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,
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
As the scholarship of Allan Nevins (1962) shows, Americans’ deeply rooted values of social and economic democracy propelled
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
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
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
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
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
…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
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
Second, there is what has become known as the “corporatization” of the university. While academic institutions have long been connected to
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
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
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
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.”
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.