About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 7, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 2
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Zen and the Art of the University

I confess: My age is beginning to show. I'm a product of the generation that produced a string of classic cult novels, from On the Road to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Over the summer, in a futile attempt to regain my youth, I decided to again read one of those classics — Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Pirsig's book takes the reader on a former professor's motorcycle journey with his 10-year-old son from Wisconsin to California, while creating a metaphorical link between schools of philosophy and the father's approach to maintaining his motorcycle. The journey is actually a search for truth that takes the reader from Aristotle and Plato to Zen Buddhism. (Okay, perhaps this simplistic explanation is a bit opaque, but it's the best I can do other than recommending that you read the book.)

What struck me upon rereading the book, however, was a section in which the protagonist raises the question about what really defines a university. Allow me to selectively quote a few passages:

"The real university is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police.... [The real university] has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real university is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind, which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real university. The real university is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

"In addition to this state of mind, 'reason,' there's a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money... .

"But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real university at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location, at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

"Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference ... and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church.... They see the second university but fail to see the first."

So much of my time — so much of all of our time — is focused upon the second university that we can fail to recognize our true mission is to preserve and nurture the first. Our allegiance should be to the real university — to the discovery of knowledge and the transmission of ideas.

The all-encompassing dimension of this modern dilemma was emphasized in another book I read during the summer: Universities in the Marketplace, by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard. Bok explores the various ways in which universities have become crass commercial enterprises (my words, not his) — potentially enhancing the economic fortunes of the second university while endangering the very essence of the first. From the support of athletic programs by sports apparel companies to technology transfer arrangements dictated by giant industrial concerns, Bok considers the dangers inherent in moving too far toward the commercial business model.

We at Hopkins take seriously the benefits of forming partnerships between universities and private industry, and part of our mission is to contribute to society — through scientific inventions, policy studies and professional training — in ways that go beyond the traditional goals of fundamental discovery and a liberal arts education. And yet Bok has a point.

Consider, for instance, the more subtly problematic challenge posed by the relationship between the real university and its students, much like that between a church and its parishioners. Organized religion exists to serve God and promote spirituality, not to directly advance the interest of its members, who may be more inclined to want to hear a reassuring sermon every week or have a chance to socialize at the Sabbath potluck supper. In a number of cases, the aims of the two can come into conflict. Likewise, the real university exists to discover and promote the transfer of new knowledge, while students come to the university with additional expectations — getting prepared for a job or career, socializing, participating in athletics or music or drama or community service, etc. Increasingly, I fear, the aims of the two are in conflict.

In the end, I believe society will be best served if we recognize that this split exists between the essence of the university — the discovery and transfer of knowledge — and the bricks, mortar and infrastructure. The latter may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to assure the success or survival of the university.

The spirit of discovery permeates everything we endeavor to do at Hopkins. Although we are not immune to the various market forces pushing and pulling us, I think we have, thus far, been successful at steering an appropriate course between them. Even after so many years, I am still excited to be at a real university, to be part of this work. My hope, as we begin a new academic year, is that all of our community shares the same enthusiasm and excitement.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |