Harper was a president of the University of Chicago. His goal was to make the university into an institution that “focused on research and graduate training at the highest levels, but at the same time, was accessible to the most students” (PBS). Harper was described by a Chicago journalist and professor as one of the “titans who had made [Chicago’s] history” and “the most unselfish of them all” (PBS). In his book, The Trend in Higher Education, Harper wrote:
The university, I contend, is this prophet of democracy – the agency established by heaven itself to proclaim the principles of democracy. It is in the university that the best opportunity is afforded to investigate the movements of the past and to present the facts and principles involved before the public. It is the university that, as the center of thought, is to maintain for democracy the unity so essential for its success. The university is the prophetic school out of which come the teachers who are to lead democracy in the true path. It is the university that must guide democracy into the new fields of arts and literature and science. It is the university that fights the battles of democracy, its war-cry being: ‘Come, let us reason together.’ It is the university that, in these latter days, goes forth with buoyant spirit to comfort and give help to those who are downcast, taking up its dwelling in the very midst of squalor and distress. It is the university that, with impartial judgment, condemns in democracy the spirit of corruption, which now and again lifts up its head, and brings scandal upon democracy’s fair name . . . . The university, I maintain, is the prophetic interpreter of democracy; the prophet of her past, in all its vicissitudes; the prophet of her present, in all its complexity; the prophet of her future, in all its possibilities. (Harper 19–20)
Each individual university selects its community members based on criteria that it has put in place. It wants to hire staff and faculty who will convey its message, and it accepts students who will be open to receiving the message. Although universities are meant to welcome and encourage diversity of people and ideas, preserving a certain atmosphere requires that you are actually supporting some level of uniformity. The university unites similar groups of people but alienates others, especially those who aren’t considered a good fit for any university community. Furthermore, classes are formatted to evaluate students on how well they meet a professor’s expectations. Although these expectations may be to challenge assumptions, oftentimes it works out to be how much you agree with a professor’s ideas instead.
At the ideal level, the university would champion the best of democracy and instill in its members the tools to be a socially intelligent citizen, rather than molding students into the university’s own idea of the model citizen. However, a system which does not allow everyone to study at a university and is a competitive business at its core could prove to be problematic. As a generality, the university does remain an interpreter of democracy, though, which should attempt to produce more mature, intelligent citizens than they were when they entered the selective community.
Please share your views on the relationship between the university, citizenship, and democracy and/or William Rainey Harper's view.
The Trend in Higher Education by William Rainey Harper
PBS: William Rainey Harper (1856-1906) and the University of Chicago