What Is “University”?

On Thursday I’m going to be a member of a panel discussion, as part of a broader event, on the convoluted and compelling question of the fundamental role of universities in society:

What Is University?

Thu, 7 November 2019. 16:00 – 19:00 GMT. Teaching & Learning Building, UP.

This event is for academic and administrative staff, students and alumni of the University of Nottingham and asks:

  • What do you think is the purpose of a university?
  • What do you think it should be and might be in the future?

This is your opportunity to hear from senior figures with varying administrative and academic roles in the University of Nottingham, ask your questions, and share your views.

4 pm Afternoon tea and display of current students’ videos of What is ‘University’? – (Atrium, Teaching and Learning Building)

5-7pm Panel conversation, chaired by Prof Jeremy Gregory, FPVC for Arts:

  • Prof Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor
  • Prof Pam Hagan, Senior Tutor and Director of Student Well-being, School of Medicine
  • Dr Paul Greatrix, University Registrar
  • Prof Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy
  • Mr Andrew Winter, Campus Life Director
  • Ms Stacy Johnson, School of Health Sciences and Deputy Hall Warden
  • Prof Peter Stockwell, School of English

Long gone are the halcyon days of dreaming spires and ivory towers — if they ever existed outside the less-than-entirely-fevered imaginations of a certain class of academic — and universities are increasingly being forced to question their place in the world…


I’m looking forward to the event on Thursday — it promises to be a timely exploration of just why it is that academics do what they do. For homework (of my own), I’m going to ask some of those best placed to tell me about the role and function of a university education: our students. Today’s Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) session is going to focus on the “What Is “University”?” question. I’ll report back to the panel during Thursday’s event on the students’ feedback (and will write a follow-up post in due course.) For now, here are my slides for today’s PPP session. (As ever, however, the majority of the time will be given over to student discussion and debate.)

Update Nov 5 2019

The students provided a great deal of fascinating feedback and insightful contributions on this topic… (More on what they had to say in a future post.)



Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

3 thoughts on “What Is “University”?”

  1. Dear Philip, I looked at the Pew research data you mention, and it has sub-structure in time and political orientation that indicate that academia become recently distrusted by people who have political ideas different from the majority of academia and who are concerned about issues such as political correctness, limited free speech, political diversity, education vs indoctrination.


  2. Dear Alessandro,

    Please forgive my absolute lack of surprise at the polarisation you mention — bears and pontiffs spring to mind.

    As I’ve noted before in our exchanges, on multiple occasions, I would suggest that you should try to put the Peterson et al. playlist to one side, stop crying victimisation at the hands of the PC bogeyman, and broaden your horizons.

    Here’s a small selection of some other examples of where there’s a call for free speech to be severely curtailed because of a lack of political diversity, coupled with, in many cases, a worrying level of indoctrination…







    Similarly, if we go back fifty-odd years or so, we find that the underpinning anti-intellectualism was an issue on the other side of the political spectrum: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1969/3/25/the-agony-of-the-american-left/

    I could continue, for quite some length, but I’ll let you digest those for now.

    It is indeed a real issue when intelligent academics swallow indoctrination and credulously parrot cliches about the big, bad “PC” world without taking the time to consider the broader context.

    I’ll leave you with Stewart Lee on the subject of political correctness…


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