California Caucus of College and University Ombudsmen
UCI Ombudsman: The Journal 1991

William R. Schonfeld

University of California, Irvine

Congratulations! You and your loved ones should rightfully be proud of your achievements. You have worked hard, you have worked well, to earn the honors which will be bestowed on you this evening.

The University has a number of somewhat "odd" rituals -- one of which may well be the academic/intellectual speech at the time of conferring degrees and honors. Tradition would dictate that my remarks should last about 15 to 20 minutes, but should have a style and substance such that members of the audience would be willing to swear that I had spoken for at least two hours. I presume that tedious remarks are particularly valued on occasions such as this, because thereby the audience's pleasure rises to climatic dimensions at the moment the speaker sits down and we begin honoring you.

In spite of my traditional nature, I hope to innovate somewhat in this respect, . . . although I promise to be sufficiently boring, at least at times, so as not to deprive you completely of one of the great historical rites of passage.

My topic, I decided, should be shaped by the question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

There are, in fact, two answers: The first is that we are all gathered here to honor you for your academic achievements. Remarks focusing on your accomplishments and the meaning of academic honor would be appropriate. But, such is the general topic of student speech this evening.

To avoid redundancy, I must thus attend to the other feature which makes this evening different from others: we are all dressed rather peculiarly.

Academic regalia is the uniform of the university member, rarely worn in the latter part of the 20th century, but which reminds us of both our past and our foundations.

Our garb this evening led me to the medieval nature of the university. Consider the following statute from the Book of the Chancellor at Oxford adopted in 1358:

All the regents in congregation assembled have ordained unanimously that a tailor when he cuts and measures the material to be distributed among the members of the University shall dispose and measure the fabric in such a way as to give the masters and bedells their robes not as short and reduced garments but as full length robes as they were wont to wear in times past. For it is decent and reasonable that those whom God has distinguished with inner qualities from laymen also be different from laymen in their appearance. (Emphasis added.)

For those of you inclined to regard that world as extremely remote from our own, consider the following regulation from the same Book of the Chancellor at Oxford concerning the use of the library:

all who enter will take an oath that they will handle the books they consult decently and not inflict any harm on them by tearing out or ruining layers or single pages of the book.

These features of medieval Oxford led me to reflect on two interrelated questions:

1. What is the essence of a University?

2. How is the contemporary world through its culture, values and pressures challenging the University's core meaning?

What is a University? What is its essence?

I propose to provide you with a particular conception/definition of the University. Definitions, are neither right nor wrong, but may be quite controversial and even fuel passionate debate. And surely, if controversy and debate belong in any social institution, they belong in the university. If that debate is productive or forces reflection upon what we are doing, then the definition is useful.

So what is the essence of the University?

The University may well be the only modern social institution to have its origins in medieval and not ancient times. They were called:


In spite of what common sense might imply, "universitas" had NOTHING to do with the "universality" of knowledge or learning. Rather the word "universitas" identified the fact that this institution of masters (magistrorum or professors) and scholars (scholarium or students) was a company of persons, a community, a body, like all other medieval guilds, organized for the sake of its protection from hostile outsiders.

What was to be protected, and from whom?

The university, from its origins, was not only a center of discussion, but also of critique. It considered issues as objectively as it could, and thus often disapproved, implicitly or explicitly, of policies endorsed by the State and the Church. In an era of authoritarian control by both secular and ecclesiastical authority, this trait surely needed protection.

Next, the university was, for medieval times, an unusually democratic institution. In Bologna, the students elected their teachers and fired them. In Paris, the Professors elected the Deans, who in turn chose their Chancellor. In an age of despotism -- whether enlightened or not -- the democratic character of the university also needed protection.

Last, in a medieval age of conformity, uniformity, and parochialism, universities were a surprisingly diverse setting, unwelcome by the communities in which they were located (hence the town/gown conflict).

Consider, for example, the University of Paris. It was composed of four (ethnic) "nations": the French, Picard, Normand, and the English-German. There was much hostility, even hatred among these groups. While they shared a common language of instruction, Latin, they did not speak the same vernacular among themselves. In addition, they had distinct customs, habits, and cultures. If we put all this into context, it really is quite extraordinary: the medieval university, funded by authoritarian Churches and dictatorial governments, was not only a center for discussion and critique of the world which surrounded it, but in addition, it was rather democratic in its internal organization, and very diverse.

Herein lie the core traits, the defining characteristics of the corporation, the guild, which we call the university; just as central to the meaning of this institution in 1991 as in 1191 in Bologna and at the nascent University of Paris.

The university must be distant from the society that surrounds it, and inevitably an irritant to that society rather than a proximate reflection of it.

