The Idea of a University

A century and a half ago, a British scholar turned churchman articulated his idea of the purpose of higher education: John Henry Newman—in a series of discourses bridging philosophy, science, and religion—addressed to a lay audience and subsequently gathered into a book bearing the title The Idea of a University.

In the years since, higher education institutions have grown dramatically in size and ambition and thus in their impact on the cultures of the societies they serve. Those in the United States—viewed by many as the soul of the country’s culture—are currently facing criticism over a raft of contentious issues, from diverse quarters and across a broad spectrum of opinion:

  • tenure policies;
  • requirements;
  • core curricula subjects;
  • student grades;
  • varsity athletics;
  • teaching and research;
  • freedom of expression; and
  • tuition charges well in excess of inflation.

As a consequence, Newman’s reflections are currently receiving fresh consideration.

As reflective as he was, and as Newman’s current redactors are, neither he nor they address in depth the question of how these issues are decided, how higher education institutions are ultimately structured to govern themselves, or how best they are constituted. Left to others not necessarily concerned with the purpose of higher education, the answers to such questions vary widely. The governance structure of Roman Catholic institutions, and those with roots in religion, consist of a mix of denominational Canon Law and the incorporation laws of the States of their location. The governance structure of by far the largest in number, size, and impact on the culture, consists of specific charters granted by such States—or simply State incorporation laws.

Proposed, therefore, is a program to consider and resolve the following three issues:

  • the Purpose of such institutions;
  • the Governance Structure best suited to fulfill this Purpose; and
  • the Public Trust measures best suited to assure such Purpose and Governance Structure;

as the following two papers develop in specific detail:


Stanley Stillman