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University: A Concept in the Making

Published onNov 16, 2022
University: A Concept in the Making

In 1088, several groups of self-organized students decided to unite and establish common rules to teach and learn together (Janin, 2014). That’s how the “Universitas Studiorum” – corporation of students or guild of scholars – was born and the very name university (community) established. This phenomenon took place in Bologna, Italy. The University of Bologna was the first university in modern history, and it has been in continuous operation since its foundation.

We still call these educational institutions universities, but it would be hard to compare the ones we have now to their thousand-year-old ancestors. Even if the university of Bologna is still prospering, it is not even remotely resembling itself a thousand years ago. Still, with the purpose of teaching and learning, these institutions are living organisms that evolve together with society and the people who populate them. In light of this idea, what makes a university good? What should a good university look like? This essay makes use of a few theoretical tools to discuss how we can make a good university for the time we live now and invites everyone involved to make their opinion count.

Making a University Good

The Roman Catholic clergy had exclusive access to culture for centuries, and monasteries had both the roles of discriminating content to be taught from contents to be hidden from the majority of people and instructing the ruling classes, both the clergy and the secular ones. The popular imagination considers the middle age an obscure time where knowledge was lost, and social evolution went backward. Most likely, rather than a loss, it was a shift. For a majority of people, theology and philosophy were less urgent to learn in a social context where more immediate material needs had to be satisfied since the population was carrying out manual labor, and the common life had to be reorganized to respond to the moment’s needs. Even if this practical knowledge was less noble, it still had to be transmitted through generations and established on a regular basis.

Artisans and merchants started organizing themselves into guilds to provide solutions for their everyday problems. By responding to the demand of guilds of workers to train their members, universities were established to provide a secular but solid education independent from the clergy to provide training on specific professions and support the development and economic establishment of the bourgeoisie (De Ridder-Symoens and Rüegg, 2003). The provision of certified and standardized training contributed to forming a new socio-economical system that promoted science, technology, and arts, significantly impacting the world. The groups of self-organized scholars who started the first universities were simply the product of the needs of this time. For instance, law scholars began to pass on their knowledge and develop new ideas to better organize collective life; medical doctors started to systematically observe the human body to improve their community’s quality of life.

Universities were born to address social needs. They were the direct product of their time as well. This idea does not only apply to early universities. We could review the history of universities worldwide for their entire life cycle and provide evidence that these organizations change alongside society to meet people’s needs in specific historical moments.

Can we claim that the “great reforms” of Maria Theresa in the Austrian Empire did not affect how knowledge was shared within educational institutions? Would we think that the Sorbonne was not affected by the French Revolution? That the secret societies that developed after the fall of Napoleon and the riots that took place did not change what was taught to students at the time? Or, in contemporary history, would anyone be able to claim that the 1968 movements in Europe were independent of the economic boom that took place after the second world war, the redefinition of human rights after the holocaust, and the mass access to education and health services? Such a claim would be unreasonable.

Society is a complex system. A system that is sometimes more complex than the natural ones such as bees or ants. Each input and each change has consequences for the entire system, which is in constant evolution (Bertalanffy, 1968). Even if it is impossible, or at least beyond the scope of this essay, to account for the role played by universities within this complex social system we live in, I can highlight a few relatively well know theories that can help us understand how these organizations adapt to needs of the historical moment we live in and change it. I will consider four points: 1) Universities are organizations; 2) people experience universities; 3) people are not independent of each other; 4) Some people are more influential than others.

Universities are Organizations

Universities are organizations of people set up to spread and establish a body of knowledge selected by its members as the appropriate one to achieve some predefined goals. The set of goals defines a university in its inner nature. The prosperity of universities, as much as of any organization, revolves around the sense they make for themselves. Weick (1995) explains that “sensemaking” determines an organization’s success. Sensemaking implies the existence of a strong identity developed around the goals people set for their organizations. They work around a narrative that distinguishes them from comparable but different models and set up an ideology for themselves. This cultural narrative is a reinforcing process. The more people invest in it, the more it grows, and the more the organization becomes defined, distinguishable and successful. The founders of the university of Bologna aimed to teach subjects outside the domains covered by the clergy. In this way, they differentiated their organization from the already existing ones.

