Books, journals and papers crowd the surface of the credenza and surrounding floor behind Lee C. Bollinger's desk in the University's Fleming Administration Building. Stacked on a corner of his desk are reader's proofs for a forthcoming edition of essays on First Amendment freedoms that he co-edited with Geoffrey Stone, provost of the University of Chicago. On frequent evenings Bollinger is here working on his latest book, a study of public cultural institutions in America.
But the space is hardly a scholar's sanctuary. Bollinger carries out the day-to-day business of running a major research university in this office. "It's one of the reasons I love the position," Bollinger says of his job. "Because it does stand as a kind of border with the broader public life, and yet clearly has to approach that border from the values and the character of the academic life. It's a wonderful tension to experience."
Bollinger seeks a similar roleand a similar stimulating "tension"not only for Michigan but also for the nation's universities at large. He believes they should be at once engaged in and removed from the larger political community. "The contemporary university is inextricably entwined in the political and moral issues of the day," he has written. But at its core, he says, the university is a place where freedom of thought and speech must flourish, a place whose "defining characteristic" ought to be
the "extraordinary degree to which it is open to ideas."
In his book in progress, Bollinger extends this concept by considering the university's role in the cultural life of the broader American community. In an interview with Michigan Today in April, Bollinger spoke with Leslie Stainton about his book, his vision of the university as a public cultural institution and the ways he hopes to realize that vision at the University of Michigan.
Michigan Today: You've been at work for several years on a book about America's "public cultural institutions." What do you mean by that term?
Lee Bollinger: It's a category we don't tend to use that much in this country, although it's very common in Europe. It's those institutions that have as their primary responsibility the preservation and enhancement of culture of some form. To be concrete, what I have in mind are universities, museums, public broadcasting, the national endowments for the arts and humanities, public libraries, even to some extent national parks. These are all public institutions that share a mission of preservation, whether it's knowledge or art or natural landscape, and a mission of communicating or engaging with the public about what's being preserved. And then adding to itin the case of universities, adding knowledge.
With respect to these institutions, what specific issues most concern you?
There are three major questions. The first is, why should there be any public support at all? Many people don't even think about that issue. But on the other hand, there are people in society who say that while these may be worthy enterprises, it is wrong in democratic theory, and in social and political theory, to tax citizens and use those funds to support these sorts of activities.
The second major issue that has come upespecially in the past two decadesis, assuming that there should be some public support, or that it's legitimate, to what extent do these institutions have a recognized autonomy from public control, from government control? Those who want to control the institutions typically make the argument, which certainly has some force to it, that this is public money, you don't have to take it if you don't want it. But if you do take it you must take it with these restrictions on it. On the other hand, as a matter of public policy as well as constitutional lawFirst Amendment law, in particularwe should have grave concerns about the government-as-patron turning into the government-as-censor of culture.
The third major issue is an internal one for these organizations: What do we mean when we say that we have become politicized? What are our obligations, what are our principles for organizing our courses and programming and the like? What are the standards by which we decide what to teach, and what are our obligations in terms of the range of viewpoints and ideas that we believe should be presented? This takes us into the areas of political correctness and multiculturalism.
Although it seems perfectly reasonable to think of universities as public cultural institutions, this is a newor at least an expandedrole for universities, isn't it?
The idea is to try to understand universities not simply as engaged in the search for truth and the establishment of knowledge, but really involved with creating an atmosphere in which certain human capacities are developed that are needed as a counterpoint in public life, or the political sphere. In simple form, universities have an emphasis toward openness and suspension of belief, and public life has a pressure towards commitment and closure, and the two usefully play off of each other.
You've suggested elsewhere that universities are to the rest of society what wilderness is to urbanized life.
I'm intrigued by the ways in which we divide up life and the ways in which those divisions can usefully serve as counterbalances. I've sometimes referred to freedom of speech as the wilderness for an urban society. We take speech, which is just one form of human behavior, and we create essentially a wilderness environment-where there are no regulations, and speech is uninhibited by government action-as a counterbalance to the rest of behavior, which is subject to democratically arrived-at controls. We know there are biases that human nature brings to the social regulation of behavior, and this wilderness of speech is our opportunity to play with and to check bad impulses.
Although you're working with these issues intellectually and theoretically in your book, you're also implementing them realistically at this university, with your very visible support of culture. In a way, you're straddling the wilderness and urban spheres.
That's true. There are many implications of this for university policy. One that is of absolute critical importance is maintaining an atmosphere of openness and engagement and suspension of belief and crossing sensibilities, all these somewhat vague terms that we use to account for an important reality that we live every day. In the public sphere, our lives are defined by conflict, commitment to beliefs, engagement-but it's where real matters will be decided. And that generates a particular set of human reactions and a certain type of intellectual character that is inevitable, to some extent desirable, and yet also highly dangerous. If there is one thing we have learned from the last century, it is the dangers of ideology, and where that can take the human character.
But don't you risk promoting particular ideologies when you choose to give university support to certain cultural activities and not others?
I think that's a risk, but I don't accept the idea that it is, in fact, the situation. I think that universities are places that have deep commitments to risk-taking in the form of intellectual and artistic activity or pursuits. We're not always perfect in this by any means, and our history is also blemished, but we know the virtues of human creativity-the instinct for creation, where people are struggling to say something meaningful and new and transformative.
How do you envision the university's role in the country's larger cultural life?
As patrons&$151;in the best sense, hopefully, of the term patron. We should be natural allies with the broader cultural environment. Whether it's presenting poetry readings or commissioning the work of Bill T. Jones and Jessye Norman, or bringing in major performances, like the Berlin Philharmonic, this is increasingly a role of universities. We are changing from presenters to participants in the creative process, and we're serving the broader community. We have moved more to a model of engagement with contemporary work.
In what specific ways are you trying to institutionalize this kind of engagement at Michigan?
I'm struggling to think this through, but I believe the outlines might look something like this: We should have regular commissioning of new works, where artists and people who are engaged in creative activity are brought to the campus, are given the opportunity to reside here for some period of timewhether it's for a few days, weeks, months or yearsand in this environment, to develop new works. Certainly an endowment for the commissioning of such works makes enormous sense. But I think also the residency concept is extremely important. I could imagine at some point in the future a center with all the related things you need for thathousing and work areas and the likebeing part of our campus. Some institutions have created centers for humanities or social sciences, and I could see that for us in the arts.
What happens when the work you've commissioned or supported in some way is offensivedeeply offensiveto some of the public?
First of all, you need to figure out in advance what your process is going to be for selection, and then you need to support that process. We have experience with this; we're not starting from scratch. The concept of peer review is a fundamental starting point. You ask people who are in the field, as well as people who are notbut principally people who are in the fieldto identify who has promise and what looks interesting, and then you live with those decisions. To continually second-guess that process inevitably creates such inhibition that it becomes a kind of cancer within an institution. It's a very big question, because you're always going to have controversy, and even though the right decision is not to give in to it, you still have to deal with it.
At the same time, how do you avoid simply perpetuating the status quo by having the same artists recommend the same artists?
Every system of decision-making or choice has the risk that it may be impervious to new and truly exciting work. But what's the alternative? The alternative is no engagement, because you might become stultified. I think that's unacceptable. You have to treat it as a risk, have a means of trying to address it over time, and go from there.
Leslie Stainton is an editor for the School of Public Health and a frequent writer on the arts. Her biography of the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca (Lorca: A Dream of Life, 1999, Farrar Strauss and Giroux) was featured in our Spring 1999 issue.