Jay Olivia

The Idea Of A University

VTR Date: April 11, 2001

Guest: Olivia, Jay


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. L. Jay Oliva
Title: The Idea of a University
VTR: 4/11/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our program today relates to the surprise so many in the academic world felt not so long ago when the Presidents of two of America’s major private universities both announced their plans to retire soon: Columbia University’s George Rupp, and New York University’s Jay Oliva.

Actually, it was only a half decade ago that President Oliva, also a tenured professor of Russian History at NYU, joined me here on The Open Mind to discuss what in the 19th century John Henry Cardinal Newman had famously described as “The Idea Of A University”.

And now, as he prepares to step down from the presidency of what has become under his leadership the nation’s largest private university, I’ve asked Jay Oliva to join me once again to examine that idea, that philosophical construct, perhaps as a guide to the men or women who will soon succeed him and President Rupp.

Of course, right at the top of the press release announcing his intention to step down from its Presidency, NYU proclaimed “During his tenure, applications for freshman admission tripled to over 30,000 (more than any other private university), average freshman SAT scores climbed over 140 points to 1334, the acceptance rate for applicants fell to 29% (making NYU among the most selective universities), endowed chairs for professorships increased 84%, student housing doubled to 10,600, the size of the endowment [nearly] doubled [to] $1.1 billion, and fundraising tripled.”

The numbers game, in other words … not very much philosophy, nothing very much reminiscent of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Rather, the “marketing” game played everywhere in the big academic leagues, and in the smaller ones, too.

But that game aside — and I suspect that Jay Oliva would be the last one to say it doesn’t have to be played today, played to the hilt — we’re still left with the inevitable question he has himself faced and answered so often and so well: namely, what is the very idea of a university?

What is it that we hope magically mixes together lots and lots of dollars, of bricks and mortar, and of unending streams of students, faculty and administrators … and yet ultimately creates that more sacred thing, a real university?

Dr. Oliva, I hope that is not an unfair question to ask of a retiring, but certainly not “retiring”, University President.

OLIVA: Not at all. And I want to remind you of something … that I’m in the great tradition of … I’m a Roman Catholic, and the great tradition of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and in the process of … his relationships with the university … the Catholic Church was signing the checks. There was always funding … and I’m worried a good deal about it. He had, had a … didn’t have to worry much about it.

HEFFNER: Different from the modern university president.

OLIVA: [Laughter] That’s right.

HEFFNER: Is that why there are those who say today that university presidents are different from the giants of the past?

OLIVA: I think so. But I think … yes, that’s, that’s partially it. Because the financial requirements of modern universities are enormous. One thinks of the origins of universities, and I keep … it’s part of my business to remind people that universities were born in cities, so don’t be surprised that we’re back at our origins. But at the same time, they were born within relatively narrow confines. And people like to pretend that universities haven’t changed since the 12th century. But believe me, they’ve changed enormously. That universities have been enormously absorbing of, of fields. You would not have been able to study engineering at the University of Paris in 1300. There would have been no MBA, not have been a “B” school. You would … to study medicine you would have had to go to Salerno. The absorbing quality of universities over the years have brought them in … and really sort of manufactured and justified many new professions. And as the new professions have emerged they tend to be tied to the technology of the time. And technology is overwhelming us. And so, the costs of maintaining yourself at the front of … it’s not … it’s wonderful to be able to study St. Thomas Aquinas. I have spent a good deal of my life … doing that … but at the same time, the resources that are going to be available to staff and provide opportunities in, oh, so many other ways really are financially driven.

HEFFNER: Tenured professor. Then Academic Administrator. You went through all the Chairs …


HEFFNER: … the top Chairs at NYU. Where is the real fun?

