Jay Olivia

The Idea Of A University … NYU

VTR Date: October 2, 1996

Guest: Olivia, Jay


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Jay Oliva
Title: “The Idea Of A University: NYU
VTR: 10/2/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is one of an occasional series on what in the nineteenth century John Henry Cardinal Newman described famously as ‘The idea of a university.” Important then, this “idea’ looms ever more challenging to Americans now as we prepare for the millennium. And my guest today heads a major, urban university that notably in recent decades has focused on realizing ever more fully and well the core ideas and ideals upon which it rests. An historian by training, Dr. Jay Oliva is president of New York University. And I would begin today by asking him what is the idea of a university that has informed NYU’s rise to academic preeminence? Fair question?

OLIVA: Yes, Richard, a wonderful question. And you mentioned Cardinal Newman. And I just spoke with some of my Irish friends (I’m half Irish myself) and discovered that there’s a movement to beatify Newman, which I think encourages every university president to think great thoughts.

HEFFNER: An example well set.

OLIVA: The idea of a university, from my point of view, is viewed in a very strange way by most people. And I think the universities tend to push a mythology which is that universities don’t change, and that somehow or other there are a set of ideas embedded there for all the ages, and our job is to protect them with our lives and sacred honor. But the truth is that universities have unfolded in a rather astonishing way since the twelfth century, and we all know that. And, for example, there was a time when medical schools were not part of universities. Good heavens, a university would have been outraged by the notion that they would be training physicians. How could that be? And that over time the notion of training clergy, for example, has given way to training elites, has given way to training everybody. A movement to popular involvement in higher education. And I think we’re in one of those times when the idea of a university is shifting again very, very dramatically. And I’m not sure everybody gets it. As in most cases of transition, there are folks who don’t get it. They don’t know they’re in transition. And I’d say it’s looking at those areas of transition that’s most fun, to see how universities are really going to unfold in the next millennium’s. It’s time to think about…

HEFFNER: How do you identify those areas now?

OLIVA: I can name some, but I’m not sure I’m smart enough to know what they all are. But I do know, for example, that there is a growing, a groundswell of sense that it is not a terrible thing to worry about how people will make a living. When universities were geared largely to elites and geared largely to clerical purposes, folks came from environments in which they didn’t have to worry much about that. And we got this idea that reading the great books was exclusive. And I think that’s gone. I really think that reading great books is enormously important. Got to have a good life. You have to have an internal life that’s full. You have to be understanding of the kind of culture that’s around you. But it’s okay also to say that, “In the course of my life I’m going to have a career, maybe many careers,” and that to worry about that and understand what those are, I think we’re all into that. And parents probably represent that thrust the most. But universities who are thinking about the future really worry about that. I noticed New York Times articles now about placement offices. Who would have, 30 years ago, read stories on higher education which said, “Wow, look at the way X University handles its placement.” Well, that is a small sign of a notion that life is composed of an inner life, and a public life. And that the inner life is important, and we’re going to read the great books and see the great pieces of art and understand the great pieces of music. But we’re also going to worry about how our public life unfolds, what it’s going to be like. Just one of them.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but isn’t… Before I ask you about others, isn’t it also true that there were many who feel that with the emphasis on the dual lives, two lives, that one of them is being largely ignored, and increasingly it is the life of the mind?

OLIVA: Well, there may be people who say that. I don’t see that. Because I live with students, almost literally live with students. And I think that the life of the mind is alive and well. It really is alive and well. All that people ask is that in the course of that emphasis, which we still are very, very strong on, the life of the mind, that one takes into account in an open way how that life of the mind affects the public life. And I think that everybody that we admire in public life has made that connection. You know, all the folks that have said… I remember Adlai Stevenson said, “What about Adlai Stevenson? Where did he come from?” And no one would have said that because he had chosen a public life, most public, on issues that were rough and tumble and in the street, that man was not living a life of the mind. So I don’t think there’s any great… If people want to say that, that’s fine; but it’s not a reality.

HEFFNER: Why do you call it a “public life?” In a sense you’re talking about private lives and how they make their living.