Oddly enough, at the end of the twentieth century the university remains in need of protection to fulfill its mission in spite of the separation of church and state, the institution of democratic government, and the growth of community tolerance. In fact, the challenges may even be more serious than they were in medieval times because the forces that would undermine the university are more seductive and subtle.

How is the contemporary world through its culture, values, and pressures challenging the University's core meaning?

Four horsemen of the Apocalypse have been let loose and threaten to undermine the university. They carry the enticing names of ENGAGEMENT, RELEVANCE, SPECIALIZATION, and PRACTICALITY. They constitute a major threat to the integrity and the unique mission of the university. Their siren songs must be resisted. To do so requires first and foremost awareness of their nature and pernicious quality.

Society -- including many professors and students -- have attacked the essential role of the university for undergraduates. The onslaught has increased in recent years and promises to grow as we move toward the 21st century.

1. The first challenge acquired prominence in the late 1960's with the call for an ENGAGED university. Under the impetus of the War in Vietnam and the draft of college students, the traditional role of the university as a center for discussion, analysis and critique of public policy became twisted. The fact that some members of the university community -- perhaps even most -condemned the action of the United States government became insufficient. What was needed was condemnation by the university itself, i.e., engagement.

Yet to remain true to its mission and its nature, the university must remain disengaged and distant. As an institution it cannot take sides on public issues, no matter how pressing they may be and no matter how united faculty and student opinion may be. The siren call for engagement is a demand to renounce our institutional stature which requires the university to stand above the issues of the day.

2. A second challenge, no less pernicious than the first, is captured by the demands for RELEVANCE. The idea is that course work and research should address issues which are "relevant."

But, who is to determine relevance? The students who arrive at the university seeking an education are surely poorly equipped to suggest what is really relevant, even though they are the only ones who can say what among the things they learned seems applicable. Society defines relevance in terms of the issues it is currently confronting, which may, of course, be quite distinct from the major future problems. Scholars identify issues along with potential solutions in terms of what strikes their intellectual interest and appears challenging. These issues may eventually rise to prominence in "the real world." (For instance, a few researchers were investigating the problem of civil strife before the United States ever became involved in Vietnam, and such issues became obviously "relevant.")

Is what matters what is immediately apparent, or what is as yet invisible? Of course both matter, but among social institutions only the university has the potential to provide insight into the latter, but will not do so if it is driven by issues of relevance.

3. The calls for engagement and relevance are bolstered by the pressures for SPECIALIZATION. The knowledge explosion of the second half of the twentieth century has perhaps only been exceeded by the growth in published materials. The result has been an increasing tendency to specialize and to do so in an ever more focused fashion. Faculty must conceive of their research in narrow terms in order to master the literature and be able to add on persuasively to existing knowledge. Research specialization in turn has contributed to increased specialization in teaching: you instruct in the areas in which you are expert. The consonance between teaching and research is not only a logical inclination but also makes life easier for faculty, for example, not having to read in areas in which one is not doing research.

Specialization, however, leads to atomization and isolation. Faculty have fewer issues that they can seriously discuss with the bulk of their colleagues. overall, the university loses its community quality and becomes a collection of ghettos of "expertise."

4. These three horsemen are driven on by their comrade, the American obsession with so-called PRACTICALITY, joined with a sluggish economy unable to provide full or appropriate employment for its citizens. The result is the deeply subversive, but all too strident, call for career preparation, as though that were the function of an undergraduate education. The university is not a trade school, and cannot become one without losing its very soul. Rather the university provides society with a pool of intelligent, educated people; it enables students to acquire analytical skills that in turn are capable of being applied to a wide array of diverse employments.


Engagement, relevance, specialization, and practicality conspire together to challenge the essence of the university. All attempts to make the university more of a proximate reflection of society must be resisted. This is not a time for compromise, but rather for foresight and wisdom so we may fight successfully to preserve UNIVERSITAS, MAGISTRORUM ET SCHOLARIUM.

Address given at the Honors Convocation on June 14, 1991 at the University of California, Irvine.


1. Cobban, A. B., The Medieval Universities: Their Development and
Organization, (London: Methuen and Co., 1975), p. 264.

2. Graves, Frank Pierrepont, A History of Education: During the Middle Ages
and the Transition to Modern Times, (New York: Macmillan, 1914), p. 328.

3. Verger, Jacques, Les universites au moyen age, (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, [Collection SUP), 1973), p. 214.

4. Wieruszowski, Helene, The Medieval University: Masters, Students,
Learning, (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Co., [Anvil Original], 1966), p. 207.

Last Updated: 02/21/97