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A Sacred Space

by Craig Little and Henry Steck

Colleges and universities are a small, unique part of democracy, in America and other parts of the world. They are not the entirety of a democratic society; nor should they be. They are, however, an essential part and, in this sense, their very existence is sacred. As part of the American college and university system, SUNY Cortland is one of our democracy’s sacred spaces providing a place for students to learn and for faculty to teach students, engage in free inquiry intended to produce new knowledge and serve their community by sending educated students out into the “real” world and making expertise (with the associated knowledge) available to the society.

But “sacred” in this context, of course, does not mean a “religious” or spiritual space, as we might regard a cathedral as a “sacred” space. And despite the presence of many universities and colleges with religious affiliations or historic roots, e.g., Fordham, LeMoyne, Kenyon, Yeshiva, the American higher education sector is remarkably secular. So, sacred, means that the universities are and should be very special institutions pursuing a very special mission – namely, education, scholarship and research, and wider public service. They are and should be in this world but not of it. This is expressed by such terms as “ivory tower”. But the American university adds to learning and scholarship the explicit mission of serving the wider community or seeking partnerships with the community and its institutions and seeking education for jobs, careers and the professions. This triad of purposes is expressed well if not elegantly by what SUNY terms the three imperatives on the university seal: “To Learn, To Search, To Serve”. Thus, one might see also a tension between sacred and secular purposes.

A sacred space is a hallowed, inviolable place. It is special. Universities and colleges were never intended to be ordinary places. Originally, they were closely connected to religious institutions — primarily, the Church and Christianity in Europe and even before that to Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam in the Far East and the Middle East. Universities and colleges were founded as places where a society’s most learned scholars could work in a community to study, interact and teach in accordance with a society’s core values. With roots in Europe, universities in America — both private and public — emerged from centuries of background development around the core principle of free inquiry. Giamatti (1981) captures the core functions of the American university:

The American university constantly challenges the capacity of individuals to associate in a spirit of free inquiry, with a decent respect for the opinion of others. Its values are those of free, rational and humane investigation and behavior. Its faith, constantly renewed and ever vulnerable, holds that if its values are sufficiently respected within, their growth will be encouraged without. Its purpose is to teach those who wish to learn, learn from those it teaches, foster research and original thought, and, through its students and faculty, to disseminate knowledge and transmit values of responsible civic and intellectual behavior. That purpose can never become captive of any single ideology or dogma. Nor can it be taken for granted (17).

Giamatti, a past-president of Yale University, one of America’s premiere, elite private universities, has a somewhat narrower perspective on the role of colleges and universities in America than is appropriate for a public college, like SUNY Cortland. A public college or university in a democracy must be an institution of civil society — bedrock of a politically democratic society. It is also intended to promote social mobility for all people in a society and thus becomes an important mechanism fostering equality of opportunity. The public college or university is also obligated to educate for citizenship and engage in public outreach and public service. Part of this aspect of its mission is to offer education to young people and create and disseminate knowledge in many, many fields — from the most scholarly and esoteric to the most practical and utilitarian.

As the scholarship of Allan Nevins (1962) shows, Americans’ deeply rooted values of social and economic democracy propelled development of policies that would lead to creation of the state universities — including the State University of New York — across the country. This was done through national legislation that stimulated the creation of “land-grant” state university systems nationwide. Nevins explains the values behind this movement, thus:

Social and economic democracy in America means primarily liberty of action and equality of opportunity. The central idea behind the land-grant movement was that liberty and equality could not survive unless all men had full opportunity to pursue all occupations at the highest practicable level. No restrictions of class, or fortune, or sex, or geographical position — no restrictions whatsoever — should operate. The struggle for liberty when carried to its logical conclusion is always a struggle for equality, and education is the most potent weapon in this context (16-17).1 In the American system of higher education, the function of providing higher education to a large proportion of the people in the society was thus added to the original “advancement of knowledge” function — one of the original purposes of the university.

After World War II, the latter function — that of delivering higher education to many — became a driving force for a major development of SUNY Cortland when hundreds of young men sought a college education through the “GI Bill.”2 Even during this period of its history, Cortland College remained a special place for its students and faculty. And as Cortland Normal School — training mainly young women to be public school teachers — was transformed, through the efforts of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller —into one of the State University of New York’s arts and sciences colleges, the importance of “academic values” and the sense of the college as a sacred space merged with the belief in education as the surest route to creation of opportunity for all as more and more of the faculty and academic leadership were recruited from major universities around the world. So today, SUNY Cortland is a special place (among many others) where the goals of providing higher education to a large proportion of the American public, regardless of gender, race or social class, and providing a location where faculty members are largely free to study, produce and disseminate new knowledge in accordance with the original purposes of the university. 3

Democracy and Higher Education

Democracy is more than simply voting. A functioning democracy is composed of many interests and institutions—businesses, religious institutions, families, journalism/ media, entertainment, and countless others. Among them are colleges and universities, as

part of the institutionalized system of higher education. It is no coincidence that “intellectuals” (often faculty members), students and universities are among the first targets of attack by authoritarian regimes of both the left and the right. Colleges and universities are both repositories of past knowledge and, employing scholars who build upon accumulated knowledge in the past, producers of new knowledge that plays a vital role in shaping the future—from the knowledge behind creation of electronic devices, robots, and historical understanding to genetic cures for diseases, human creativity (e.g., art, architecture and music) and scientific inquiry of all types. At a college like SUNY Cortland, faculty members contribute to shaping the future by conveying knowledge to their students. A democratic society—its very existence—depends on vibrant institutions that include a free press and places of free learning and teaching and inquiry. Colleges and universities, in America and throughout the world, are spaces necessary for the good of democracy and for the good of humanity.

The Role of SUNY Cortland

In America, the mission of the system of universities and colleges is multifaceted — to produce and disseminate knowledge for the good of our society, to educate a broad spectrum of the public, and to serve the community by teaching, outreach and other forms of service to all of humanity. To regard the university as a “sacred space” is not to say that all American colleges and universities – from community colleges through great research universities – share a common mission. Indeed, SUNY itself over the years, since the late-1940s, has struggled to find a shared common purpose in its young history — as have New York’s key political decision makers (Steck, 2010).

As a comprehensive college in that system, Cortland has focused most on the dissemination function – that is, by educating its students — although much new knowledge has been and continues to be produced by its faculty members. In addition, SUNY Cortland takes seriously and energetically its commitment to serving the wider community as exemplified by its high level of student volunteerism in the community, its strong international vision and mission and the work of its Center for Global Engagement, its work with public schools, the Institute for Civic Engagement, its robust programs of internships, service-learning, applied learning and more.

Administrative Leaders, Faculty and Students

SUNY Cortland has been fortunate that its most recent presidents have been able to keep their hand on the tiller as they and the college community navigate the stormy waves of budget cuts, demographic change, enrollment uncertainty, the struggle to maintain a first-rate full-time faculty, a changing culture, social change, the deleterious impact of the new technologies, the role of big-time athletics, and political uncertainty. In an era when too many university administrators manage their institutions by corporate values and corporate management practices, Cortland has been able to main itself as a safe and sacred culture. The challenge is whether, in these times, the university community is able to sustain itself – or create for itself – a community of civility. At a time when ideas such as “post-truth”, “fake news” “truth as a commodity”, the “know- nothing nation” can be seriously discussed, the role of the university as a “sacred space” becomes even more important – more than ever in our “post-modern” “post-truth” era.

Within the American system of higher education, administrative leaders have a responsibility both to run and to protect the institutions they have been chosen to lead. Giamatti (1990) distinguishes between management and leadership.

Management is the capacity to handle multiple problems, neutralize various constituencies, motivate personnel; in a college or university, it means hitting as well the actual budget at break-even. Leadership, on the other hand, is an essentially moral act, not—as in most management—an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style; the moral courage to assert a vision of the institution in the future and the intellectual energy to persuade the community or the culture of the wisdom and validity of the vision. It is to make the vision practicable, and compelling. (36).

Running an institution entails attention to setting priorities, balancing budgets, making sure that the physical plant runs effectively and efficiently, and supervising personnel. Protecting the institution entails negotiating with various boards, committees and political entities that seek to influence the mission and functions of the institution. The role of academic leaders as protectors of sacred spaces where knowledge can be freely produced and disseminated is paramount. Once taken for granted, and largely ignored, today, and going forward, academic institutions will require leaders who are willing and able to protect the institutions they lead, in addition to the hard work of attending to the day-to- day details of keeping the institution running.

Students deserve an environment open to learning and creativity. Likewise, faculty members need to be free to produce and disseminate knowledge. At SUNY

Cortland, this means being free to research and, above all, teach students without having to focus on the issues that consume academic leaders and managers. The fates of both students and faculties are, thus, tied to the willingness and abilities of academic leaders to protect the spaces in which students and faculty do their work.

Now More Than Ever

SUNY Cortland has become one important part of the American system of higher education. (The college is one of the leading educators of teachers in the country.) Its primary role is to serve the State of New York, America and the world by educating its students. An optimist could argue that SUNY Cortland will be able to continue fulfilling its mission, as it has so well in the past, without a huge concern for the future. A pessimist would argue that Cortland’s basic mission and its fulfillment of that mission are under threat, as never before. Giamatti (1990) begins his thoughts on “The Academic Mission” with acknowledgement of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the U.S. in the 1830s “who saw into our national soul.” Giamatti tells us that de Tocqueville

…was struck again and again by how the institutions for education and for religion played a central role in containing a practical, energetic, disparate, materialistic people. He once wrote to a friend in Paris, …The effort made in this country (America) is truly prodigious. The universal and sincere faith that they profess here in the efficaciousness of education seems to me one of the most remarkable features of America…(33).

Giamatti goes on to write “That sincere faith in education has not waned in the (more than) one hundred and fifty years since Tocqueville, nor has the capacity of free institutions to keep us cohesive been replaced by anything better (34).”