OLIVA: Well, I’d say, I almost would push it to three lives, because two isn’t enough. But when I say, maybe the inner life, which is how we develop ourselves and our appreciation of the culture in which we live. That’s a very important kind of business. And our history, because I’m an historian. So it would be silly for me not to argue that history has lessons to teach, internally, to shape us as people. But then there’s a notion: “How much of my time am I going to spend in this world, and what will I do with it?” And the answer is: Almost all of us are spending an enormous amount of time in some public capacity. We are physicians or we’re doctors or we’re teachers or we’re social workers, or we’re house-builders or we’re plumbers or we’re carpenters, whatever. Whatever that world is. That’s a real world, and it occupies an enormous amount of our time. And understanding how you want to approach that and how those choices are going to be made. And for the university to worry a little bit with you about how that life will be shaped so that your inner life has an outer expression that you would like, that you would find interesting. But the third one is the one that I’m really emphasizing, because it’ s also a new shape to the university, which is: It’s okay to worry about your inner life, and it’s okay to worry about your professional life, but you also have to worry about how you live with other people. And we forgot that. Someplace at the end of the nineteenth century when it got complicated and we didn’t know how to… Now we say, “Can you teach ethics? What are the relationships of people to society?” And the universities backed away. They said, “That’s too hard. Why don’t we just stick with … we’ll tell you what books to read and we’ll help you to understand them, and then we’ll explain to you how to get into law school, and you’ll go. But don’t get too much involved in moral questions. Those shake the fabric of a very, very difficult society, which is multi-ethnic.” So how do we decide now? It’s not like the eighteenth century in the early Colonies where we had a common, shared experience. Now we have so many shared experiences, and they’re spread all over the place, let’s avoid it. The truth is, the answer to that one, it seems to me, that universities are now providing experiences for students in community service that is really quite extraordinary. And my own among them. And I lead one of those groups of people who … about 400 of them. To provide students an opportunity to relate to the environment that’s around the university as well as the environment that’s in the university. And, in New York, that means helping to tutor kids, helping to involve them – by the way, with whatever talents then have; sometimes it’s playing the guitar, sometimes it’s being an actor, sometimes it’s knowing how to make movies – to share the experiences they’re having with people in the society who may not be ready yet to share that experience, or want to. And so I find community service to be one of the great educational experiences. I’m old for this, but I’m coming to it late.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on.

OLIVA: But I’m learning a lesson. Hey, I’m learning a lesson. And the students taught us. This was not a movement that started in Washington when Clinton said, “Let’s have Americorps” and all the rest; it started with students coming to us and saying, “I care very much about Dante, and I want to read it, and I care very much about going to medical school, and I want to go. But I also want to know: How is your university going to help me to understand and play a role in the development of the society that’s around us? A lot of problems out there; like to have something to do with those. How are you going to help me to understand that? And how, in a global society, are you going to help me to understand why this isn’t exactly life in Peoria, why this is different, and how I could come into contact with ethnicities and national aspirations that I wouldn’t see there?” It’s part of education. So, I think there’s three parts. And universities are changing in very dramatic ways to handle two of those. We know a good deal about the life of the mind, as you say. Now, to figure out where universities stand in relationship to a life’s work, and then to the notion of: What do we owe, and how can we learn about the society around us, and how can we feel that our education involves also an understanding of the way the world’s changing?

HEFFNER: Do you think that third element is distinctive, not exclusively, but largely, of New York University?

OLIVA: No. I mean, I wish I could say, “Of course.” I’d like to say, “Of course, that’s true.” But no, because I happen to belong, we happen to belong to a consortium of universities, and Brown University and Notre Dame and others all are worrying about this in a most serious way. And if you said to me is it easier for me to worry about it, then yes, it is.

HEFFNER: A large urban area?

OLIVA: Sure. Because I don’t have to take students by bus to an environment where there’s going to… Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan is one of those wonderful places where America is being born all the time, where the city is being recreated all the time. So our students, I don’t have to take them far to find a variety of experiences. But we are by no means exclusive. You’re going to find this a phenomenon of universities, I would say wonderful universities that are looking to the future and saying, “How do we respond to that request that their education include the education to difference?” And so, no, we’re not alone. By the way, we’re very good at it, but we’re not alone. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] How does that impact upon your relationship with the forces of government?

