'It Is in Our Hands': Roderick Ferguson on the University's Democratic Future

The Center for the Humanities welcomed Roderick A. Ferguson, professor of African American and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, to deliver the annual James E. McLeod Lecture on Higher Education on Sept. 29, 2014. His talk,"The University and the Combinations of Heart and Mind," pays tribute to the late Dean Jim McLeod and explores the historic transformations of the American university past and the possibilities yet to come. A few passages are excerpted below, and the entire lecture is available to download or to view online (below). Also available is a Q&A interview conducted with Ferguson before the lecture.

On Dean James McLeod as an exemplar of the possibilities and potentials of the university

I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor McLeod, but in reading about him I find his story profoundly inspiring and useful for thinking about what the university can be. Interestingly enough this occasion and indeed Professor McLeod’s life as a scholar and an academic citizen underline for me not only the historic transformations that occasioned what are in my estimation the best of the American university—the entrance of women, people of color and other minorities into the mainstream academy in the sixties and seventies but also the intellectual transformations that this entrance brought about—the studies of race, gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity as not only legitimate but necessary forms of study, necessary for understanding the makeup of this country and the world.

Click on the image above to play the video of the entire lecture (50:58).These were intellectual movements that caused revolutions of the mind that would significantly transform institutions like this one. But that revolution was not simply an intellectual one—known only through the changes in how we understand and conduct historical, literary, or social scientific research. There was a revolution of the heart. And so in the time that I have, I’d like to think about Professor McLeod as an exemplar of that unheralded experiment that has dotted the history of the American university—an experiment that was not only about the transformation of our intellectual horizons but also the revaluing of social life.

In other words, what I hope to suggest to you—using Professor McLeod’s life here as my primary example—is that an unappreciated history of the modern academy is the deployment of institutional imaginations to further a vision of colleges and universities as locations to expand intellectual and ethical possibilities. What interests me is the question of how he was part of an effort to institute a contemplative practice, an inquiry into the meaning and value of life, within an institution—the modern Western university, that is—that has—for the most part—turned away from that question. Hence, his efforts were part of historic endeavors to make this contemplation part of our intellectual and educational mission.

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Professor McLeod provided a model for the enlightened administrator—that is, an administrator who insisted on preserving and developing the university as a location from which we might truly value the human being. [His] was a model of the administrator as a facilitator of redistribution rather than the enforcer of the status quo, the paragon of the academic steward who demonstrates how we can work and struggle in ways that access and exercise the best parts of our personal and collective humanity.

On the broadening constituency of the university

Historically black colleges and universities, like Morehouse and Howard, and the formation of women’s colleges in the nineteenth century represent perhaps the first attempts to push against the limits of what a university could be and which people it might claim as part of its imaginative horizon. The student movements of the sixties and seventies represent the other time the university was challenged in this way. Students on the West Coast, the East Coast, and all parts in between demanded that women and people of color be seen as constituencies within the academy, not just bodies but bodies and minds that could help reorganize knowledge in ways that people never imagined. Similar to the Freedman’s Bureau, this was a vision for a democratic education in which people within and outside the academy could participate in the life of the mind and the well-being of our world.

On the university’s future as a site of innovation, inspiration, democratic community

In Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture, she tells the story of an old African American woman, blind and wise, who is confronted by a group of children who are determined to disprove her powers for comprehension. “Old woman,” one of them says, “I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.” There is much silence afterwards, Morrison writes, for the children have asked a question whose answer depends on the one ability that the old woman cannot claim. As Morrison says, “Finally, she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know... ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’” Throughout the lecture, Morrison reads the bird as language and the old woman as a practiced writer, and so the old woman’s answer “can be taken to mean: If [the bird] is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

For our purposes here today, as we are inspired by the life of Professor McLeod and as we ponder the future of higher education, we might imagine the bird as the American academy. We can also imagine the old woman as Professor McLeod or those people who told us by word or example to assume the powers of the mind and the heart in whatever institutional settings we find ourselves, those people—a parent, a grandparent, a neighbor, or a teacher—who nudged us to change the given order of things to benefit the greatest number of persons. Whether the university— troubled by racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism—is to stay alive as a site of innovation, inspiration, and democratic community, it is our decision and it is in our hands. It is in our hands.