At the same time, it was probably not easy at the time to claim that civil law was as crucial as canon law. Still, they believed in the relevance of their goals and made sense of their newly created organization so that every person involved trusted the good of the new institution and worked toward its success. The same phenomenon happens every day in our universities. For instance, when a new staff member gets hired, they need to familiarize themselves with the new institution’s rules and values. Suppose they do not share the enthusiasm and do not commit to the organization by following the example of their colleagues. In that case, it is unlikely that they will have a successful career within the institution. Of course, there are cases where the new hire is an innovator and wants to introduce change, but they still need to support of other staff to shape a cohesive view of what their organization should be. The constant reflection on the university’s values in response to the historical time we live is at the heart of the concept of the university itself, which is “in the making”, alongside the complex world we live in.

People Experience Universities

Universities are constituted of people who “experience” their organizations every day. Philosophers extensively tackled the relationship between people and the world. Considering the perspective of phenomenology (e.g., Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edmund Husserl), we can look at the sensemaking within organizations from the opposite point of view.

On the one hand, sensemaking theory focuses on the university as an entity provided with a set or goal or an ideology that makes it prosper, putting the organization’s well-being at the center. On the other hand, from the perspective of phenomenology, we can consider a university as the aggregated product of the individual choices made by the people that work and study within. Rather than a cohesive and purposeful product of unified minds, the university can be seen as the accidental product of individuals that make conscious and intentional choices in response to the environment they experience in their everyday life.

Sartre (1946) claims that people are what they planned to be. Hence, a university is an aggregation of what each of its composing people intended to be. Sartre sees people as entities embedded in history able to produce change and reshape society in agreement with their actions. These actions could be purposeful if the actor is able to experience the world they are living in. Otherwise, these actions could be accidental since not taking any choice implies complying with the choice someone else’s makes for you.

These two points of view, which focus respectively on the organization and on the people of which it is constituted, complement each other. We cannot assume that a university will work as a single coherent body with a single soul, as much as we cannot assume that each person within the university has an interest or capability of exerting their free will. Not every actor counts equally in a complex system.

Social dynamics are more complex.

People are not Independent of Each Other

Sartre resonates around the idea of a free man able to experience life and make decisions in isolation. Still recognizing the great intuition of this philosopher, sociologists have extensively addressed the social components that influence how people experience the social world and make decisions imprinting society. For example, we can agree that people who spend time together look and behave alike. This phenomenon is called homophily (McPherson et al., 2001). However, the question is, how do two or more people get to have a similar behavior that potentially leads them to similar decisions and similar contributions to the organization of a university? Two competing phenomena occur, namely social influence and selection.

“Social influence occurs when an actor adapts his behavior, attitude, or belief, to the behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs of other actors in the social system” (Leenders, 2002, p.26). This influence can be intentional or unintentional. Still, it can affect the dynamics of a social group. An example within a university might concern two colleagues that need to take a position about a department policy. One staff member formulates a compelling opinion concerning a particular issue because they are better informed than the others. A second staff member decides to adopt the same view and form decisions concerning the university’s future accordingly. Social influence can also be called social contagion.

The other engine that moves homophily and drives similar dynamics of decisionmaking that ultimately affect social groups and organizational behavior is selection. Facing bounded rationality (Simon, 1957) and the impossibility of benefiting from complete information about a specific issue, people use shortcuts to make decisions and emulate the behavior of others they perceive as similar to them. They select them as a template to follow given their resemblance to themselves (Steglich et al., 2010).

While in the social influence case, the emphasis is on an idea that goes viral, making homophily occur between two people; in the selection case, the causality process is reverted. People end up sharing common views, given that they emulate someone perceived as similar. These dynamics further specify the dynamics through which a university gets to define its identity and ideology.

Some People are More Influential than Others

Finally, one last point to explain what makes a university good for its time is the pivotal role some individuals play within a community. Even if everyone can exert social influence on their peers on a random base, indeed, some people can systematically exert this influence due to their specific social roles. In sociology, we can talk about the popularity effect, or we can use the expression “the rich get richer” (Merton, 1968) to define a phenomenon called ‘preferential attachment’ (Barabasi and Albert, 1999) where already popular people are more likely to get even more popular and spread their ideas.

