27 July, 2018

Autonomy and Universality – Some notes on the liaison between university and society

The German philosopher and cultural theorist Jürgen Mittelstraß has become quite famous for his works on the sociology and science of knowledge. In fact, his metaphor of the ‘houses of knowledge’, once used as the title of an edited volume on selected writings (1), might well have provided some inspiration in the naming of the University of Luxembourg’s main building, the Maison du Savoir. Mittelstraß, an academic who is particularly interested in the constitution, generation, and dissemination of scientific knowledge, is also a frequent writer about the role of the university in today’s society. This was also the case with an essay published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on 23rdJuly 2018, in which the relationship between university and its society was emphasised again.(2)

Snap shot of the FAZ, July 23, 2018

In this essay, Mittelstraß reflected upon the role of the university in a society that can be largely understood as a society of knowledge (German: “Wissensgesellschaft”), based on a scientific and technological rationale. The author signified this type of society as a ‘Leonardo’ world (of course named after Leonardo da Vinci) – a world that is artificial and increasingly constituted by science and technology. In this particular context, research that brings about science and technology can no longer be approached and understood as something entirely separate from society; rather, that science and technology fundamentally shape the latter. This is a well-established viewpoint, of course. Effectively, this point illustrates not only the strong interdependencies between the two, but also points at the societal responsibilities which the system of knowledge creation has.

The main question that Mittelstaß addressed was whether or not there is still any idea of what a university could be about, which pays justice to both: the part that generates knowledge and the rest of society in which it is embedded. While it seems increasingly popular to assume that borders between research and practice, science and society / policy are about to vanish (and this would be good), in his essay Mittelstraß looks back at emerging normative imperatives, as a consequence of the scientification of society and, in parallel, a sort of secularisation of science. These imperatives were, according to the author: a politisation in the wake of the post-1967/68 events; a didactification of science in the 1970s and afterwards; the rather economistic claims for usability and transfer of scientific knowledge that gained momentum in the 1990s/2000s and prevail today; and most recently, the demand that the university promote and support sustainable development (or transformative research). There is also no doubt that the author is well aware of the fact that the sciences are not only part of any solution, but have also produced a number of problems. However, Mittelstraß is extremely sceptical of this latest development – not because he would be against sustainability as a guideline for societal development, but because, for him, this can only be understood as an outcome of forces – both internal and external to the university – that seek to determine the kinds of knowledge that a university ought to produce, of which he is quite critical. 

Mittelstraß sees, indeed, that the university ought to acknowledge, and pro-actively deal with, societal challenges. Being insensitive of these challenges would lead to the loss of any university’s credibility. However, the more that the university is subject to imperatives defined from outside (for whatever good or bad reason), the more that one of the two fundamental constituencies of the university is undermined: autonomy. Autonomy, understood as the ability of the university to steer its own ways of research and teaching, build and develop its own systems of organisation, practice a reflected set of measures for quality control, and remain politically independence. Funding bodies are increasingly claiming for ‘returns on investment’, which probably illustrates the dilemma of the modern university’s loss of autonomy most succinctly. Beyond these structural and political dimensions, Mittelstraß’ main argument is actually that it is precisely the traditional distinctions between fundamental, applied and usable knowledge generation are no longer valid. They were followed by a multitude of different forms of knowledge creation, a continuum of research forms, paradigms and habits all of which emerged as a complex phenomenon within the sciences and academia. This development within the sciences occurred as structurally or theoretically independent from societal ‘demand’ and would have to be, so his main contention, left over to the sciences’ own responsibility.

The second major issue that Mittelstraß emphasised, which is closely linked to the idea of autonomy, is universality. Universality is considered a key and fundamental characteristic of the idea of the university. Apart from the overarching tendency of specialisation, scientific knowledge would still grow best on the grounds of a field that is tilled by many. Important scientific developments would most probably require the collaboration of various disciplines and sub-disciplinary fields, which can also be read as a plea for fields such as the humanities or social sciences. Of course, boundaries between these fields need to be overcome, in order to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge. According to Mittelstraß, the commitment of the university must be to provide the highest possible degree of universality and a flexible relation between disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity – making the university theinstitutional place for these different forms of knowledge generation to evolve and intersect. These properties of the university are passionately defended by the author against any form of political steering and determination, and the most recent case of such determination mentioned by him included the idea of the Great Transformation. Despite the popularity of such umbrella concepts for societal change (and the good reasons that are underlying the call for change), the author reserves the authority and significance of knowledge generation in the first place to the university, not to political discourses.

Why refer to Jürgen Mittelstraß here, also given that his position might be considered critical of sustainability and the potential transformative role of the university? It is simply because his reflection upon the autonomy and universality of academic institutions is relevant to ongoing debates (or better, developments) at the University of Luxembourg (UL) as well. These developments are certainly not unique to the UL, as they unfold against the background of comparable events in a range of European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands or the UK.(3) However, as is the case of our young university in a small country, proximity to the political realm is much higher here, and related changes have obviously occurred much faster than anywhere else.(4) It is rather likely that changes can reach a critical state that challenges both the university’s autonomy and universality. Even the (small) debate about the Grand Duchy’s new university law, revealed by the National Chamber in June 2018, has not necessarily changed the picture. There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, a university’s autonomy not only depends on external relationships, most importantly the conditions under which funding is ensured, but its autonomy also reflects the rules and regulations of its internal constitution and management. In this respect, an important question remains about the framework conditions under which the UL and its subunits will be able to exist in the future as sovereign academic bodies that can decide independently on their work, research foci and the like – certainly assuming that they are part of a bigger picture of the institution as a whole and refrain from behaving irrespective of it. Secondly, it looks as if ‘expectation management’ is the new approach rising in the political realm concerning what the UL is researching and teaching, and in how far the government’s major political focus areas (which are not necessarily equivalent to the country’s needs) should be respected in the university’s future research and teaching activities.

There are no short and easy answers out of these dilemmas mentioned here. For sure, one can well imagine that past claims for transparency and collaborative practice in the internal organisation of the UL will come to fruition in the foreseeable future. One needs to be optimistic in this respect. The same applies to disciplinary variety, which is usually subject to internal decision-making of academia. Given my background in the humanities and social sciences in general, and geography and planning in particular, it is rather unfortunate that the imperative of competitiveness by specialisation and the related definition of target areas (lighthouses, clusters, priorities) have become hegemonic in higher education policy recently, in the Grand Duchy as elsewhere. The implementation of such principles – which were, in fact, derived from economics and business management – has created disciplinary monotony, rather than originality. And, sufficient proof is still lacking that the outcomes of these strategies will generate more preeminent science than other paradigms, methods and disciplinary practices. This of course needs critical reflection.

As regards the external relationships that an academic institution is embedded in, most relevant could be the fostering of collective learning processes between scientists and practitioners that emphasise the particularities and peculiarities under which the work of either side is organised and practiced – which would be for the mutual benefit of all participants. This could include a more detailed exploration of the interface between science and practice, or science and policy, which might also reveal more about the kinds of framework conditions something called ‘impact’ could be achieved, which is always so elegantly spoken about but only ever loosely defined.(5) Such learning processes would require interest in, if not curiosity of, the others’ life-worlds and practices. In the case of the UL, this might also contribute to ensuring what Jürgen Mittelstraß noted as the fundamentals of scientific work in the first place: autonomy and universality.

Markus Hesse


1) Jürgen Mittelstraß (1998), Häuser des Wissens. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

2) Jürgen Mittelstraß (2018), Die Wissenschaft und ihre Gesellschaft. F.A.Z. issue no. 168, 23.07.2018, p. 6.

3) Stefano Collini (2012), What are Universities for?London: Penguin; Stefano Collini (2017): Speaking of Universities. London: Verso.

4) Markus Hesse (2017), Widersprüchlich, ungeduldig, selbstbezogen? Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis Luxemburgs zu seiner Universität. forum376, p. 14-16.

5) Andrew Harding (2014), What is the difference between an impact and an outcome? Impact is the longer term effect of an outcome.Retrieved from the Web on 24 July 2018, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/10/27/impact-vs-outcome-harding/

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