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Universities Must Resist The Pressures Of Politicization

By Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier:

The protests roiling American universities have been cast as the most recent skirmish in the fight over free speech on campus. In fact, they are something more. They are the latest and most dramatic example of the politicization of our colleges and universities by actors across the political spectrum. If we want to understand the dangers inherent in this development, history offers an example.

In 1810, philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt established an institution of higher learning unlike any the world had ever seen—the University of Berlin, now Humboldt University. It was a university dedicated not to the mere transmission of knowledge, but to its creation, by professors and students alike, in a living-learning community that fostered development of students’ full selves. This required a firm commitment to academic freedom and the protection from political influence by the state or other political actors.

Over the next century, Humboldt’s university became the greatest in the world. Its scientists produced groundbreaking work in physics, chemistry and medicine. Before World War I, 15% of Nobel prizes were won by University of Berlin faculty. Other German universities based on the Humboldt model led in fields from physics to history.

Humboldt’s impact in the U.S. was just as great. Johns Hopkins and The University of Chicago were founded on his model. Others, like Vanderbilt and the Ivies, abandoned their ecclesiastical roots and adopted Humboldt’s approach. James Kirkland, Vanderbilt’s second and longest-serving chancellor, was heavily influenced by the German model, as were many of Vanderbilt’s early leading faculty.

Yet despite its profound impact on the research university as we know it today, the University of Berlin is a cautionary tale.

After the Nazis destroyed its scientific eminence, the university found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and under the thumb of the East German communist regime. It has only slowly recovered. At its 200-year anniversary, its leader, Christoph Markschies said, “Today, nobody anywhere in the world is prepared to take this university…as a model.”

Read the rest of the article in Forbes.