The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


A gulf between institutions

The prospective coming of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, Museum and Institute has prompted us to carry on discourse, public and private, about the nature of liberal arts education and what it means to be a “university.”

It has been my privilege to count among my dialogue partners my esteemed and now retired colleague, Schubert M. Ogden, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology, and former director of the Graduate Program in Religious Studies. Inasmuch as I found his e-mail writings to be significantly insightful on key facets of the matter before us, especially the Bush Institute, I sought his permission to lift out the mid-section of one particular email, and reproduce it here in The Daily Campus under the affixed title.

For further explication of his thinking on the “university,” he directed me to “Theology in the University: The Question of Integrity,” in Ogden, Doing Theology Today (Trinity Press International, 1995) pp. 80-91. This essay, from which Ogden draws below, originated as an address made (at the request of then-Provost Ruth Morgan) to the Collegium-comprised of SMU Chair-holders and University Distinguished Professors. The quote by Matthew W. Finkin, former SMU Professor of Law, is from a report he prepared for the American Association of University Professors.

Susanne Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Christian Education

“There is ‘a great gulf fixed’ between a university, on the one hand, and a proprietary or sectarian institution such as the proposed Bush policy institute on the other.” -Schubert M. Ogden

“A school of law endowed by its creators to train students as laissez-faire or Marxist lawyers, and measuring its faculty against a requirement of faithfulness to the doctrines thus set down, has every right to exist, but it has no right to class itself as a seat of legal learning on a par with free institutions. Neither would a school of law with commitments to religious orthodoxy….

“In sum: the housing of an unfree school within a free university is a contradiction: it may be in the university but, being unfree, it is not of the university, and it has no business being there.”- Matthew W. Finkin

The principles underlying these statements, I believe, are astoundingly simple. In understanding ourselves and our world and leading our lives as human beings, we form beliefs and we perform actions, some of which are typically selected out as normative for some or all of the others. In all of this we perforce make or imply certain claims for the validity of our beliefs and actions-claims to truth and claims to rightness.

But making or implying such claims is one thing, doing so validly, something else. So precisely in order to live as we do and to live well-and then, to live still better, we have recourse to the special practice of critically validating our beliefs and actions, including, not least, those that have been selected out to serve as customary norms.

In other words, we engage in the process of critical reflection in all its various forms, whereby we critically interpret what we mean in thinking, saying, and doing what we do and then critically validate the claims we make or imply in all the different spheres of our life. When this process of critical reflection is eventually formalized and institutionalized, it becomes what, in our cultural tradition, has come to be understood as “the university.” This means that the whole point of any institution such as SMU or of any of its essential parts, whether in the humanities and sciences or in the various professional areas (law, engineering, business, theology) is somehow to advance the same process of critical reflection in a deliberate, methodical, and reasoned way-that is, by reflecting on the claims to validity made or implied in some sphere of human life as to validate or, as the case may be, invalidate them.

But the university as whole and all of its schools and departments must be free to advance this constitutive process – the two cardinal principles defining the constitution of the university and its integrity are institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Whatever its foundation, private or public, or its relation to other institutions such as state and church, the university as an institution must be autonomous-free to pursue its own distinctive purpose and therefore free from anything that would interfere with this pursuit.

Likewise, all of its members, and most especially the relatively permanent members that make up its faculties, must be free as individuals to carry on their proper business: to serve the fundamental cause of human life, of living, living well, and living better, but to do this in their own appointed way-not directly, but only indirectly, by furthering, in one way or another, the process of critically reflecting on life so it may be lived more abundantly. By contrast, a proprietary or sectarian institution such as the Bush Institute would be constituted for the very different purpose of serving life directly-not by critically reflecting on the claims of its foundation or relation, but by simply making or implying them in another form by propagating the teachings or the policies that it exists to further.

Whereas the university exists, above all, to criticize all such teachings and policies, such an institute’s sole purpose is to rationalize them. And it is for this reason that there is “a great gulf fixed” between the purpose that SMU professes to serve in calling itself a university and the purpose to be served by the proposed Bush institute.

The gulf is rightly said to be great, because it is nothing less than the gulf between critical reflection and uncritical rationalization-between institutional autonomy and academic freedom, in the case of the university and its members, and institutional subservience and academic bondage, in the case of the institute and any of its members who could fairly claim to serve its purpose. Thus, to paraphrase the statement above: The housing of an unfree institution such as the Bush institute is proposed to be within the free university that SMU professes to be would be a contradiction: such an institution might be in the university but, being unfree, would not and could not be of the university, and it has no business being there.

About the writer:

Schubert M. Ogden is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and former director of the SMU Graduate Program in Religious Studies.

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