Machen’s Legacy Opened Up U to the Community

Bernie Machen called his decision last Thursday the most important of his tenure as president of the University of Utah. With the help of his wife, Christine, Machen signed an agreement to permanently protect 485 acres of real estate in the foothills above the university.

Machen deserves credit for protecting the mountains that give Utah its natural beauty. More importantly, though, the move will have tangible effects on the outside world. In this regard, Machen’s decision establishes a much-needed connection between academia and the masses.

During his time at the U, Machen has sought to build a lasting legacy, one that will touch more than just the immediate university community. From the West Side Initiative to keeping guns off campus to establishing a wildlife preserve, this president understands his ability to improve the larger world. And whether you agree with every decision of his or not, credit Machen for stretching his impact beyond the university’s stuffy confines.

Too often, the business of a university stays cloistered, the knowledge and learning seemingly reserved to those selected for admission to the ivory tower. Yet the U remains a public school, supported and maintained, in part, by taxpayers. At some level, all citizens deserve to receive something from the institution they help fund.

The obligation of academia to contribute something to the community, however, represents more than simply an economic duty to repay the tax-burdened citizenry. More importantly, academics achieve a lofty height that few of us will ever reach. From their vantage point, scholars have access to great stores of knowledge. They even have the ability to define knowledge, to set the paradigm for how we think about a subject.

Years of toil allow academics special access to intellectual realms that most people will never see. Yet earning such a position doesn’t mean that scholars should monopolize their knowledge. Instead, they have the opportunity to share something profound with the world. Unfortunately, the code of academia often prevents the building of bridges between the scholars up on the hill and the masses down in the valley.

Indeed, many professors and university administrators recognize the importance of contributing to the world outside academia’s bubble. Service learning allows professors and students to combine education with social activism. Numerous scholars donate time and money to various charities. And no one would question the value of the university in educating professionals in fields from accounting to medicine to social work.

Unfortunately, the university also houses plenty of scholars who fail to identify ways in which they can contribute, beyond simply conducting research in narrow and obscure fields. This research contains value because it pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. Yet the culture of academia often prevents such knowledge from spreading and touching others in society.

Consider the harsh reaction against scholars who produce books for those outside the immediate circles of academia.

In 1980, Carl Sagan published Cosmos, a book that sought to present the most advanced knowledge in physics to laypeople. Cosmos made Sagan a household name, yet it alienated him from the academic community. In taking the knowledge reserved for PhDs and their favorite students and offering it to the bumbling masses, Sagan had clearly done something unacceptable.

Professors who publish popular history books often risk losing credibility with their colleagues. Jealously can certainly contribute to this dynamic, as some professors envy others who manage to soak up some rare moments of limelight.

While a fair amount of professional jealously may come naturally, the tendency to avoid sharing knowledge with others represents an artificial yet disturbing academic construction.

A historian can build a career by reconceptualizing important elements of the past. But what good do these new perspectives do when shared only with students in an upper division class? And how useful can this knowledge prove when conveyed only in intentionally cumbersome and technical academic discourse? Such knowledge means little if others can’t touch it. Yet a certain academic arrogance pervades, as those who haven’t gained access to the halls of the university remain unworthy.

As the sole holders of such specialized and advanced knowledge, scholars become gatekeepers in society. They hold monopolies on the ideas that they helped to generate. The opportunity exists to share this knowledge with others, even those whose names don’t appear on the graduate class roster.

By encouraging one another to occasionally give lectures and even produce writings intended for the community at large, academics can provide an invaluable human service. Furthermore, they can truly establish a greater legacy for themselves by sharing a lifetime of work with those outside the university setting.

Scholars can certainly serve by volunteering in a soup kitchen or donating money to charity. But while this work remains vitally important, it doesn’t limit itself to a particular group. Sharing specialized knowledge, however, can’t be done by just anyone. Academics have a special opportunity to present the world with something that we might otherwise never know.

Why, then, keep this knowledge locked in isolated mountain springs? Rather, let it find its way to the sea where we can all benefit from it.

James welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].