OLIVA: Well, you know what I say. This is terrible to say, I guess, and very direct, but it’s good for the government to assist and provide resources and all the rest for that kind of experience to occur. But the truth is we would be able to do these things ourselves. And that what happens, I remember a group of students coming to me and describing this community service and saying, “Do you believe in that?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” They said, “Then why don’t you do something about it? You’re the one who can raise the flag.” I don’t know whether you… You know where the Washington Square arch is, of course.

HEFFNER: I do, indeed.

OLIVA: Up on the Washington Square arch are the sayings of George Washington, around the top. And it was Adlai Stevenson’s campaign, I was just a student, I was watching this, and somebody said to him, “Why are you running? You’re so far behind in the polls.” And called out. You know, it’s New York. They ask embarrassing questions. Said, “What are you doing?” And he turned around, he pointed up to that arch and he said, “Can you read what’s up there?” “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, I’ll read it for you.” He said, “It’s George Washington at Valley Forge”. It said, “Let us erect a banner to which the wise and the just can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.” And I never forgot that. And what the students were saying to me was, “Raise the banner, and we’ll take care of the rest. Your job is to raise the banner.” So, from a real perspective, I’d like to say, “Yeah, the government should do this, and the government should do that.” The Americorps program is a fine program. It’s narrowly focused, doesn’t have a lot of people in it. I’ve got four to five thousand students, faculty, administrators, staff, who participate in community service, in, very active in continuing ways. It isn’t just something that goes around. And that’s because we believe. I have an office. I spend money on it. I organize it. But community service is not feel-good stuff When I first announced it, I thought, ‘This is, hey, no big problem.’ Until someone said to me, ‘Why don’t you go in that room and help somebody to learn to read.’ And I didn’t have a clue. Not a clue as to what’s the first thing you do when you sit down with somebody. And so we’ve had to develop courses, we’ve had to develop support. And I throw parties for the students who go out in the world because they need to come back and exchange those experiences and understand they’re not the only ones having this problem, or that they’re not the only ones having this immense joy when little children want to see them every Tuesday. The reason that they would never miss a tutoring is because the students are desolated when they don’t see the tutor arrive. All of that is organized. It’s not feel-good, it’s not giving sermons. It really is organizing it. And so a government’s fine, and grateful for the things that they like to do, but the truth is we don’t ask the government how to teach Latin. This is an area where we know. I’ve got all kinds of experts in educational psychology. I’ve got all kinds of people who can help students to recognize students that they’re working with in the schools who have learning disabilities. They can do that. I don’t need the government to do that.

HEFFNER: And politics? How does that enter…

OLIVA: Be more specific…

HEFFNER: All right. Be more specific. And that is, do you run into the problem of those who say, “This is politically charged, what you’re doing”? And I’m not saying it is, but I’m asking…

OLIVA: No, no. I’ve never had anybody say that to me. But I know what you mean. And if somehow or other, rather than help the settlement houses where my particular group does a lot of work, with the settlement houses, Greenwich House, a place for kids, and we were marching around agitating here or there that somebody else should help them, it’s very different, now that, to me, is politics. But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that our students literally want to do what they can in an environment in which funds are being very largely withdrawn from very, very useful programs. And so I would say I understand that as a theory, but it’s not a real thing.

HEFFNER: So that agitation isn’t part of this. It’s doing…

OLIVA: I would say sure, there are probably people who want to do it, and will go and do it. But the truth of the matter, it’s much more direct. And in an age when people say that this is Generation X and the students aren’t interested in the world, hey, these aren’t the students that I know.

HEFFNER: Okay, I wanted to ask you about that, because it’s so different, what you’re describing…

OLIVA: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: …is so different from the down look at the university. How do you account for that disparity?

OLIVA: Well, because I think that students are not great PR people…

HEFFNER: For themselves?

