Three Universities

Every university is in reality three universities. In this article, I am naming them: the university of truth, the university of learning, and the university of necessity. This collectively I am calling the Schemata of the university and the three imaginaries of the university pertain to partial experiences and to epistemological truths of the university which overlap and interact in important ways. The balance between these three realities is key to the success of a university qua university, but also to helping us understand how many of the modern proposals for reform of the university, by not taking these into account, serve to sever these worlds of the university apart, and more worryingly, act to privilege one world at the expense of the others.

Palimpsest: Codex Guelferbytanus B, 026, folio 194 verso
A metaphor that might be useful for thinking about this is that the university functions as a kind of palimpsest, multiply inscribed with differing conceptions of the university's ends. A palimpsest is, of course, a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing creating a multiply written document which previous versions are faintly visible through the newer writings.  Similarly, the university form contains within it, inscribed in buildings and practices, discourse and policies, multiple over-writings, that interact and coalesce in productive ways for university to be function as a university qua university. In this article, therefore, I want to examine how in theorising the university we can develop concepts adequate not only for defending the specificity of the university as a form, what I have called elsewhere universitality, but also in a positive sense for the future development and invention in relation to the university form by thinking through this palimpsest metaphor for understanding the ends of the university (see Berry 2017).

These differing imaginaries of the university, as necessity, as truth and as learning, must be overlaid and mutually respectful of each others presence for the university as an institution to function. That is, that the reality of the university is constantly informed by, and shaped through the interaction with these multiple possibilities of the university. Here, of course, I am gesturing to the notion of the Idea of a University, and seeking to develop and deepen this notion (Newman 1996). Conflicts between these imaginaries is common, indeed productive of the university as an institution, but these conflicts should nonetheless be balanced as the overall institution should be manifest in cooperation at a higher level (Rothblatt 1972). What we might call the sublation of these imaginaries, and the institutional processes that enable these conflicts both to be staged and performed, without thereby undermining the whole, is a crucial element of ensuring the vitality of the capillary structures of the university, but also that in the moment of sublation, all elements, all forces that represent these imaginaries feel represented but also that their contribution makes the university possible in the first place. When these imaginaries break out into open conflict, or cannot sublate their imaginaries, or even worse, one imaginary seeks to liquidate another or seek hegemony in the university, then disaster is at hand.

I would like to now outline a tentative mapping of these imaginaries and start to think about how they interoperate and structure the possibilities that are opened up in the university.

university of truth

The university of truth is usually populated by academic staff, scholars and researchers. It is vital that the university should connect to and capture the imagination and hearts and minds of the general public in order that it can provide a benefit to the nation in which it is located. But this imagination is represented not in pandering to the fads and fashions of a purported population, nor to the whims of government policy, but rather in the search for truth (or the principles for the validation of truth) and the application of critical reason. This requires that the university of truth is constantly on the search for academic brilliance and outstanding thought in whatever way it is represented, in order that the university should continue pushing at the boundaries of thought and knowledge. This requires constant vigilance by the university of truth, and is its most important function and mission, and one which must not be distracted by other issues. The university of truth is, in most modern universities, lacking institutional representation and manifests as an invisible college. However, its lack of institutional materiality must not be allowed to disqualify or undermine this crucial role that it plays in keeping the university eye's focussed on the horizon of knowledge (Derrida 2004). No sacrifice is too great for the university of truth to secure academics of great repute and merit and conspicuous ability must be nurtured and developed within the domain of this university.

university of learning.

The university of learning is usually populated by teaching staff, students, and teaching fellows. The university of learning has a crucial function as a dissemination point for knowledge, passing and continuing the state of the field across the generations. This results in a two-fold outcome, providing the capacities for critical reason, through engagement and contestation of knowledge claims and truths, but also furthering and deepening the individual and economic independence of the learner so that on leaving the university they are more knowledgeable, critical and self-confident in their capacity to live in the world than when they entered the university. The passage through the university is then a pathway creating through complex knowledge fields, and inoculating the individual against irrationality and virulent forms of populism. The ability to think for oneself, to dare to know (sapere aude!), is a benchmark against which success in this university should be judged.

university of necessity

The university of necessity usually consists of the management staff, the administrative and and professional staff of the university. The university of necessity is tasked with providing the conditions which will create the facilities for the university of truth and the university of learning. The university of necessity is named for its role in stabilising and managing the necessities for a university, such that these should not become the concern of the university of truth or the university of learning. The university of necessity, by virtue of its privileged role in managing and controlling the flows of funds and the structures of the university has a strong duty of care towards the university of truth and the university of learning. In neoliberal models of the university, the university of necessity becomes the university of control, or of excellence, undermine the other spheres and weakening the institution and its mission (Readings 1996). 

This early attempt to draft this schematic is necessarily explorative but through thinking through the conflicting pushes and pulls of the university in its institutional form we can, through conceptual invention, help to energise and revivify the university as respectively a university of truth, learning and necessity.  


Berry, D. M. (2017) Towards an Idea of Universitality, stunlaw

Derrida, J. (2004) Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties, in The Eyes of the University, Stanford University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1996) The Idea of a University, Yale University Press.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins, London: Harvard University Press.

Rothblatt, S. (1972) The Modern University and its Discontents: The Fate of Newman's Legacies in Britain and America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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