The University and the State: Renewing the Academic Social Contract for the 21st Century

AHA Session 249
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Mitchell Stevens, Stanford University
Christopher Newfield, University of California, Santa Barbara
Emily J. Levine, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Jingjing Lou, Beloit College
Jason Owen-Smith, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

In a recent New York Times op-ed Stevens and Levine wrote that the current policy debate about universities could benefit from recognizing “the long history of reciprocity between academia and government that has incalculably benefited society.” Sometimes considered the “Humboldt Ideal,” the university is better conceived, we argued, as an academic social contract in which the university is granted autonomy in exchange for serving the state. Historically that contract has been reconceived at different moments over time to meet various goals including preparing a workforce to military defense. In its most recent iteration that contract extended from the New Deal to what some historians have claimed is the “End of Neoliberalism” and with neo-liberalism, that contract seems to have expired.

For the AHA 2019 we propose bringing together scholars in history, sociology, and comparative higher education to offer reflections and spark discussion about the nature of the academic social contract—its past, and most important, its future. Closely connected to the AHA’s theme “loyalties” our panel asks whom does the university serve and how has that purpose changed over time? How does thinking about private and public benefits help our understanding of the university’s purpose and the rightful source of its funding? As social scientists across the disciplinary spectrum how does the university shape our disciplines and, conversely, how do our own methodologies help us parse the institution in which we make our home? If the contract between the university and the state embodied in the German-inspired American “Humboldt model” has run out what other institutional models exist? How has this development played out differently in post-communist societies and developing nations? And how might a global history of the university impact our approach to the current challenges facing this institution today?

This roundtable aims to bridge the sociological-historical disciplinary divide to begin to think about these questions critically. Drawing on rigorous disciplinary scholarship and motivated by our commitment to “public history” and the “public humanities,” we also aim to think about how our work impacts the institutions in our society and how we might draw on that scholarship to improve them.

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