It remains to be seen whether “anything better” emerges. But until (or if) it does, it would be unwise to dispatch SUNY Cortland and the system of American higher education built up so painfully over centuries before there is some measure of assurance that whatever is thought to be “better” really is.

Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

Many of SUNY Cortland’s challenges going forward relate to the college’s realities of being a part of the American system of public higher education and some grow out of the fact that American higher education is but a part of the evolving and larger global picture. First, the college is embedded in the tension between the values of elite educational ideals (educating “the best and the brightest,” a focus on the “quality” of who and what is taught, etc.) versus the values access and “mass” higher education (educating as many people as possible, an emphasis on the “quantity “of who and what is taught, etc.).

Second, there is what has become known as the “corporatization” of the university. While academic institutions have long been connected to business, there has recently been enormous pressure for those who administrate them to run them like businesses. In such a world, students are seen as “customers,” faculty members are seen as mere “employees,” and the research function of the university, once primarily the production of knowledge, is seen in the new paradigm as a source of revenue. Thus, the values of business are subsuming and overwhelming “academic values.” The unrelenting process of corporatization will challenge the maintenance of “academic values” that have historically served the people of America and the globe so well.4

Third, both students and faculty will be subject to transitions in the culture, many driven by technological developments that pose challenges to “traditional” notions of learning and teaching. With startling speed we have gone from books to television; from “land lines” to wireless “smartphones”; from paper newspapers to Twitter. Keeping up with these developments, as they relate to the production and dissemination of knowledge and teaching, will become only more difficult in the future.

Fourth, SUNY Cortland and virtually all public universities are going to be challenged by reductions in public revenue for higher education. It is going to take enormously persistent, creative work on the part of public education advocates, including public college and university presidents, to persuade those who hold the purse strings that public education deserves public financial support.

The Democracy and Excellence

SUNY Cortland’s history is that of a public university in the American tradition of faith in education, democracy and access to opportunity for all. Neither “elitist” nor forsaking excellence for “political and social egalitarianism,” the core role of the college has been to be part of a system intended to make available to anyone with the ability, grit and drive an avenue to make the most of their lives. Back in 1959, Thomas Hamilton expressed this ideal when he was installed as President of the State University of New York. He said:

The goal of life in a democracy is the realization of one’s capacities and aspirations; the obligation of a democracy is to see that no deserving person fails of this realization for lack of opportunity.

To this idea of America, then, I pledge State University of New York: that no young citizen of this State shall be denied a collegiate educational opportunity, consistent with his talent and diligence, because of any conditions attendant upon his birth; that no young citizen of this State shall be denied the opportunity to demonstrate that he is better blessed with brains, with creative ability, and with energy than his fellows. It would seem to me that in this way the University can best contribute to the creation and maintenance of the democracy of excellence.

We began by touting the importance of colleges as “sacred spaces” in a complex, pluralistic democracy. We have tried to show how SUNY Cortland fits into the history of higher education in America, especially the special mission to provide educational opportunity to all and serve the public by offering community outreach and service.

Serving the public is an essential element of a state university mission.

More than ever before, SUNY Cortland, in the near-term future, will be important as one of those spaces and places where students can learn and faculty members can freely do scholarship, create, teach and serve. More than ever before, the multitudinous tasks of academic leaders will include protecting these sacred spaces. And within these sacred spaces, students need to have the precious opportunity and time to learn and grow and faculty members must be free to pursue new knowledge, disseminate it to the society beyond the ordered space of the university, and teach students to have success in the economy and be good citizens.


Clark, John B., W. Bruce Leslie and Kenneth P. O’Brien. 2010. SUNY at Sixty: The Promise of the State University of New York. Albany: State University of New York Press. Giamatti, A. Bartlett. 1981. The University and the Public Interest. New York: Atheneum. Hamilton, Thomas. 1959. “The Democracy of Excellence.” Installation Address, Albany, NY: October 29.

Nevins, Allan. 1962. The State Universities and Democracy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Steck, Henry. 2003. “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 66: (Complete reference from Henry Steck.)

Steck, Henry. 2010. “Three Historical Movements: Contested Visions of the State University of New York.” Pp. 199-213 in SUNY at Sixty: The Promise of the State University of New York. Edited by John B. Clark, W. Bruce Leslie and Kenneth P. O’Brien. Albany: State University of New York Press.


1 Although in this quote Nevins uses the word “men” it quickly becomes clear that he means “people” when he states that “No restrictions of class, fortune, sex, or geographical position—no restrictions whatsoever — should operate.”

2 For an account of SUNY’s history, see Clark et. al.,, 2010.

3 The State University of New York operates according to NYS Education Law, Section 351) (1985) that includes the following:

SUNY Mission Statement
The mission of the state university system shall be to provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs including such additional activities in pursuit of these objectives as are necessary or customary. These services and activities shall be offered through a geographically distributed comprehensive system of diverse campuses which shall have differentiated and designated missions designed to provide a comprehensive program of higher education, to meet the needs of both traditional and non-traditional students and to address local, regional and state needs and goals.

4 See Steck (2003) for an analysis of corporatization of the university.