I had the good fortune to hear Wendell Berry read at Northern Kentucky University Sunday afternoon. Apparently, he does not accept many speaking engagements these days, but accepted NKU’s invitation because he and the university are neighbors (Berry lives in Henry County, Kentucky, about a hour south of NKU). The reading was terrific, and, as usual, Berry’s words provided much to ponder.
At the end of a reading from his essay, “Is Life a Miracle?” Berry noted that, formerly, the university was unified under religion, but that time has gone and is not coming back. Instead, he proposed unifying the university under a commitment to the local community, as was the original mission of land grant universities.
The idea has some appeal to me, since I am a proponent of local communities and think Berry has some very worthwhile ideas on the subject. I plan on researching his views on the university in more depth. However, setting aside the questions of feasibility (e.g. how can mathematics be committed to the local community? why should someone who earned their BA in Michigan, their PhD in California, and tenure in Kentucky be committed to one community over another?), I wonder about the nature of this commitment. I think I have a fairly good idea of what Berry means by this commitment to the local community. However, it doesn’t take long to see that not many people share Berry’s perspective, and that local visions for the local community differ wildly.
What do you think? How important is a university’s commitment to its local community? Is this is a good way to organize a university’s mission?