Wendell Berry Rips the Modern Research University

The other day we wrote about Wendell Berry’s decision to remove his papers from the University of Kentucky. Over at Science Insider Berry explains his decision.

Berry uses this interview to chide his alma mater:

The University of Kentucky aspires to be a top research university. But you believe land-grant universities like Kentucky have gone astray in their mission.

W.B.: The Morrill Act [which in 1862 established what became a vast network of so-called land-grant colleges and universities] says they’re to give [money] “to the endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without exclusion of other scientific and classical studies … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the pursuits and professions of life.”

I think [UK] has gone astray first with its long emphasis on research instead of teaching. If you promote research, which can be quantified, and make it the paramount issue with promotion and tenure and salary raises, then you diminish the standing and importance of teaching necessarily, which can’t be quantified. … Administrators have to find a way to reward professors for teaching.

And so the University of Kentucky has for some time had a program to become a top-20 research institution. Every sizable university in the country has that program, as if the present top 20 is going to stand back while the others pass them. I don’t think that’s going to happen for most of them. Well, let me not speculate.

The issue for me is that the University of Kentucky has a mandate to look after the country people and the rural landscapes. [It’s] promoting a research agenda that is without standards. Will it do harm to our people here, or will it be of some use? I can’t discover that there is any such standard by which the effectiveness or usefulness or beneficence of the research can be judged. They’re going to take the [research] grant money and do what they are asked to do with it.

I’ve raised an issue … with the president’s promotion of a program he calls STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is not conformable to anybody’s idea of a liberal education. This is a curriculum entirely devoted to technical subjects.

Q: One might argue the best way to help “country people” is to prepare them for this new [science-based] economy we have.
To prepare them for city life.

Q: But you don’t need to be in a city to do science or technology.
They can live in the country and be city people by means of their computer. But what we’re doing here is ignoring the economic value of landscape and doing very little to protect it. I’ve been helping the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, promote their 50-year farm bill that would address in agriculture, for example, the issue of land leased, soil erosion, toxicity, and the destruction of rural communities and the cultures of husbandry.

Q: What was wrong with the University of Kentucky naming its building the Wildcat Coal Lodge?
I want to mention another issue before we get to the coal. The University of Kentucky owns a forest called Robinson Forest. For many years that forest has been unlogged. And very careful records have been kept about water quality and so on. Recently, the university decided that the forest had to produce an income and they contrived of an experiment that required logging part of it. A number of years ago they sold the coal rights on part of it and strip mined it. [But] logging is going on all over this state. They can do a logging experiment without resorting to logging this forest if they wanted to.

They dealt very poorly with those who opposed the project and wanted to talk to them about it. I was a member of the opposition. Then the issue of the Wildcat Coal Lodge came up. I have been an opponent, in my writing and in other ways, of surface mining. … The university has never taken a stand on the issue, … but when they accepted a $7 million gift from the coal industry and named their dormitory the Wildcat Coal Lodge, that meant that they had explicitly come out as an ally of the coal industry. That meant I can’t be an ally of the university anymore, obviously …

This is a heartbreaking thing for me. The university is an alma mater. I have two degrees from the University of Kentucky. I taught there. They have honored me. I have friends there; I have friends that are currently teaching there. And so this is a break that feels to me like a family disruption.