The Intellectual Community

Multiversity or University?
Pursuing competing goods simultaneously

James W. Wagner, President of the University

Vol. 9 No. 4
February/March 2007

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Drugs and Money
Pharmaceutical companies, academic medicine, and the flow of funds and favors

Reviewing conflict-of-interest policies

Funds flowing in

"We accept money because we need to do clinical trials, and that's where the rubber meets the road in this conflict-of-interest business."

"I'm not under any illusion that [drug companies] give money for the sake of neuroscience. They won't do a study if the potential is there for the outcome to have a negative impact on marketing."


Bringing the Big Questions to the Community
Re-imagining the Gustafson Seminar

Multiversity or University?
Pursuing competing goods simultaneously

On the failure of roots and the strength of weak ties



Over the past two years, as the Emory community has sharpened its vision and laid out a strategic plan to guide us into the future, certain phrases have gained currency, almost like rallying cries or mottos—phrases like destination university and ethically engaged and inquiry-driven.

Another such phrase, one with a history going back more than four decades, is the word multiversity. We have been using that word to describe the sort of institution we want Emory not to be. We utter the word as the opposite of what we believe Emory truly is, and what it should remain—a UNIversity—with the emphasis on oneness of community, oneness of vision, oneness of purpose and aspiration, oneness of enterprise. We do not want to be multi in the sense of being divided, having schools and programs that work at cross purposes, or assuming a zero-sum game in which the advantage of one part necessarily disadvantages all the others.

But as we use multiversity more and more to describe what we want to avoid at Emory, it’s worth reflecting on the origin of the word and the meaning it was intended to convey. And it’s worth recalling the kind of university that the multiversity supplanted.
The concept of “multiversity” of course goes back at least to Clark Kerr’s Godkin Lectures at Harvard University in 1963. Kerr was the distinguished president of the University of California system for a decade during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements, the antiwar protests, and the first wave of Baby Boomers entering college, and he had been chancellor of the Berkeley campus for six years before that. As an economist with an historian’s sensibility, he very astutely analyzed the “hinge of history” on which American universities then seemed to hang. Still connected to their past, they were swinging into an unrecognizable future, and it was Kerr’s genius to see the outlines of that future clearly.

By the time of his lectures (subsequently published as The Uses of the University, 1963), Kerr believed that the university in its classical sense had ceased to be. The idea that John Henry Newman had held forth in the mid-nineteenth century, of a community of scholars dedicated to knowledge for its own sake, was already dying on the vine as Newman wrote about it. Supplanting it (with roots in Germany, not England, and with nurturing by the land grant movement in the United States) was the idea of the modern university, described by Abraham Flexner and epitomized by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. While Newman’s ideal university privileged the humanities and diminished the importance of professional training, Flexner’s “modern university” served the spirit of a new age through scientific research and training in technical competence. The university education idealized by Newman focused on undergraduates; the modern university that Flexner described trained graduate and professional students.

But the middle of the twentieth century brought further transformation, particularly as the federal government in the United States underwrote a massive surge in research in the health sciences, engineering, and defense-related sciences like physics and chemistry. The university that Newman had thought of as a single community of like-minded scholars became, by the 1960s, a community in name only (though the “name” was still important. Even then, as Kerr noted, the notion of branding, understood as a “standard of performance, . . . a certain historical legacy, a characteristic quality,” meant a great deal to the faculty, students, and funding agencies). The “multiversity” that had been born was a congeries of communities—“the community of the undergraduate and the community of the graduate; the community of the humanist, the community of the social scientist, and the community of the scientist; the communities of the professional schools; the community of all the nonacademic personnel; the community of the administrators.” These various communities, with their often-conflicting interests, reach out in turn to other communities, of alumni, government officials, town neighbors, business leaders, foundation heads, NGOs, and many others.

It is commonplace to lament some of the changes on campus wrought by the social and economic pressures of the last century. There has been, in general, a diminished concentration on educating undergraduates as the core mission of universities, with a concomitant rise in specialization and fragmentation of learning. There is an increased danger of conflicting interests between the pursuit of knowledge and its commercialization. There are fewer opportunities—and less deliberate effort—to develop intra-community partnerships and collaborations among our academic silos. And, over all, there is a sense of loss of community, both the community of human souls caring for one another and the community of intellect sharing a common pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

At the same time, the multiversity has brought real benefits: astounding advances in research and health care, vast improvements to the standard of living for most Americans, greater efficiency of operation, broader democratization of access and promotion, higher levels of compensation and status for faculty members, more direct influence in policy making, and greater levels of service to the nation and the communities in which universities are located—many of the values that we at Emory espouse.

For us at Emory, what may be most interesting about Clark Kerr’s “multiversity” of 1963 is that it did not describe the Emory of that time. Forty years ago Emory’s research enterprise was small, its community impact marginal, and its mode of operation very similar to that of the university planted in Druid Hills in 1915—more like a family than a business. In the past forty years, however, the “multiversity” is exactly what Emory has sought to become—a major research institution to which policy wonks turn for expertise, industrialists turn for research, government agencies turn for funding proposals, and donors turn for leveraging their philanthropy into the greatest impact on America and the world. Emory now is seeking to be exactly the kind of “knowledge factory”—replete with external funding resources—that Kerr thought of as the multiversity.

What we wrestle with, and what we want to think through carefully, is how to avoid the anti-communitarian vices inherent in the multiversity. We have increased faculty allegiances to the national academies while wanting their continued energy and focus—the scarcest and most precious of all university resources—at home. We have created more opportunity for research and scholarship while regretting that a cadre of student-life professionals has had to replace the faculty in mentoring and caring for our students. We have responded to the need for increased administrative scale and complexity while hoping, paradoxically, to maintain the informal community fostered by an earlier Emory. All of this is why, I believe, so many feel we must seek to hold fast the values and ethos of a “true university” rather than those of a multiversity. The trick will be how to pursue both of these competing goods simultaneously.

If Newman’s “idea of a university” has any contemporary outpost in the real world, it probably is in the small liberal arts colleges that preserve some of the atmosphere and commitments of that ideal. But if the circumstances that originally formed Newman’s ideal have passed into history, we can still look to that idea as a set of guiding principles to shape our actions and directions in the decade to come. This is what I believe we have attempted to do in forging our strategic plan. My hope is that we will hold fast to this ideal while creating something new in American higher education—a unique institution that has the muscle and energy and creative intelligence of Kerr’s multiversity, while retaining the spirit, the soul, of the university.