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Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories

reviewed by Jennifer A. Rippner - April 19, 2013

coverTitle: Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories
Author(s): Hanna Holborn Gray
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520270657, Pages: 130, Year: 2011
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Hanna Holborn Gray’s Searching for Utopia: Universities and their Histories serves as a modern tribute to and reflection on Clark Kerr’s seminal 1963 work, The Uses of the University, which coined the term “multiversity” to describe the multiple functions and expectations of modern research universities.  Gray is well-suited to provide reflections on Kerr’s work given her tenure as President of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993 and her academic background as an historian.  The book’s content stems from Gray’s Clark Kerr Lectures on Higher Education at the University of California in the fall of 2009.  Gray’s concise work is thought-provoking and engaging.  In fact, its simplicity is what makes it impactful – a concise listing of the historical and current multitude of (often competing) pressures, expectations, and mandates a university must endure boggles the mind.  

This makes the work appropriate for most audiences.  Graduate students of higher education, new university administrators, and policy leaders will find an overview of the historical role and expectations of universities as well as the contemporary pressures they face.  Experienced leaders will be reminded why their jobs seem so difficult at times, which in itself can renew one’s spirits and motivation.

The book has three substantive chapters that mirror Gray’s themes for her lectures.  The first considers to what extent Kerr’s analysis of the research university is still viable today.  To do this, Gray compares and contrasts Kerr’s critique of the university with that of Robert Maynard Hutchins, leader of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951.  Kerr refers to Hutchins as the only other university president to be as “frank and open” as he was on critiquing their field (p. 9).  There is a great deal for Gray to work with here as Kerr and Hutchins have widely differing styles.  As Gray notes, Hutchins saw higher education’s mission as “leading ultimately to the spiritual transformation of a corrupt and materialistic world that had lost all sense of purpose and descended into a dark well of skeptical relativism, scientism, empty empiricism, false vocationalism, and anti-intellectualism” (p. 10).  This is compared to Kerr’s more measured tone, which sought to examine the “complexities and subtleties of a complicated topic” and describe its issues and potential solutions (p. 7).  Ultimately, Gray finds that Kerr’s analysis still resonates today.  While context may have changed in the past ten or so years since Kerr’s last update to his work, the field of higher education is still wrestling with problems centered on similar themes.  

The next chapter examines other notable figures’ views of the research university in the second half of the twentieth century and more specifically, how different conceptions of an ideal education and ideal university affects current debates on structure and purpose of “liberal learning”.  Gray asks beyond being “the best”, what do universities really set out to achieve and how does this affect their structure and purposes?  She explores the aims and critiques of the liberal arts in higher education from medieval times through modern times.  In an admittedly oversimplification of Gray’s analysis, from the earliest times, students read classical texts in order to learn the Truth.  As universities evolved, education, particularly at research-oriented universities, was employed to determine multiple truths.  This facilitated the emergence of the multiversity.    In fact, Gray argues “American universities, from the outset, tended to view themselves as endowed with more than a single purpose.  In essence, the multiversity was born already with the universities of the late nineteenth century” (p. 44).  The chapter provides an excellent and concise overview of the history of liberal versus vocational or applied education and its impact on the structure and purposes of the university.

The final section provides a brief history of major debates surrounding research universities, and higher education more broadly.  It provides more detail on the themes that Gray noted as still relevant from Kerr’s work.  It serves as a sort higher education rendition of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” outlining the myriad issues affecting higher education over the past 50 years.  Gray notes continuing issues such as defining institutional missions, financial struggles (for both institutions and students), public opinion, commercialism, and more.  She ends the chapter with thoughts on the future of universities including technological changes, the need to serve more students of differing backgrounds, and the need to foster an intellectual community.

In conclusion, Gray admits that the preceding chapters may appear to paint a dim picture of universities and their collective future.  However, she counters that the state of universities remains strong and they have adapted well to changing conditions.  Her overall recommendation is that universities “return to basics” and determine their “essential work” (p. 93).  She is not prescriptive in what that is given the wide diversity of institutions and missions, but that some period of reflection is necessary for institutions individually and collectively.  

Searching for Utopia is a solid tour through the historical conceptions and modern tensions universities face.  Gray’s overall message to universities to hone their mission and focus on their essential work makes sense.  Does every university need state-of-the-art residence halls or graduate education in physics or a medical school?  Probably not.  Should we change our conception of a “great” higher education institution to go beyond research and include those access schools that graduate 90 percent or more of their students?  Probably so.  This work is a fitting tribute and follow-up to Kerr’s The Uses of the University and a solid read for those experienced in and new to higher education policy in order to understand the multiple pressures universities face and the historical roots of those tensions.


Kerr, C. (2001). The Uses of the University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. First published 1963.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 19, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17095, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:16:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Rippner
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER A. RIPPNER is a Graduate Research Assistant and doctoral candidate in the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. Ms. Rippner holds a B.A. in Political Science and a Juris Doctorate. She previously served as education advisor to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and was a member of the Southern Regional Education Board. Her interests center on state P-20 organizational and policy issues.
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