Is the coronavirus undermining the intellectual foundations of the university?

Universities and their values have been hugely successful in forging a central place for themselves at the heart of the information age. David John Frank and John W. Meyer consider how and why the pandemic might be putting that at risk

August 20, 2020
Montage of university entrance with coronavirus
Source: Getty montage

It has been widely observed that Covid-19 poses many immediate threats to the way universities are organised today. What has received far less attention is how it also challenges their underlying rationale.

Many of the immediate developments have been dramatic. There are shuttered campuses, lecture halls and laboratories; cancelled talks, meetings and graduation ceremonies; decimated budgets; and isolated scholars, at least some of whom must now operate from their parents’ basements. The everyday teaching and research activities of the university are broken, creating substantial practical problems while also fracturing the sustaining rituals and routines at the heart of education.

Facing such urgent organisational challenges, universities have had to adapt in order to survive. We have witnessed, for example, new technology-mediated online relationships with students that encourage and reward autonomy. These are likely to endure.

Such firefighting measures are obviously crucial and are currently the focus of intense debate. But here we want to draw on the argument of our new book, The University and the Global Knowledge Society, to consider a deeper dimension that has largely been ignored.

The university is local, we argue, but it is also a global institution, rising above the exigencies of time and place with quasi-religious pretensions. Its special quality inheres not in meeting local demands but rather in interpreting local phenomena in terms of transcendent truths, grounded in universalistic and rationalistic forms of understanding. While carpentry takes different forms in different societies, for example, university-accredited disciplines such as physics are the same everywhere. And while parents comprehend particular children – with their individual nuances of disposition and complexities of context – university-based psychologists offer general understandings of human personality over the life course. Circumstances vary, but the truth does?not.

The university extends such a global cultural canopy, based on the (obviously disputable) premises that persons are endowed with reason and that the universe is open to general explanation. The university’s remarkable endurance, and its spectacular global expansion over the past half-century – with more universities in more countries educating more students in more fields – reflect the penetration of these premises deep into the sediment of contemporary culture. They establish the bases of an imagined global knowledge society staffed by massive numbers of professionalised people and in which more than a third of school leavers now participate.

Disinfecting a classroom. Coronavirus.

The coronavirus highlights the university’s centrality and its authority within the global knowledge society. The university provides a standardised cultural base through which the disease is recognised and addressed. It binds together events separated by oceans and time zones, in Wuhan, Milan and the Bronx. It unites persons suffering isolated afflictions and inexplicable deaths, on backstreets and in bedrooms, and renders them instances of a general phenomenon. It provides the vocabulary, analyses and anticipated resolutions.

It is under the auspices of the university that Covid-19 is established as a global pandemic, a public health emergency and a severe respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The university certifies the experts who offer advice and circulate solutions: quarantining, distancing, tracing, testing and eventually, perhaps, vaccinating. In the contemporary era, the university has a pivotal role in certifying knowledge and professionals on universalistic and supranational bases. This is only dramatised and reinforced by the pandemic.

However, even as Covid-19 dramatises the university’s centrality, it also showcases and perhaps even intensifies the post-liberalism that is surging in wider world society and presenting challenges to the university’s global cosmopolitan authority. Academically, the virus is a global and universal matter, to be analysed at the highest levels of theory and abstraction and to be managed under universalistic principles. But the coronavirus is also an intensely local and particular experience, bringing uncertainty, tragedy and disorder to concrete human lives.

This local significance takes on special force in a period in which post- or anti-liberal reactions and localisms have become prominent themes. Thus, populist anti-elitism and nationalism, often tinged with racism, loom large in the discourse around Covid-19 and clearly undercut the universalistic and rationalistic premises of the university. While one response is an expansion in global regulatory and informational structures, another is hostility to global internationalism, and an emphasis on national and local lockdowns. These latter movements bode ill for the global faith in the university of recent decades and suggest the glimmerings of an anti-knowledge society.

A paramount theme is localistic nationalism, often accompanied by anti-internationalism, including broadsides against the formerly admired World Health Organisation. If the pandemic, in one sense, is a unifying global threat to be confronted by a unified scientific knowledge system, in another sense it is foreign and alien. In the US, Donald Trump proclaims: “China should be held responsible.” In Italy, former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini declares: “If the Chinese government knew [about the virus] and didn’t tell it publicly, it committed a crime against humanity.” In Hungary, Viktor Orbán states: “Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners.” This stark insistence on us against them erodes the universalism that lends the university its name.

A prominent related theme is anti-scientism and even anti-rationalism. Conspiracy theories abound, propagated in the US and China by national administrations inclined to seed them. Perhaps scientists created the virus, intentionally or unintentionally, in a laboratory in China (the US story) or the US (the Chinese version). Or perhaps they failed to communicate the dangers properly. Or they bowed to perverse political, cultural or ideological controls, making it now apparently proper to criticise the renowned US Centers for Disease Control. About one in five adults in England believes that the coronavirus is to some extent a hoax. And similar beliefs are widespread in the US, especially among supporters of Trump and the Republican Party. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro insists that Covid-19 is “only a mild flu” and has been attending anti-lockdown demonstrations and shaking hands with supporters. An angry mob in Chiapas, Mexico, stormed a hospital to “rescue” a coronavirus patient and demand an end to testing, claiming that the global pandemic is a lie and a government conspiracy.

For the university, the longer-run implications of these reactions are disturbing. The coronavirus reinforces the upswing of cultural models rooted in the specificities of nation, community, polity, religion, family – and sometimes race – which undercut the university’s defining universalism and rationalism. Faith in the knowledge system rooted in the university is weakening, with criticisms springing from many quarters.

When we look to the future of universities, then, we need to consider both the short-term organisational threats and the deeper shifts in thinking. It is reasonable to anticipate that some existing institutions will close. And that new ones will be created at much lower rates than in the recent past, when they were seen as sources of progress. Immediate resource constraints produced by organisational and economic breakdown can produce such effects. But it is the more general anti-liberal decline in the cultural centrality of the university that will ensure such trends continue. Both processes may impact with special force on universities in peripheral global settings, where explosive expansion over recent decades has gone beyond the actual demands for higher education. In the same way, universities dependent on long-distance and cross-national flows of students may be impacted by travel restrictions and economic factors. But they will also be affected by a change in public mood: if the world is a less unified place than it was, boundaries take on greater meaning.

Both for resource reasons and because of a less supportive climate, individual universities may be pressed to become more like local or national problem-solvers and less like instances of the great world institution. Orientations to global standards, reputations and rankings may become less important for survival than in the recent past.

We can also expect a significant impact on student and faculty participation.?Historically, recessions have sometimes increased enrolments, as young people choose study rather than unemployment. But individual and organisational resource constraints may make this difficult now.

Furthermore, contemporary polities have simultaneously trumpeted the importance of the university for the collective good (the knowledge society) and weakened collective support for it. This situation is unlikely to improve. Thus, both economic and ideological pressures are likely to limit the ability and inclination of students to pursue fading dreams, especially if they involve long-distance travel.

The same factors lower the attractiveness and availability of academic careers. Universities can temporarily resolve budgetary crises by cutting back the rapidly expanding array of adjunct faculty members and eliminating new and replacement positions. Such processes are likely to be intensified over time – and perhaps lead to more substitution of permanent positions with temporary ones – if the universalised and rationalised cultural faith in the university continues to decline (along with funding) in an anti-liberal era.

We may also witness considerable change in what we might call the content of higher education, the curricula of universities.?The past 70 years have seen dramatic expansion in the sciences, but even more in the social sciences (in both basic and professionalised forms). This has been intensified during the recent decades of neoliberal globalisation. A less expansive orientation may lead to a renewed focus on immediate and concrete problems with local and national implications, but also the heroics of local history and culture.

The sweeping abstractions of the more optimistic and global visions – amazing feats of theoretical economic reasoning or explorations of life elsewhere in the universe – may give way to more visceral sorts of enquiry, as the university takes on dirty work rather than transcendent ideas. Perhaps even those strands of the humanities focused on the specific and parochial might recover some strength. Stories and material hitherto confined to local museums and media might find their place in newly tamed institutions of higher education.

It is only when university leaders take on board how the pandemic is reorganising and disorganising matters in the overarching cultural canopy that they can hope to face up to the immense challenges that are just around the corner.

David John Frank is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. John W. Meyer is professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford University. Their book The University and the Global Knowledge Society was recently published by Princeton University Press.


Print headline:?Universalism: the future bodes ill

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Reader's comments (1)

Great article. Tough position to be for all of us. Thank you for sharing your concerns and point of view.

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