist to serve a public purpose, should be distributed for the benefit of the current faculty and student body, and how much should be preserved for future generations. The answer to this question should depend, in significant measure, on how this decision will help the university meet its public obligations. For example, it may depend on how accessible the university is currently to talented young people across all socioeconomic classes.

More important, all research universities, public or private, must constantly reevaluate whose interests are being served by their current policies and programs. Everyone's interests cannot be served at the same time. At Princeton, for example, our most significant initiatives in financial aid and enrollment were driven by just such an examination of the status quo ante. We came to believe that in order to more fully meet our public purpose, we would need to dramatically expand our student financial aid program, substitute grants for loans, make our full financial aid program available to students from abroad, and provide additional opportunity through a modest expansion of our undergraduate enrollment. At Michigan during the difficult financial times of the early 1980s, our judgment was that we could best meet our public obligations by focusing on sustaining the quality of our programs, even at the cost of offering fewer programs. This judgment may or may not have been correct, but we approached the challenge in that spirit. Other institutions with their own distinctive traditions, resources, and aspirations, but facing similar or different challenges, might select quite different initiatives to meet their responsibilities as a public trust. Thus, although financial aid at Princeton is 100 percent need-based, many other research universities, both public and private, believe, quite appropriately, that some merit scholarships are essential to fulfilling their public responsibilities.


It is hardly surprising that Western higher education has transformed itself and its relationship to society a number of times over the last millennium, given that society's view of itself has also been transformed many times during this same period. A crisis in education is usually caused by a crisis in society that calls into question many existing ideas regarding the central issues of knowledge, culture, and society. The crisis fuels meaningful educational debates and propels changes in educational institutions such as universities. By meaningful debates I mean debates that lead to significant changes in the curriculum. Too often, long, drawn-out, and even bitter debates leave little trace on the learning experience of students. We often forget that it is not our internalized ideas regarding what we teach that matters, but what students learn, what they come to care about, and what they themselves become.

In a rapidly changing world, the social role and form of the university and its programs exist in an almost perpetual state of transition facing constant challenges of leadership and adaptability. For example, the future role of the university will depend, in part, on the particular shape taken by our evolving liberal democracy. Will democracy evolve by focusing its efforts on individual choice and open access, or on the direct provision of economic and social benefits of one kind or another? Alternatively, will our politics focus on trying to find a new position of political equipoise between group and individual rights? Or will the evolving policies of our government focus on the new moral, social, economic, and political issues that globalization is now putting before us? Clearly, many other foci and/or combinations of foci are possible within a broadly liberal democratic form of government. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the notion that scientific progress will bring progress in other dimensions of the human endeavor such as ethics and political arrangements has any lasting vitality. Although I acknowledge the possibility, I do not in these pages consider the more sobering challenge that liberal democracy, in combination with modern capitalism and modern technology, eventually causes a nation to lose its soul and slide into some form of tyranny within an autocratic state. The key point is that public policies and priorities have an impact on universities. In these essays I have assumed not only that liberal politics will survive, but that whatever its future path, our particular version of liberal politics will continue to have a decisive influence on key aspects of American higher education. Needless to say, the impetus for change in higher education may also be internal, arising from developments on the scholarly and educational frontier.

In contemporary times, a university education is almost a requirement of a fully expressed citizenship. The university is an essential supplier of products and services on which the society is highly dependent, such as advanced training, expertise of various types, and new ideas. However, the capacity of the university as we know it to maintain such a central role will always remain uncertain and depends on the university's adaptability, its capacity for leadership, and the evolving nature of other key cultural and political ideas and institutions. The difficulty is that change and adaptation inevitably bring in their wake anxiety, loss, and controversy. Meaningful change generates not only winners and losers, but also a reconfiguration of the values and commitments of the university. There are always constituencies, internal and external, that think that the existing configuration is optimal. Thus, even thoughtful change creates controversy. It always requires courage and commitment from within the university leadership, whether at a department, a school, or a university. At the same time, errors are certain when selecting new paths, and leaders need both the courage to take risks and the wisdom to identify when a mistake has been made. Making the right choices in higher education is something like trying to understand which aspects of avant-garde art are simply different and transitory, and which aspects represent a more permanent addition to our cultural patrimony.


Excerpted from A Larger Sense of Purpose by Harold T. Shapiro Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

The University and Society 1

The Transformation of the Antebellum College

From Right Thinking to Liberal Learning 40

Liberal Education, Liberal Democracy, and the Soul of the University 88

Some Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Progress 120

Bibliography 163

Index 175

What People are Saying About This

Michael McPherson

This book reflects an effort by one of our most distinguished educational leaders to look beneath the surface of existing controversies and ask deeper questions about the role of the university in a modern liberal democracy. Shapiro's analysis is well tuned to the paradoxical character of the modern university as at once loyal servant and stubborn critic of the society that sustains it.
Michael McPherson, President, the Spencer Foundation, and former President of Macalaster College


Shapiro clearly and persuasively enunciates his major theme—that universities have a responsibility for performing two important social functions. One is to serve existing society, and the other is to challenge it.
Charles T. Clotfelter, Duke University

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