The pursuit of excellence

A commitment to intellectual rigor should not be used as an excuse for ignoring ethical concerns.

By Marshall Knudson

At a panel discussion arranged in advance of the Faculty Senate meeting two weeks ago, Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman made the comment that the Department of Economics has no ideological bottom line. There is but one thing common to the faculty, he said, and that is excellence.

Heckman isn’t especially unique around here—not with his Nobel laurels and not with his passion for excellence. He just happens to articulate an idea about our University that student activists have been grappling with for years, an idea that dislodges ethical and political questions from the realm of reasonable discourse and promotes the onward march of potentially any administrative decision threatened by dissent. As Bill Readings points out in The University in Ruins, if the notion of excellence is to serve the University as “the idea that functions as its referent, as the end and meaning of its activities,” then we encounter the problem that this idea, excellence, “itself has no referent.”

Yet many members of the University community would affirm with great sincerity that excellence in teaching and research is the guiding light of our institution. The Kalven Report states that, “The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge,” and this principle, as subject to the hermeneutical authority of the University administration, has endured to this day.

One would be remiss to discredit the value of excellence, but even for Aristotle excellence simply meant the sagacity of matching means with ends, with the ends themselves needing somehow to be defined and defended as worthwhile.

Following the Kalven Report, the University is supposed to reside above “political fashions, passions, and pressures,” and to abscond from moral questions that properly belong to individual faculty and students, organized as constituents of this community of scholars.

Thus the ends for excellence must be decided in two ways: one for the University itself and another for the scholarly bodies in which research and teaching are carried out.

The University proper is imagined as a techno-bureaucratic mechanism that facilitates the execution of the knowledge-centered mission statement. The University acts on many levels: It arbitrates between its many divisions and departments; it acts to secure and manage financial and physical resources; it interacts with government structures; it is an employer and a purchaser; and it must also account to the community in whose midst and at whose benefit or expense it pursues its expansive agenda.

Every decision made by the University must in some way encounter political and ethical questions and entail political and ethical consequences. Even a decision not to act—as in the Darfur controversy—is, in essence, an affirmative decision. The purchase of land tracts, the acceptance of money with curious stipulations, the design of public-health policies—all these have irrefragable political or ethical content.

Sometimes, when the University works on behalf of or in tandem with,specific members of the University community entitled to their own political and moral views, it becomes meaningfully entangled with those views.

Consider the controversy over the Milton Friedman Institute. Even Professor Heckman, a member of the board for the Institute, recently confirmed the plausibility that the Institute could become the haven of particular views and biases. He added that every institute, perhaps every department, is afflicted with that condition.

If Heckman is correct, then political and moral content has and continues to be part of our institutional heritage. The problem is not that the Kalven Report is being torn asunder by unscrupulous partisans; the problem is that the Kalven Report itself is but a mask and a pretext.

The University makes politically and morally charged decisions all the time. It’s only when the modus vivendi—the agreement to disagree—is challenged that the problem surfaces at all.

It’s high time we admit what everybody already knows: The University of Chicago is not just a community of scholars. It is a far-reaching institution and it makes important decisions that affect many people’s lives, whether on or off campus.

We need honesty, not denial. We need transparency, not mystification. Only once this is admitted in full will our mission be fulfilled. The University should not turn a blind eye to its own nature; it should practice the critical engagement, the excellence, which it expects of each of its members.

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology.