The Public Mission of the Research University: Serving the Public Good in the 21st Century

Graduate Commencement Ceremony
Assembly Hall
Bloomington, Indiana
May 4, 2012

Education and the public good

In 1822, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote to a friend in Kentucky, explaining his view of the place of education in a self-governing society.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” Madison wrote, “and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives....The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, that their political institutions… are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights.” Madison continued, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”1

At the very time Madison penned these words, provisions were being made here in Bloomington for the establishment of Indiana University, which the Indiana legislature had authorized just two years earlier. By any standard, Indiana University embodies Madison’s vision of the truly public university. 

When the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, that remarkably astute observer of our burgeoning democracy, visited the United States in the following decade, he was impressed by the ability of Americans to form non-governmental entities to meet public needs.

He wrote in his renowned book, Democracy in America, that he had “often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare.”2

Among the examples de Tocqueville cited were universities. Citizens banded together to create universities across the country, especially in the newest parts of the United States. Sometimes they reflected the vision of one or a few philanthropists, sometimes they reflected a state government’s understanding that a great state needs great institutions of higher education—but they always were the result of a deep public commitment to the partnership of Liberty and Learning that Madison described.

Nearly two hundred years later, the American system of higher education has grown to become the best in the world, and the United States has developed an unrivaled capability in graduate education and research.

As Madison predicted, knowledge continues to govern ignorance—though it is often challenged—but liberty and learning, democracy and education, remain inseparably intertwined. And our public research universities continue to serve as both a private and a public good.

Serving the global public good in the 21st century

As Craig Calhoun, the president of the Social Science Research Council, writes: “The full model of a research university unites freedom of intellectual inquiry (for both students and professors) with the creation of new knowledge through research, the nurturance of a scholarly community integrating disparate fields, open public communication, and the effort to make knowledge widely available as a public good.”3

Higher education is one of the most central public goods. Universities facilitate the flow of information and ideas around the world. They cultivate global citizens.

The many public benefits of universities’ efforts include: enhanced individual and community health as universities conduct research to combat disease, an increase in the quality of civic life, increased voluntary community service, social cohesion and greater appreciation of diversity, enhanced cultural and scientific progress, and a greater ability to adapt to and use technology.4

“Public goods are the building blocks of civilization,” writes Martin Wolf, who has been called “the world’s preeminent financial journalist.” He continues, “Economic stability is itself a public good. So are security, science, a clean environment, trust, honest administration and free speech. The list could be far longer. This matters,” Wolf argues, “because it is hard to secure [an] adequate supply. …Humanity’s efforts to meet that challenge could prove to be the defining story of the century.”5

Many of you have been partners in the enterprise of research and scholarship and many of you, I am certain, will make further lasting and memorable contributions to the public good.  

Others among you have focused with great intellectual intensity and rigor on mastering the advanced training in your professional field with an education of the highest quality—one that will enable you to make contributions of lasting value to the prosperity and well-being of society.

In so doing, you will help to meet what Martin Wolf suggests will be the defining challenge of our century.

Partners in the research enterprise and in serving the public good

As graduate students in one of the world’s leading public research institutions, you have experienced the sense of accomplishment and achievement that comes from extending ourselves to ever-higher limits in new areas of professional endeavor and making new contributions to human knowledge.

Many of you have already made impressive contributions.

Justin Stevens: Studying one of nuclear science’s most important topics

For example, Justin Stevens is receiving a doctoral degree in physics. He has worked with the nuclear physics experimental group at IU’s Center for the Exploration of Energy and Matter. Much of his research, and that of his IU colleagues, involves the use of the Solenoidal Tracker at the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, known as the STAR detector. Mr. Stevens is held in extremely high regard by his professors and by the worldwide team of scientists who are part of the STAR collaboration. The research topic on which Mr. Stevens has focused, how the proton acquires its intrinsic “spin” through its components of quarks and gluons, has been identified by the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee as one of the five most important topics of study in nuclear science in the current decade.