Within the context of a university, people that benefit from higher popularity can usually be deemed with the attribute of intellectuals. Of course, we can benefit from a wide array of definitions of intellectuals. Still, we could agree that they are people who capture the spirit of their time to a more significant extent and can represent the social group they belong to within a broad debate that involves different parties, promoting their opinions (Gramsci, 2005).

Rather than simply focusing on the popularity within the organization, intellectuals acquire a pivotal role on a larger scale, usually as opinion leaders who regularly contribute to newspaper columns or who intervene in a country’s social and political debate in various ways. As a result, these people usually benefit from a more significant credit among their peers and find themselves in a privileged position to spread their idea by exerting social influence and selection.

Our Good University

A perfect university does not exist. We can only hope that our institutions capture the needs of our time and that the people that constitute them generate, select and promote values through the social dynamics discussed in the previous section to make sense of the organized reality they live in and increase its prosperity. Tilburg University is a young institution, but it has already been through a long series of reshaping processes that substantially changed its sensemaking.

Funded in 1927 to address the need for training people with a prominent role in a community of merchants and entrepreneurs in the Catholic part of the Netherlands, it identified its core values as a Catholic Business School – Roomsch Katholieke Handelshoogeschool (Tilburg University, 2022). This first funding core synergically contributed to the modernization of North Brabant (and the other way around), so the need to expand and review its core values was felt very soon. Over the years, many more subjects were added to the original business orientation until the point that “Understanding Society” was the motto that summarized its intentions. The initial target audience of Catholics was broadened to include people from all backgrounds. The name Tilburg University was eventually a better description of what this university offers its members. A university in the city of Tilburg, which is open to welcoming an international community fond of knowledge that wants to positively impact the social world they live in.

In its strategy Tilburg University introduces four values that it embraces to promote positive change: 1) curious, 2) caring, 3) connected, 4) courageous.

The keyword curious invites everyone in the community to pursue their original research interest and give importance to their unique point of view to ultimately enrich the community as a whole. Caring is a value that pushes the Tilburg people to positively impact the society they live in with their work. This pillar is true to the original intent of the Tilburg funding core: A university that works to understand society and advance it. Connected is both an invitation to be inclusive and create a multicultural environment and an acknowledgment of the most recent trends in research. Complexity science used to be a niche subject but is now widely accepted as the most comprehensive way to understand social systems. Reductionist positions in science are found to be not sufficient to explain social phenomena any longer. Courageous pushes each person in the community to live the present time, read it and act as an innovator instead of reproducing old patterns already set in place and found unsuitable.

Tilburg University’s sensemaking is embedded in the present time and pushes the university and its community to be a better version of themselves. Considering that this is a top-down document, are the people on board? How much have the people in this university contributed to this sensemaking with their free will? How much does the vast majority accept this document through social influence or selection? How much does our intellectual class play a pivotal role in making this document accepted and supported by the community?

It is hard to answer those questions, but it is good to spend some time reflecting on these social dynamics. We have the best possible version of the university we can have now, and we should commit to making the most of it, whether we like it, by supporting it, or whether we do not by exerting constructive criticism that can benefit the entire community.


We are embedded in complex systems of relationships that determine what the future will bring to us. Being conscious of all the limitations we face, we should still contribute to our organization’s prosperity. If shared within the community, values will drive this institution toward significant social impact. On a broader scale, many universities, a network of universities, would be able to address more considerable social challenges and impact the world even more significantly. This idea overlaps with the concept of historical materialism (Giddens, 1981), where history is a dialectical process that sums up each of the social processes of which it is composed. And with historical materialism overlaps an invitation to take action to be part of the moment we live, still being aware of the limitations we face as humans embedded in complex social systems.

As Tilburg Young Academy members, we are here to read our time and promote a culture of broader understanding, awareness, and positive impact beyond the walls of our departments at Tilburg University. We are here to understand, propose and introduce constructive criticism if needed. After all, we are just a giant corporation of scholars self-organizing themselves, and like those in 1088, we just want to exchange knowledge in a global village to make the world a better place. We need to make our role count in the complex scenario we live in, be part of our university in the making, and make our role count in the dialectic history of the future.


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