OLIVA: For themselves. And their interests are so powerfully individual that joining a group and then getting your identity through to that group is a lot less important than actually performing some very satisfying… And, by the way, I would say a lot of students begin this with noblesse oblige. They feel that they are going to do something very, very good for the folks that they meet, and then discover the person who’s getting changed the most is them. But that’s education, isn’t it? To discover the impact upon yourself that’s occurring. But it’s very individual and very powerful. And I had a, for our incoming class, I had a briefing session for our own seed team, and we enrolled 300 kids to undertake those kinds of projects. And at all age levels and all kinds of varieties of things. And none of them said, “Can I put this on my resume? or “Am I going to get my picture taken?” It wasn’t part of the game. And so I don’t know where Generation X is. I literally don’t know. I’m a president of a university that’s got 24,000 matriculated graduate and undergraduate students, and I don’t know where that generation is.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re not really talking about Generation X; you’re talking about Y and Z by this time, aren’t you?

OLIVA: Yeah, I think so. Thank God. Because I’m not sure, by the way, even in the past that Generation X existed. But, nonetheless, I think that in the rapid world of media, I think, when things get picked up, taken, and individuals, small groups, can sort of set a tone where nobody else says anything. And I think what the students were telling me was, “You tell ‘em! If we don’t have any PR representation, and nobody understands how important this is in our lives, you tell ‘em.” So, hey, that’s what we’re doing. I’m telling them.

HEFFNER: Do they know that they’re responding to John Kennedy’s “Ask not…”

OLIVA: “…what your country can do for you.’ I don’t think so. I really don’t. I mean, I wish that were true, because that was a sort of magic moment in my own development, and maybe for lots of us of that era. But I don’t think so. I’m astonished because I thought that I would spend a lot of time in the university getting students who were coming as freshmen used to the idea that this is a zeitgeist of this place, this is what you should be doing, this is the way you should be thinking about your education. Because there were people who said to me, “If you really think this is serious, you should make it a requirement of the curriculum to do these kinds of things.”

HEFFNER: And your response?

OLIVA: I said, “No, no, no way.” I said, “If the environment can’t be created in which…” And, by the way, there are wonderful universities that have all kinds of different environments, which, when you join them, you sort of buy into that world. And this is the one I want for mine. I don’t like the notion that somehow or other that coercion is going to take place. Because I thought that we could educate people and that they would enter an environment in which they saw so many people doing that you would say, ‘Where do I join?” And, you know what? I didn’t even have to do that. Because the freshmen who were coming in are bringing it with them. I thought I was going to say, ‘This is the university, we’ll do what it has to do, or we’ll implant this thought and it will convince people that this form of education is very important. But I didn’t have to do that.

HEFFNER: You mean to say when I ask you about the idea of a university, your response then is that the idea has been generated by the students who come to the university?

OLIVA: That particular idea. We’d say that the notion of having the required languages, and I don’t think they generated that. The faculty generated that one. But what I mean is that there are forces at work in the alteration of the university that come from lots of different places, some from the faculty, some from the society around us, and some from the students who come to us that tell us that education is a wider thought than we were accustomed to think. It used to be so much easier to think about education as — and by the way, it’s back again – as stuffing people’s heads full of things. And I’m scared about that in terms of new technology, which I think is changing universities dramatically too. And in that regard, instead of being very progressive, I found myself really conservative.

HEFFNER: Explain this.

OLIVA: Well, what I mean is, here I being told that we can have distance learning, you and I will tune in to channel 12, we’ll have interactive relationships with somebody who’s sitting in an environment 5,000 miles away, I will learn the elements of Japanese art, we will discuss them, and that will be a new mode of interactive…

HEFFNER: That doesn’t grab you, does it?