OLIVA: Well the fun’s always been in the classrooms. I know that’s, that’s sort of common to say, but it is true that a lot of presidents just don’t find the time to teach anymore. There’s travel to go on … and my university’s been enormously welcoming of the idea that I stay in classroom, even to the point where I, I teach on Wednesdays, and I teach for a very long time. And in order to do the whole week’s work in, in one afternoon from four to seven on Wednesday, and the students are very kind and I give them cookies at the break. We eat at the break of that late day. But that’s, that’s my fun. And I actually have to take … and you know about this … on Wednesday, starting somewhere about 2 o’clock, I … the door shuts and I start to go into the contemplative mode and I have to get myself into a very different world. I have to get away from the balance sheets, and I’ve got to stop worrying about issues that, that are current, or a grievance, or whatever is going on … and play with the budget meetings. And just get back into the world that … my grandfather always said, ‘Always dance with the girl what brung you”. And I think … I always wondered what he meant … he was an Irishman. And I think I know what he means … he means that if something has been very good to you, and you love it, don’t let it go by. Because the real route of the … myself to the job that I really love … I was Chancellor before I was President; I was Provost before I was Chancellor. You know I’ve had 25 years in this world, but it was all founded on the idea that I came into the university because I liked to be around young people and I like to teach them. And so, just got to stay at it. And you know what, if you keep at it, maybe one day you get it right. I’m still trying.

HEFFNER: Look, being CEO and that’s what you’ve been these past few years … what, a decade now?

OLIVA: Yeah, it’s ten years, yeah.

HEFFNER: A decade as President, after all of the top administrative offices … there seems to be a pattern now of looking less for academics, than for CEO types …

OLIVA: Well …

HEFFNER: … is that true?

OLIVA: … I know … I’m not sure because … look at me. I mean I’m the first President of New York University … and I’m the fourteenth … the first President of the university to actually come from the faculty. And I think that … I, I put it this way … I think that when universities are worried about themselves and worried about their stature and worried about their finances, they tend to look elsewhere. And when universities get very strong and feel very good about themselves, they’re willing to give people with no name a chance. And believe that because they picked that person, they make somebody. And when Yale selects a President, that person becomes somebody. And I like to think that … I used to lecture my own faculty and say, “Listen, you know, I’m the first faculty member, and so if I’m screwing up here, don’t say anything because if you get the word out that I’m screwing up, they’ll never do it again. And it will be the last faculty member you’ll ever see”. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: So if you want a shot at it …

OLIVA: That’s right. Give me a hand here, help out.


OLIVA: But the truth is … there is a growing sense, I think, a very counter idea which is that, you know, I’m one of the great fans, practitioners and performers of musical theater. And in … there’s a show that was running here in New York, called “The Music Man”, it opens with a … with a little riff on a train where a bunch of salesmen are sitting around talking about all the great salesmen that they knew, and the punch line of each one was, “But, he didn’t know the territory”. Well, faculty know the territory. And the greatest sort of accidents and problems in universities come when people don’t know the territory. They believe that it’s some other territory. They believe that it’s a replica of business. They believe it’s a replica of other non-profit systems. They believe it’s a replica of any number of paradigms that you might want to say, and the truth is that university is sui generis, it’s about itself. And if you don’t know the territory, you either screw it up, or you spend so much time trying to figure out what the territory is, that your term is over before you get a chance to actually impact [laughter] the place and get people to listen to you. Because the relationships that are developed in universities … it’s an enormously shared system. You know this as well as I do …

HEFFNER: Shared system?

OLIVA: … shared system … everybody …

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

OLIVA: I think that one of the things about presidents is that, that they preside over a place in which every constituency thinks they run the place. And there are very few institutions of that kind. I mean everybody thinks it’s theirs. And that’s the wonderful part and that’s the part in which presidents stand in the middle and respond, left, right, and center … to the notion that everybody really believes that they have an ownership in the place. It’s not … it’s not about employees, it’s not about folks who work for other folks, it’s about the common and shared vision of the place. And you have to keep it. You have to understand that. And when orders are given, orders, orders have to be developed, they have to be shared, they have to be discussed. You go, you spend … process is one of the great traditions of universities. It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

HEFFNER: It’s the shared vision you say. Are those visions different, much different university to university?

