Close Mobile Menu

Clark Kerr’s Classic: The Uses of the University Turns 50

December 9, 2013
by Seth Rosenfeld ’90

Fifty years ago, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, delivered a speech at Harvard about the university’s role; his talk would roil academe. Some would praise him for delivering an incisive and unflinching description of the modern university, while others would savage him for advocating a “factory” that served industry and government at the expense of students and higher education.

Kerr’s speech was published later in 1963 as The Uses of the University, and the slender volume still ignites passion. Last year, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust told The New York Times, “It remains the best explanation of how the American research university emerged and evolved, and why its commitment to the critical perspective and the long view is so important to our present and future.” A lecturer in English at Santa Clara University swiftly replied in a letter to the editor that Kerr had “welcomed the very developments that have made American higher education generally so lame.”

Why has Kerr’s book been so controversial, and why does it remain so relevant?

At the time of Kerr’s speech, John F. Kennedy was in the White House, the postwar economy was at its height, and the university was in its Golden Age. With wit and self-deprecating humor, Kerr traced the history of the university, discussed its radically changing role in society, and made clear its myriad connections to interest groups internal and external. And with what in retrospect seems tragic prophesy, he described the very forces that soon led to his own downfall as president.

Rooted in ancient Greece, the earliest universities were single communities of “masters and students.” In 18th century Europe they were oligarchies of sorts, apart from society, serving the elite, averse to change. But a distinctly American institution emerged after President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which gave the states federal lands to fund universities serving agriculture, industry, and the general public. American universities combined the British emphasis on undergraduate education in humanities and the German emphasis on graduate research in science, with a new emphasis on public service. The massive infusion of federal research funds during and after World War II further fueled the rise of what Kerr called the “multiversity.”

The university, he said, was no longer cloistered, but now central to society, “a prime instrument of national purpose.” Its job was to produce new knowledge, by which he meant information in all its forms. As Kerr declared, “New knowledge is the most important factor in economic and social growth.”

“What the railroads did for the second half of the last century, and the automobile for the first half of this century, may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.”

And like the societies they served, multiversities could be volatile, with students, faculty, and outside authorities such as legislatures and governors (and, unbeknownst to Kerr, J. Edgar Hoover) exerting pressure and vying for control. According to Kerr, the university president was essentially a “mediator.” But he warned, “When the extremists get in control of the students, the faculty, or the trustees with class warfare concepts, then the ‘delicate balance of interests’ becomes an actual war.”

Kerr’s book was a prism that illuminated many conflicting facets of the university, so it is perhaps no surprise that it provoked a spectrum of reaction.

In a 1963 review, Daniel J. Boorstin, the eminent historian, compared The Uses of the University to a book by Harvard President Nathan Pusey, decrying Pusey’s “banality and intellectual timidity” and extolling Kerr’s “courageous clarity.” Boorstin wrote, “If the dominant note of President Pusey’s volume is nostalgic, the dominant note of Kerr’s is reform.”

Others were hostile. Hal Draper, a university librarian and member of the Independent Socialists Club, accused Kerr of promoting a university that was a service station for the “military-industrial complex.” In 1964 new criticism came when students formed the Free Speech Movement to protest a Berkeley rule barring political activity on campus. Mario Savio, the FSM’s main spokesperson, attacked Kerr as advocating the university as an impersonal “factory,” and in a famous speech urged the crowd to repudiate the machine—to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” The charges dogged him: While speaking at Indiana University, Kerr was struck by a meringue pie. (He later recalled that he wiped it off his wire-rimmed spectacles, said it was tasty, and kept talking.)

Thirty years later, historian Garry Wills noted in his study of leadership, Certain Trumpets, that Kerr’s book had become a guide for other university presidents and criticized it as disastrously failing to accord students a sufficient role. To Wills, Kerr was the “Bull Connor” of Berkeley—a harsh allusion to the Birmingham commissioner of public safety’s brutal handling of civil rights marchers. Wills also saw Kerr as “blithely” dismissing the danger of federal control through grants.

Yet Kerr had neither called the university a “factory,” nor said it should be one. He had been describing, rather than prescribing, the institution as the result of historical forces, “an imperative rather than a reasoned choice among elegant alternatives.” He noted grave deficiencies, such as large classes and researchers too busy to teach, at sprawling schools like Berkeley. And Wills notwithstanding, Kerr had warned of negative federal influence.

Ironically, while many on the Left saw him as repressive, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor in 1966, castigated Kerr for being too much a mediator and not simply expelling Savio and other protesters.

As Kerr had noted in his book, the university president was the man in the middle.

In later editions of The Uses of the University, Kerr addressed new challenges: the decline of liberal arts, dwindling resources, increasing numbers of students. He foresaw biotechnology as posing major ethical conflicts. He anticipated massively open online courses (MOOCs), in what he called the first revolution in education technology in five centuries. Warning that the quality of instruction must be preserved, he wrote, “Education is not only about the transfer of factual knowledge.”

Clark Kerr remained steadfast in his belief that new information was crucial to the nation’s success. And he remained an optimist. As he wrote in the last edition, two years before his death in 2003 at age 91, “Higher education has been very resilient in turning fears into triumphs. I expect that this will continue.”

Share this article