OLIVA: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t grab me. Because… And, by the way, as a part, I think we’re going to. I had just come back from Mexico City where we’re working with universities around the world to do just that. But that isn’t it. That is the factual side of the business. What America brought to this table, which I’m not sure even Cardinal Newman… You have to understand I went to Catholic schools all my life, so I grew up on Cardinal Newman. I’m not even sure he got this. The American version of this also involves maturing. It involves growing up. It’s not just about the accumulation of information. It is an experience which occurs someplace between a 17, 18 on one end of the spectrum, and 24, 25 on the other, in which almost everybody’s half child, half mature. You don’t know which half you’re going to deal with at any moment. But it’s growing up. And you grow up in concert with people who share experiences with you. And it’s a sermon I give the faculty all the time, because I believe it. Namely, we are not just purveyors of information; we are people ‘who are acting in loco parentis riot because we’re enforcing rules, but because ‘we’re helping people to move from one stage of their lives to another, from one stage of relationship to a family and controls to another environment in which they are the leaders of the family in which they exercise the controls. And in between are these years that we have responsibility for. And it’s not just knowing the calculus that takes you there. It’s friendship and role models and sharing. And I think the American higher education system knew this all along. I mean, it’s always been sort of that model of Mr. — and I hope Ms. — Chips, out there, who spend their lives in relationship, in this particular wonderful period of growth, to help people come to a new sense of their own powers and their own maturity. You don’t just do that by learning how to make a computer work.

HEFFNER: Well, its clear there’s…

OLIVA: So I’m conservative on this one.

OLIVA: “Conservative” doesn’t sound like “conservative”; you’re rejecting, you’re saying…

OLIVA: A piece of what’s coming? I hope I’m rejecting the implications of what I hear, which is that somehow or other we will replace the meeting of mind and mind, and heart and heart by a series of technical ability. Now, most technical things are wonderful. Even I know how to make a computer work now. What a surprise.

HEFFNER: Will you show me, please?

OLIVA: I’ll try, but I’m not sure how far we’ll get. It takes me ten times longer than anybody. I can get where I gotta go, but it takes me ten times longer. But, of course, I am intrigued by the idea that a good deal of what we do, the technology could be wonderful. And I would prefer. We’ll be tied up with the Charles University of Prague, and with the University of Florence, and with the National University of Mexico, and we will, I hope, do things for them that we do well. Film is one of our great things. Why not? And that Mexican art will come to us from Mexico, and that the wonderful anthropology and sociology of the Charles University will be available to our students. So I’m not saying that’s not wonderful and advanced. And it means that the faculty is a new thing. You want to see how university, it’s another point where universities are changing. The faculty used to be the people who could fit in a faculty globe. The faculty is now anybody you want, in relationship to the kind of work you want to do. A global faculty. Now, how do you tie them to you in ways that would be so wonderful for your students? But that isn’t all. That’s a wonderful advance, but it’s not the whole story. And so the only thing I’m complaining out and say rejecting is the notion that somehow or another all learning will be distance learning, and that I hear people, they do, you know the futurists, they say, “Well, you won’t need the library, and you won’t need this campus at Washington Square or that wonderful campus at Tulane, whatever, you won’t. That’s out. What you need is a nice, quiet room, and your machine, and you will access the world,” It would be a very defective personality accessing the world.

HEFFNER: Yes, but do you think that we’ll be all those defective personalities accessing the world, or do you think your point of view will prevail?

OLIVA: Oh, mine will prevail. And it’s already… I’ll give you an example.

HEFFNER: In a minute.

OLIVA: In a minute. Very clear that when you do technical courses, place to place, you have to know the other person. If you were in Mexico City giving a course, and I’m giving it with you, and I’m in New York, we already have had to have met, we already have to had to agree on where we’re going, we already have to be able to know what signals we’re giving one another over this period, and the students have to know all this. So we’re going to see each other before this thing happens, while it’s happening, and after it’s happening. We’ll get enormous benefits out of it…

HEFFNER: You arc an optimist.

OLIVA: You bet.

HEFFNER: You’re describing something that you say that’s the way it’s going to happen.

OLIVA: That’s the way it’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think the machine in the garden is going to do us in?

OLIVA: No, because remember 20 years ago, 30 years ago, they told us that it was coming, and…

HEFFNER: Charles Seipmann at NYU was telling us that.

OLIVA: And what happened?

HEFFNER: It hasn’t.

OLIVA: It hasn’t. Because they forgot the human element dominates the whole business.

HEFFNER: It goes without saying that your idea of the university is one that I think we can all and would like to embrace. And I very much appreciate your coming here to The Open Mind to discuss it.

OLIVA: You were wonderful. Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Dr. Oliva.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York NY 10150.

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