OLIVA: I think so. I really do. I know it’s common to say “not”. But, but I think they are different. I think they’re different in a way that usually is responsive to number one … history because I’m an historian, I actually think that history does have effects and that you live inside decisions that have been made over, over very long periods of time that you don’t even know about. You live inside a frame. You also live inside a geography. If, if, if I go and visit a university … a Midwestern university, hundreds and hundreds of acres, great rolling lawns, football stadium rising over the horizon …


OLIVA: Yeah [laughter] … just not. All right. Just not us. You realize that … my first lecture in my course in Russian history is about how geography has determined a good deal of how Russian history has emerged. Where it is, and how it is, and on what rivers it is and what direction is points and that geography is a powerful piece of business. It makes us, for example, a much more socially oriented place. A place where, where students come, and I say this bluntly, they come because it’s not just New York University, it’s also New York … part of the New York University. They come because of the environment we’re in, or they don’t come because of the environment we’re in. And faculty come, or don’t come because of the environment we’re in. They either cherish the Metropolitan Opera and Soho galleries, or they don’t. But that … we, we have a very New York air about us. And that is very different in its shape and in what people expect. And, and expect the university to be doing, for example. Give you a good example. A lot of my colleagues, as presidents of universities spend an enormous amount of time, if they’re located in the middle of some grand rural landscape … they spend an enormous amount of time creating culture around the place. They’ll make announcements, “We’re having … the Shakespeare Festival is arriving, the string quartet will be here on Tuesday night; we’re going to have a wonderful show in the gallery.” That’s not … I don’t … I just point. [Laughter] I say, “Over there … you want to see … or you want to Verdi … see it. It’s terrific. You want to see the galleries, go see them.” My problem is precisely the opposite of those universities. My problem is to find some center that allows people to know and believe that they’re actually at a university because everything about New York is centrif … I think it’s centrifugal, I’m not a great scientist. Goes out, pulls you away from, from the notion that you’re at a place. Whereas if you’re in the Midwest and there’s nothing in the town but you … listen, what is there to worry about? So they don’t worry about community, they worry about culture. I don’t worry about culture, I’m up to here in culture, I worry community. I worry about the forces that make a place central, that pull people together. So they’re very different. The missions are very different. And that’s what I meant by “understanding the territory”. That’s the territory and if you sort of get those confused, don’t understand that in a university where each of our buildings are separated by somebody else’s building, and the way that you tell our campus is you look around and see where the flags are flying. Right. This is NYU. Jot them down saying “registrar”. Saying well, over here “computer center”. That it isn’t an automatic and its not a given in an urban environment to have a “there-there”. You have to work at having a “there-there”. And you always have to act as if the place is very small. It’s been one of the rules of my life in this …

HEFFNER: Act as though it’s … what?

OLIVA: it’s very small. Don’t … when I first came to New York University about all we wanted to say about ourselves was “we’re the biggest of this” and the “biggest of that”. We didn’t say “we’re the best of this” and “the best of that”. We didn’t say “we’re the warmest of this” or ‘the warmest of that”. We just kept saying, “We’re the biggest university that you ever saw, and we got the biggest library and we got more books and oy. Well, that is not a warm concept. And it’s not a concept that pulls people together. It’s a concept, actually, that almost automatically drives people apart. Because you immediately make assumptions about difficult it’s going to be to make relationships … how difficult it’s going to be to get your work done. How difficult it’s going to be to work with offices in such a large place. And so I’ve been spending all my life there, 25 years in administration, 40 years in the classroom, trying to act and convince people in the place to act as if we’re small. As if saying “hello” to folks and asking them what they need is an okay thing. It’s the way we’re supposed to behave in order to make a comprehensive place and a very large place, always seem small.

HEFFNER: Now, what’s the web going to do? How is it going to impact upon this objective of yours?

OLIVA: Well, it’s a … listen, first of all I don’t know. I think …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] That’s fair enough, Jay.

OLIVA: … first of all, I’m related, I think a little bit to some, I think his name is Ned Ludd, who led the Luddites …

HEFFNER: You mean you still don’t use it?

