Universities as places and spaces of imagination

The recent announcement of University Regents Professor Emeritus Leonid Hurwicz as a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in economics prompted me to think about the nature of discovery at our great research universities. It also brought to mind ...
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November 01, 2007

The recent announcement of University Regents Professor Emeritus Leonid Hurwicz as a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in economics prompted me to think about the nature of discovery at our great research universities. It also brought to mind that one of our University's most distinguished scientists, in his remarks earlier this year on receiving the Wolf Prize, commented that insufficient attention is given to the role of imagination in path-breaking research and discovery. Professor Ronald Phillips was echoing John Dewey's observation that "Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination."

Equally inspiring is Albert Einstein's wonderful statement that "Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the entire world."

Dewey's "a new audacity of the imagination" and Einstein's "imagination embraces the entire world" prompts me to ask: How are great universities places and spaces of audacious imagination that embrace the entire world, and how can they ensure they are optimally so?

A primary function of a great 21st-century university is to promote and protect a highly inventive and innovative imagination of its faculty and students in at least three domains: The interrelationship of teaching and research with diversity in all its forms, interdisciplinary and cross-institutional research, teaching, learning and academic freedom and tenure.

Innovative thinking and imagination - that ability to see beyond a complex problem (if perhaps only because standing on the shoulders of those who come before them) to an effective explanation and solution - may be necessary but not sufficient conditions for breakthrough discoveries. There are multiple factors, including sustained training and discipline and a maximally supportive university and social environment. We know, too, that serendipity or powerfully productive "accidents" can play a role. Yet, the all-important intellectual innovation that great universities encourage, sustain and reward for faculty and students is critical - again, I would argue, its primary function.

The very depth and breadth of a great university can help ensure that "imaginative leaps" occur both within and across disciplines. As universities, public and private, we must do more to accelerate the multidirectional intellectual exchange of the humanities with the sciences and the social sciences. Too often universities seal off scientific research from its implications to individuals and to society. And, too often, it could be argued that our humanists fail to stay current with remarkable developments in science, technology and the social sciences. Thus, a very positive trend is that many universities are renewing an impetus to explore novel interdisciplinary and cross-institutional programs.

We live in a world, to use the wonderful words of Louis MacNeice, which is "incorrigibly plural." To see each other and our attendant social and other issues from multiple or plural (imaginative) points of view is more critical than ever. Universities must, as part of their pursuit of knowledge and understanding, promote multiple perspective-taking from all its faculty, students and staff. Here on our campus we have been asking a wide and ever-widening range of questions that arise from the recent collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge adjacent to our campus. How can we, looking at this from various vantage points, try to transform this tragedy into an important learning opportunity for our University and for the state and nation?

Yet, we can only hope to resolve such large-scale interdisciplinary issues in an environment protective of academic freedom and tenure. Threats to academic freedom and tenure are troubling. As a provost at a major research university, who has reviewed hundreds of promotion and tenure dossiers, I can attest to the fact - contrary to current popular wisdom - that intellectual curiosity and academic tenure are inextricably entwined with a culture of excellence.

Simply put, to engage in the most rigorous and thoughtful problem-solving, researchers, scholars and teachers require tenure precisely to protect that "primary function." Without tenure how could faculty fearlessly, imaginatively, exhaustively and creatively confront such issues, for instance, as human rights, climate change, world poverty and animal research? Diminishing academic freedom and tenure could directly affect that imagination and freedom of thought. The implications would be significant.

In the earliest era of higher education, students learned by recitation. Today, we must rely on more sophisticated pedagogical approaches. I believe we must invite more of our students to directly participate in the imaginative process of problem-solving, including testing and evaluating potential solutions, as our University's new student learning outcomes require. Such efforts take experience, passion, dedication, resources and uninterrupted periods of time and reflection. But this is the important imaginative space that only great universities can offer and sustain - spaces to optimize diverse, persistent, critical thought.

Am I overvaluing the value and role of the imagination in universities? The poet and novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote: "It is by the better world we can imagine that we judge the world we have. If we cease to judge this world, we may find ourselves, very quickly, in one which is infinitely worse." I hope we all can agree.

E. Thomas Sullivan is Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. Please send comments to letters@mndaily.com.

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