AMERICAN RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES ARE tremendously successful institutions. Commonly touted as the best in the world, they attract students from all over the globe and many more applicants from the United States than they can enroll. They receive billions in “investments”–gifts and grants from individuals, companies, and governments–and are credited with holding the key to technological progress and economic growth. They have established a near monopoly on access to prestigious and lucrative careers. The men who struggled to build these institutions must be resting in their graves with self-congratulatory grins. Or are they?
In this essay, I focus not on the wonderful accomplishments of the university, but rather on one of its discontents: its uncertainty and apprehension regarding moral questions. The builders of the modern university expected that the research conducted within it would solve moral problems–it would provide authoritative instruction on how to live and how to shape a more perfect society. But within a generation, it became clear that this expectation would not be easily fulfilled. Indeed, many of the faculty housed in these new universities were ready to wash their hands of moral concerns. The university faced a crisis: Did it serve to advance morality? And if so, how? The success of the university in producing knowledge and training skilled professionals has compensated for and masked the moral crisis. But nonetheless, the problem of morality continues to plague American higher education. Universities have been unable either to fully incorporate morality or to comfortably abandon a moral mission. This is the unresolved legacy of the creation of the modern research university.