OLIVA: I use it, and I’m Luddite only in the sense that, that I think we’re just … we’re so much just at the cusp of this piece of business and it’s all out there ahead of us. And that so many people are trying to make so many huge decisions on the basis of what it means and they really don’t know. What I, what I think it means … I mean what I hope it means is a following. Because the students are driving this. Faculty are way behind.

HEFFNER: Sure, the kids in my …

OLIVA: They’re all, they’re all way down the line, they’re looking at me as if to say, “When, you know, when are we going to get on with this?”. But I believe it’s going to re-shape the classroom, but I don’t think it’s going to dismiss it. I really don’t. I think that it will re-shape the classroom in this sense that … traditionally I used to teach huge classes in what was a required course, Western Civilization … 250 students at a time. I’d be up there on a stage performing …


OLIVA: … someone said, “well, gee, when did you become an actor?”. I said I think the first day I was an Instructor and walked into a class of 250, and figured if I have to get the attention of that person in the back row, I’d better be an actor. But, but in that environment I was delivering so much background and infrastructure information that I, that I … I don’t believe we’re going to deliver anymore … I don’t have to, to. I don’t have to talk about the terms of the treaty of … because the students don’t have to go sixty miles to find out what it is, they can sit down with a whole piece of business about my course, they can get the background in it, and then the classroom becomes the place where we do what we’ve always wanted to do, which is what we’re doing , we’re just talking about all the stuff that you’re supposed to use as information. So that I think that the web has this tremendous power in terms of the transmission of information, i.e., that is stuff that you need to know in order to actually do something. One of the things that bothers me most, I think about education today, is that people want to insist that “it’s not hard, it all should be easy”. You know, I said, “Well, learning a language should be easy.” You know, nothing’s easy. You want to tell me that Derek Jeter just got up one morning and started hitting the ball. You want to tell me that Michael Jordan just said, “gee, I think I’ll put this ball in that hoop”. The man shot how many millions of, of foul shots in his lifetime to get to the point where he understood it as a part of his nature. That’s what education is about, it’s about taking information and then ingesting it, using it so that it actually becomes part and parcel, now you go about your business. So, the computer, I think, can do all kinds of things in enabling us to move more rapidly to the cerebral part of what we’d like to do with our lives, which is to actually contemplate what it means. Everybody has to learn sort of basic material. Oh, yeah, there’s all kinds of ways to do that. But what I’m trying to say is “that’s not going to replace the conversation”. It enhances and enriches what the conversation is about, because now you can have conversations that are deep about … I teach Russian history … sure … last week I was at the Napoleonic invasion of Russian, and one of … another Marshals by the 1840s had developed this wonderful graphic piece, on paper, of matching the Army marching in against the temperature against the battles. And then you see this 500,000 group arriving, you see another 10,000 by the time you get back to the Polish border. That could be wonderfully transmitted to students. Me spending a half-hour describing that would be silly. Technology gives you this so vividly. So the real question for us, who are Luddites in the sense that I really don’t want to know all about megabytes and gigabytes and what the hell do I care about that. And my motto is, you know, you pick up the phone, do you really ask “how many magnetos” are in there and do you care? What you want to know is “Will I get you? Will I say something. Will you say something back?”. The real issue for people in the classroom is ask the questions that you would love to have technology answer for you. What do you want to happen in that class? That’s the point. Technology can’t drive it. There has to be a question. So I would love to convey in my class the sense of … in this historical moment … say to the technologist, “Help me with that. What should I do? How should I transmit that?”

HEFFNER: So you still see it as an aid. You see it as a supplement, something that …

OLIVA: Well, yeah, but also a replacement for a lot of stuff that we used to do. But the aid in that sense, that it relieves me a good deal of material which the students can get in a much more congenial form, in their style. In the way that they like to get it.

HEFFNER: But, Jay, how do you account then for the many academics, and university presidents who are thinking of it along very different lines. Thinking of the future along very, very different lines.

OLIVA: Well, you see …

HEFFNER: They’re just wrong.

OLIVA: No. I would say de gustibus non desbutandum est, in matters of taste, there is no argument. We’re at a stage …

HEFFNER: That’s what the man said who kissed the cow?