Mauhauganee Shaw: Katrina survivor helping institutions recover from crisis

Mahauganee Shaw, who is receiving her doctoral degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs in our School of Education, is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, Ms. Shaw worked at Dillard University, a historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans, whose campus is located near the lower levee of the London Avenue Canal. When the canal’s floodwall was breached, Dillard University suffered extensive flood damage. Forty-three buildings were damaged or destroyed. One residence hall was destroyed by fire. In the spring of 2006, Ms. Shaw continued to work at the university as it operated out of the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel while the campus was rebuilt.

She left Dillard to pursue her Ph.D., inspired to turn institutional experiences of crisis into an object of study. Her dissertation examines how four different institutions of higher education managed, responded to, and learned from the crises presented by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Her work will help institutions prepare for different types of crises and will help those that experience crises move from crisis management back to normal, or even, improved performance.

Jenna Liechty: Working to advance the optometric profession

Jenna Liechty is graduating with a doctoral degree in Optometry. Ms. Liechty was selected from among optometry students across the country as the national recipient of the Varilux Student Grant. She has also been recognized for her achievements in vision therapy with the College of Optometrists in Vision Development Award for Excellence in Vision Therapy. She also graduates as the co-recipient of the School of Optometry’s David H. Kolack Award, which is awarded to the school’s graduating doctoral student with the highest GPA.

Ms. Liechty joins many of you who are receiving a second Indiana University degree today. She earned a B.S. in Biology in 2008.

Jessica Ahoni: MBA candidate, extensive international experience

Jessica Ahoni was a “direct admit” to the Kelley School of Business. As an undergraduate student, her engagement, passion, and leadership made her a role model for her peers. She studied abroad in Ghana and France, and also participated in the Global Business Brigades Project in Panama. She was a Presidential Scholar and part of the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program. She also served as President of the Undergraduate Black MBA Association and was a committee chair for the Kelley School Diversity Council. During her junior year, Ms. Ahoni was accepted into the prestigious 3/2 (“Three Two”) MBA program at the Kelley School of Business. The 3/2 MBA program is highly selective—admitting only 60 students each year. Acceptance into the program afforded Ms. Ahoni the opportunity to complete her bachelor’s degree and MBA in just five years. She has also interned at MetLife and Price/Waterhouse/Coopers. She will begin her professional career with PwC in Chicago in financial services consulting. 

These outstanding students are just four among the more than two thousand students receiving graduate degrees in the Class of 2012. Your accomplishments and contributions to society and to your chosen professions will be a return, in myriad ways, on the personal investment you have made over many years.

Lasting and laudable influence

Henry George, the 19th century political economist, wrote in his 1883 book, Social Problems, that “whoever becomes imbued with a noble idea kindles a flame from which other torches are lit, and influences those with whom he (or she) comes into contact.”6

The “noble idea” of education, championed by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and later by W.E.B Du Bois, John Dewey, and many others, has certainly been a flame from which many torches have been lit.

As graduates of Indiana University, you have been preparing for years to become the next generation to discover, to understand, and to apply all that you have learned.

As you continue this great adventure of creation, invention, and discovery in your own lives, may you continue to kindle the flames of noble ideas. Carry the torches you have lit at Indiana University and share these noble ideas. And may you strive to have lasting and laudable influence on our society and on all you come to know.


Source Notes

  1. Letter from James Madison to William T. Barry, August 4, 1822, as reprinted in Ralph Louis Ketcham (ed.) Selected Writings of James Madison (Hackett, 2006) 308, 310.
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, (Henry Reeve, trans.), (Longmans, Green & Co. 1875), p. 97
  3. Craig Calhoun, Knowledge Matters: The Public Mission of the Research University, (Columbia University Press, 2011), 2.
  4. Darrell R. Lewis and James Hearn, The Public Research University: Serving the Public Good in New Times, (University Press of America, 2003), 4.
  5. Martin Wolf, “The World’s Hunger for Public Goods,” Financial Times, January 24, 2012. Accessed April 27, 2012, URL:
  6. George, Henry. Social Problems, Doubleday Page and Co., 1911, p. 243.