Friday, August 22, 2008

The Ivory Node

I have to admit that I enjoy wearing my academic regalia at commencement each spring. The flowing gowns, tasseled caps, and colorful hoods that my colleagues and I wear are symbols of our academic achievements and responsibilities. It marks us collectively as part of “the Academy,” a scholarly body that at least mythically traces back to the 4th century B.C. in Athens – Plato’s Akademia. The original Academy was located outside the gates of the bustling city of Athens, had high walls, and an olive grove. The phrase “the groves of academe” suggests scholars walking through the trees thinking great thoughts and separated by a wall from the politics and commerce of the day.

There are other phrases that describe university life as somehow apart from the world. “Oh, you live in an ivory tower,” is a phrase that is a handy put-down for those who aren’t really sure that what academics do has any practical utility for those who “work for a living”. It suggests that we attempt to maintain some purity of thought by remaining disengaged from the messiness of the “real” world.

I would argue that this probably was never really the case – Plato dealt with politics, to be sure, and the medieval scholars whose cassocks were the inspiration for modern academic robes actually had to collect their fees from students in many early universities. The lecturers were actually in private enterprise! I’ve been told that the little pocket at the end of our hoods is a vestige of the pouch that scholars kept their fees in. The link between good teaching and tuition was very close indeed.

I wouldn’t argue that in many ways modern universities, including UC Davis, live differently from those institutions which are more directly involved in the marketplace. We need a more deliberate pace to pursue learning and teaching than publicly-traded corporations reporting quarterly returns. But a campus with 1500 buildings, 30,000 students and 28,000 employees can hardly be compared to a group of monkish academics discussing theology. We are much more like a small city ( and indeed we have our own fire and police departments at UC Davis).

I think a better metaphor for the modern university is “node.” We are a node in many networks and one of our primary functions today is connecting what we do with those who are interested in the ideas, skilled graduates, and technologies we produce. It also seems to me that we are seen as a good testing ground, a place to share thoughts and experiences or to try to influence those who shape ideas.

For example, a few days ago California Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke to the local business community about the issues facing the state. Rather a large group of university people were there. We all sat together - business leaders, academics, and political officials. In fact, we all know each other and meet regularly at one or another event or hearing. The business community regularly comes into our classrooms to share their knowledge. We move into and out of each others’ worlds regularly.

Last week the media was filled with news about the Russian invasion of the Balkan nation of Georgia, a horrific event that filled me with dread. Why would I care about this tiny country so far away, other than my general distaste for war as a means for asserting dominance or solving disputes? I felt the news directly because last year the Prime Minister of Georgia was my guest at an event on campus. Georgia has boldly developed democratic institutions in the shadow of Russia, and their financial system was developed with the help of Bob Medearis, a former instructor and advisor to the Graduate School of Management. When we had the opportunity to learn from Prime Minister Noghaideli about Georgian challenges we offered him a speaking platform – which came with a large entourage of U.S. Secret Service officers.

The Summer Olympics in China is just about over, and a number of local athletes were there, including the Silver Medalist in Eventing Gina Miles, who rode and taught at the UC Davis Equestrian Center. Just as impressively, I think, is the veterinary husband and wife team of Jack Snyder and Sharon Spier, who are leading an international corps of 30 veterinarians tending to the equine athletes.

Indeed, nearly every day I read the news and learn how this campus is bringing things out of the laboratory and into people’s lives, how people are coming to campus to explain and to seek advice, and how those of us who live our lives here are going out into the world to share our skills and knowledge. While I like getting dressed up in my robes from time to time, I much prefer being part of the engaged and engaging modern campus.

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