OLIVA: That’s the one. [Laughter]


OLIVA: [Laughter] So, but the truth is that we’re at such an early stage of this, that we’re all guessing. And I’m, I’m venturing my guess. Venturing on the basis of some reasonable evidence, but only about … this much and this much … meaning, for example that there was a forecast that “E” companies that were developing were all going to go off to very cheap venues in the middle of cow fields some place because they didn’t eat. Well, they all moved to lower Manhattan. And when you, when you asked folks why, they say “Because as business is done I need the company …


OLIVA: … and the, and the shared experience and the opportunity to talk to the people who are in my world. And so, they show up at the local bar after work and say, “Listen, look me in the eye …”. Because one of the wonderful things about E-mail, that I find, is that it has no affect. It has no affect. You write and you say, “Would you like to do business with me?”. And the answer comes back “Yes.” If I’m talking to you and looking at you, that “Yes” could be in any of a multitude of forms. It could be “Yeah”. It could be [emphatic] “Yes”. It could be [non-emphatic] “Yea”. I need to see you to hear that because that’s we’re … that’s the way the world inter-changes. Language is inflection all the time. I love languages … but languages have a secret exposure of, of life. And you don’t get that there.

HEFFNER: The only trouble is, Jay, you’re going to have to deal with the possibility that that is the way it will be and we will be minus what you think is so important.

OLIVA: Well, that could be. From my point of view it’s almost not to worry about the technology as much as what you’d like to do and then figure out where the technology will help you. I think that orientation that’s come about in my own experience and happily … I teach Russian history, I went to school in France … my orientation is so global now, with the notion that our students … one of our schools, undergraduate Stern School of Business already requires our students to be, at least one semester, out of the country. Unless they happen to come from another country in which case they’re having their experience right here in New York. But, you know what I mean. Therefore, I think that they’re really going to have to orient themselves to a new … a vision of what faculty are. That faculty can come from all around the world, not just to visit, give a talk, but to become part … sort of integral part in the months that they have. Happily calendars are different all over the place, and, and develop … and then have students that are probably willing to travel, as if they were registering in their own place. Those are, those are the issues. And you say, “Well, could technology help with that?”. Absolutely. We are now teaching interactively with Brussels. We teach interactively with the National University of Mexico. We are able to enhance what we do for students because they have access now to people around the world who have expertise in areas that we couldn’t possibly develop on our own ohterwise.

HEFFNER: In fact, NYU is all over the damn place.

OLIVA: Oh … we’re now, we’re located in eight places of our … we’re in forty countries, but eight where we have our own buildings and we’ll have another five coming up. We’re in Buenos Aires with our own building. We’re in Prague with the Charles University of Prague. We’re in Paris. We have our villas in Florence. We have almost 250 students in Florence this very minute.

HEFFNER: I accused John Sexton of being an imperialist.

OLIVA: [Laughter] it’s all quite friendly global interaction. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

OLIVA: I mean that we find the same attitudes and interests. It’s interesting to me that … somebody said, “Well, where do you see New York University in this sort of constellation of universities?”. And some universities see themselves as part of football conferences. You know what I mean, … the alphabets … they say, “Well we’re part of the XYZ or the ABC”, and I think you know that we’re not. But we have a league and our league is truly … it’s the University of Paris, and it’s New Delhi, and it’s Ghana, it’s Capetown, it’s Buenos Aires, the Charles University, it’s Saint Petersburg (notice I didn’t say Moscow, I said St. Petersburg) …


OLIVA: It’s my town. What I mean is we find we have so much in common, so many of the issues that relate to us. Every 16 months, those universities … 30 of them, come to NYU, come to New York and we sit down and take up our cause and what is it that binds us together. We find out what binds us together is a whole set of responsibilities that are not generally common. Most of us responsible for health care in our area, responsible for dental care in our area. Most of us responsible from the government for economic development. We have all kinds of … but we look more alike … New York University looks more like those universities than it does a lot of universities that you would think we would be in, in competition with.

HEFFNER: Jay Oliva, you know it’s always wonderful talking to you. And thank you for joining me again today.

OLIVA: It was a great honor. I thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.