Our Views: Old message for universities

LSU has a new president, F. King Alexander, and Tulane University will be getting a new president next year after Scott Cowen retires as Tulane’s leader. A changing of the guards should inspire reflection about the special nature of universities and how to lead them.

There’s probably no better commentator on the subject than Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th century British clergyman perhaps best known for a small but insightful book called “The Idea of a University.”

Much has changed in higher education since Newman’s day, but the essential truths of Newman’s thinking about education remain as topical as ever — so much so that Oxford University Press has just released a new edition of Newman’s writings, “The Genius of John Henry Newman.”

Perhaps his wisest observation about universities was his matter-of-fact acknowledgement that the root word of any university is “universal.” Newman knew that university teachers, regardless of discipline, shared more similarities than differences. He concluded that because all forms of knowledge feed each other, then the departments of a university, including science and philosophy, should work together, too. But universities are famous for their turf battles, and the kind of collaboration envisioned by Newman doesn’t happen very easily.

Even so, that ideal of efficiency is more important than ever these days, as budget challenges compel higher education leaders to make the most of the resources they have.