Notes on “The Role of Humanities in a Research University” speech by Hunter R. Rawlings III, President, Cornell University. December 6, 1999

Once again going through my archives to get rid of paper and move on from my past.

One printout I saved in my research on the corporatization of the university was a speech done on December 6, 1999, by Hunter R. Rawlings, III, at the time the President of Cornell University. As this was just after the Battle of Seattle protests against the WTO, he addressed globalization much in this speech, and connects it to the corporatization of the university, and what the role of a research university should be in this age of commodification.

One quote in the beginning that stood out was this, about what a university should be: “the idea of a university – an academic community whose mission is to pursue truth and to assist each new generation in its pursuit.” These ideals are increasingly rare in the age of the bottom line, and everyone wanting some material value for what they are getting.

Rawlings looks into the history of the research university. It started during World War II and can be credited to Vannever Bush, the director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development under President Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked Bush to suggest how science could serve the nation in the post-war era. Bush gave a classic report, Science: The Endless Frontier, to president Harry S. Truman after the death of Roosevelt. It made the case that the federal government could best strengthen American industry by supporting basic research and developing scientific talent at American universities. This set the state for the development of the National Science Foundation, and the partnership between the federal government and American research universities. From 1950 to 1990 saw the expansion of university-government partnerships. It led to the computing and information science revolution and communications revolution that continues today. This has had its good and bad.

This era is also noted for the conversion of multinational companies into “transnational: companies, and the emergence of American economic dominance. Rawlings quotes Professor Walter LaFeber’s book, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, which says that transnationals are so global that any one government has power over only a limited part of its operations. Corporations have been getting more power, with the repeal of Glass-Steagall as one aspect. Many more are easy to cite.

Rawlings states “universities have been willing participants in, and beneficiaries of, the scientific and economic revolutions which are generating so much economic momentum and power.” The universities are linked not only to the government but to American industry and global capitalism. Science itself requires large infusions of capital, which it obtains from government and its “corporate partners.” Large research universities are thus becoming a major driver of economic development. The numbers show this too, as universities collected $576 million in royalties from inventions licensed to industry in fiscal year 1998, producing 2,681 patents.

Yet this is also producing problems for the ideal of the research university.

“The research university is increasingly abandoning its historical role as independent thinker and critic and is embracing a new role as collaborator with, beneficiary of, and enabler of, government, business and industry.”

He cites Max Weber, who in 1920 “saw universities becoming “state capitalist enterprises” in which free inquiry had given way to the production of knowledge useful to the state for economic or technological reasons, thereby helping to legitimize state authority.” Would like to find the source for this quote to see further what he said, for it is pretty accurate, and even trivial compared to now.

He also quotes Bill Chace who said universities have become “desanctified.”

Further on commodification, Rawlings cites a Harvard Magazine article, “Humanities in the Age of Money,” which gives a market-model university. University products are seen either with: The Promise of Money, The Knowledge of Money, or a Source of Money. Rawlings sees humanities as the keepers and conveyors of culture in its many forms. He sees the growth and development of gender and ethnic studies as positive things in this, and that humanities should be “catalysts of change.”

“In the Age of Money, the commodification of nearly everything, and entirely too much information, we desperately need critique – informed, disinterested, ethically-based, with the eye fixed steadily on long-term consequences. We require this critique for the global society, and, in particular, for research universities themselves.” One big part of knowledge he wants more of is Moral Knowledge.

Rawlings also comments on public discourse: “The increasingly superficial, sound bite, public polling approach to complex issues we see in our public debates, in our political campaigns, and in our broadcast media generally. As the issues that confront us become more complex, our rhetoric becomes more simplistic. All of us are properly worried about the seemingly irresistible tide of materialism and the concomitant decline of intellectual life in America.” This was written before the presidency of George W. Bush, known for anti-intellectualism, the rise of right wing movements like the Tea Party, and now, in the election year of 2016, with the rise of Trump. This observation is timely.

Finally, Rawlings quotes Walt Whitman:

“Books are to be called for and supplied on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay – the texts furnishing the hints, the clue, the start of the framework. Not the book so much needs to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That was to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-trained, intuitive, used to depend on themselves and not on a few coteries of writers.”


“The Role of Humanities in a Research University,” by Hunter R. Rawlings III, President, Cornell University. December 6, 1999. (accessed November 21, 2000).


About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
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