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School is back. Kids around the country have put away baseball gloves, bathing suits, those big scoop things they use to play hai-lai, and they're dutifully waiting for school buses. Or to be dropped off on campus, where they will decorate their dorm rooms and launch into college life.

From the "Only in New York" file, we have news that an NYU professor who discovered an important arthritis drug has donated $105 million to the university, which will endow a couple of professorships, build some labs, and support some students. This bequest, which could be categorized as happy drug-related news, happened at about the same time as two students overdosed on contaminated heroin, with one unfortunately dying. At least all the dorms have had their balconies bricked shut. Just wait until classes actually start at NYU.

Meanwhile, uptown at Columbia the big news seems to be the opening of a Farmers' Market in Morningside Park, which has predictably raised the ire of local store owners and community groups that run other farmers' markets. It is too early to say whether this year will be as exciting as last in terms of open conflict regarding politicized classrooms. But Columbia's real estate saga is boundless, now in its fourth century, and is being made more interesting by Kelo vs. New London and the question of eminent domain. Which brings to mind a modest proposal: what if The Donald were to propose tearing down Columbia's campus and putting up a casino? Given that this would bring certifiable economic gains to the community, could Mike Bloomberg exercise eminent domain and send Bollinger and Company packing? Just thinking out loud.

Fortunately, at Brown progress has been made replacing the antiquated cable TV system in the dorms with TV beamed straight to students' computers. Why not go 100% wireless and watch TV during class? Students are already instant messaging and downloading who-knows-what. At the risk of sounding (even more) cranky, this makes me nostalgic for my own college days when nobody had a TV, much less a computer, and if you wanted to watch Love Boat or Battle of the Network Superstars you had to go to a bar and order a drink like a normal person.

To quickly switch coasts (and moods), a group of Berkeley students held a protest on Sproul Plaza to protest the university's slow response to the hurricane.

"Protesters also drafted a list of demands, including giving academic credit to UC Berkeley students who plan on traveling to New Orleans to aid the relief effort."

Going to New Orleans to help out is undoubtedly a good and noble impulse or sentiment, but it raises a series of questions. If a student has no particular skills applicable in a search and rescue situation, like being a certified scuba diver with rescue training, or, more grimly, forensic anthropology, or even a heavy equipment operators license, or post-crisis skills, as in mental health counseling, what exactly will they do? What sort of credit should they receive? And what if a student volunteers to help out in another situation, say, in Darfur? My impression is that hurricane relief has already suffered from too many people who don't know what the hell they're doing, namely a whole swath of administrators at the local, state and federal levels, and the occasional publicity-hungry Hollywood type.

I could go on and on. But the point is not simply to make fun but to show that colleges and universities are doing what they always do, socializing young people, hustling for money, wrestling with the local community, coping with disasters large and small, and maybe even engaging in a little education. Until we have a more articulate view of what society would like universities to be, with specific goals and logical means, they will be all over the place. And as a collection of over three thousand non-profit corporations, serving over 16 million students, with hundreds of thousands of employees, and spending $63 billion in state funds alone, how could the picture be anything but heterogeneous, that is to say, a mess?

The question perhaps should be, what in this giant concatenation of conflicting interests are basic philosophic principles and baselines standards? What is a university education for? Certification of basic literacy and numeracy for American capitalism, exposure to Great Ideas that can be models for thoughtful living, or a means of "subverting the mind-numbing, consumer/capitalist/fascist/sexist/racist/classist ideologies that surround us in the form of American mythologies and mass culture?" Parents and students are generally after one or both of the first two possibilities, while faculty members not infrequently devoted only to the third. Consumers have the power to generate pressure for change, but they generally decline to exercise it.

"Academic freedom" is always thrown up as the single, all-purpose defense and anyone who questions what universities do or do not do is automatically an anti-intellectual McCarthyite. Jonathan Cole's mangled metaphor (link via $ubscription) captures this haughtiness nicely,

"Tie a tourniquet around that free flow of intellectual energy, and we will halt the production of knowledge that is necessary for conquering disease and poverty and for improving the quality of everyday life."

Please. Even with Cole's ungraceful recourse to biology, this is simply not a credible defense from the humanities and social sciences, mired in opposition and obscurantism, whose petulant bohemianism deliberately dissolves everything it touches. What does "academic freedom" mean when its practitioners cannot agree that we even share a single reality?

Until such a time when there can be even a minimal revival of consensus on goals and standards, for that it all that is really required, then the best we can hope for is a sort of "normal science" period where the news from campus is characterized primarily by juvenile behavior from students, indulgence thereof from the university, and groans from parents writing the checks. Gifted teaching, and inspired learning, no doubt still go on, but rarely make the headlines, since they are usually outnumbered by confessional footstamping and unreadable (and unread) contributions to journals with names like Cultural Critique.

In the meantime let's all pull out our dog-eared copies of Edward Shils' fundamental book The Academic Ethic and get ready for a long school year.

Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.