The End of the University

On 8 January, at the 375th birthday (Dies Natalis) of the University of Amsterdam, University Professor Louise Fresco gave the annual anniversary speech (Dies rede) to the university community. Unfortunately, the address is only available in Dutch. With the risk of totally mutilating and distorting Fresco’s brilliant style of writing, I want to share a few (translated) passages of her magnificent speech. In her address, Louise Fresco reported about research that was done by Dr. Hakim Sarastro of the University of Oeloemia. Part of Dr. Sarastro’s research on European higher education was conducted in Amsterdam(*). Fresco cites frequently from the letters that Sarastro sent to his colleagues in Oeloemia.

In his first letter(**), Sarastro starts on a positive and hopeful note:

“Dear Friends, finally I am in Europe, birthplace of western science! I feel like a traveler whose thirst will finally be quenched. Where better than in this continent, where the university was invented, can we test whether we are heading in the right direction at home in Oeloemia.”

After doing field work at the University of Amsterdam, Sarastro continues in a more disillusioned tone in his second letter:

“In Oeloemia we know that the young student is like a new flower that needs to be treated carefully and has to be given the utmost care and attention. Only the freshest water and the purest nutrients will lead to knowledge and understanding. (…) But here, education takes place in grubbily underground rooms with bright fluorescent tubes, heaps of crushed plastic cups and scratched tables, by overworked teachers that do not have the time for the massive number of students that they are supposed to take care of. Under the guise of self-directed learning, many classes have been abolished; …and that while the art of listening is the first step in the maturation of the young soul.”

Dr. Sarastro was also astonished about the incestuous nature of academia in this small country, as he wrote in his fourth letter:

“… And then I noticed something that is utterly perplexing. In this affluent country there are no distant, isolated areas without books, where to one could be expelled. From east to west, from north to south, everywhere people live in equal comfort, but still no one seems to be willing to move. What in other places would be called intellectual incest – please forgive me the use of such a shocking term – has here become normal practice: one becomes professor at the university where one obtained the PhD, or where one graduated. Maybe that is why they are so found of the miniscule differences between the universities and research groups. Here, they are worse than the strictest religious scholars in Oeloemia: the ones that come from a particular school will be rejected in other schools, as a renegade. Even though they call themselves international, here in this country they see themselves and their models as unique, and that’s why they prefer to avoid speaking amongst each other.”

Accountability and performance have led to a system of peer review in the evaluation of research and the assessment of universities. This system is discussed in his fifth letter.

“This beautiful system however, is far less objective than its supporters think. The editors of the top journals are not afraid to use political resources to preserve their power. The editorial boards are inclined to create barriers and only accept papers that come from likeminded schools, so that rival groups can publish less of their work. Researchers themselves will slice their studies into more and more separate pieces, lest they can publish more. It is as if they try to squeeze as many drops out of an orange as possible instead of trying to squeeze one drop of valuable perfume out of the orange blossom.”

And about university evaluations:

“Believe me, I sincerely made an attempt to read the assessment reports, but I don’t have the faintest idea about which conclusions can be drawn on the basis of these reports, except that everything is going well and that they are very satisfied about themselves. Of course they will include foreign peers in the assessment teams. But here it is the case that they invite friends from likeminded schools, and that they return the favor at their schools. So, almost without exception, they get a grade of the highest level, and only rarely will a program be abolished. Considering all this, one would conclude that all inhabitants of this university were prophets.”

“And I’ll tell you something else I didn’t expect, my friends. Their work is now so tightly coordinated and arranged, that there is no time left anymore for unanticipated ideas. But if we aim for the development of knowledge, don’t we then need the freedom to go where our research leads us? The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain.”

In his sixth letter he writes about his experiences within the faculties.

“It is truly a relief to see that the long European tradition is kept alive: here at the University of Amsterdam there are still the identifiable, classical faculties like the medical sciences, the physical sciences and the humanities. But I discovered that within these faculties programs are established of which I can not understand the content. These programs are about issues like doing business and communication. (…) Friends, it cannot be the case that a scientific, academic education has no higher objective then helping young people to understand the news on TV and to write their CVs!”


“They stand with their backs against each other, looking over the river, full of distrust and only longing for participation in the ‘League of Top Universities and Top Faculties’ on the other side of the seas. Politicians here claim that knowledge is the cornerstone of progress, but they distrust every call for more university resources. Can this small country, that in many respects is already ‘big’ relative to its population and its area, excel in all areas? Like the wise men say: the mountain that wants to reach to the skies, needs to spread its slopes widely over the plains, and the elite is positioned on the shoulders of large families.”

Dr. Sarastro also expresses his concern about the financial situation and the bureaucracy in the universities:

“Every time, more and more pages need to be written to obtain the same amount of money. Most peculiar of this university is that so few hours are spent on thinking. Instead of thinking they write reports, instead of waiting patiently for that creative spark, they are in meetings.”

Why not compare the Sciences with the Arts, proposes Dr. Sarastro:

“The development, protection and transfer of knowledge don’t differ fundamentally from the promotion of the Arts, which flourishes so well over here. Does it? Sponsoring is what this peculiar transaction is called, not only free of interest, but also free of influence: one buys or hires ten dancers, fifty violinists or three paintings, without being able to determine what is played or displayed. It might be amazing that the rich are involved in such activities, but over here it is regarded as very respectable for the rich to support museums and concerts.

Doesn’t our knowledge – that helps us to understand how the world works, what our position is and who we are – deserve to be nourished just like the Arts? Nevertheless, the rich and the companies remain absent, unless they can determine what the research will be about? “

Dr. Sarastro also finds that there is a feeling of distance and indifference between city and university, except where it concerns making money through spin-off companies. He thinks that that should be different:

“I haven’t spoken to anyone in the city that was truly proud of the University of Amsterdam. A city without university is like a human without thoughts, like a plain without a horizon! They cannot exist without each other. The city needs free thinkers because creativity and authenticity represent a city. The application of knowledge in new companies occurs spontaneously in an environment that attracts creative people. There is no need for official committees to stimulate this.”

By the time Hakim Sarastro gets to his eighth letter, there seem to appear more and more signs of desperation:

“Friends! In Oeloemia, the university is a place where students in small groups and together with their teachers, learn what science is, where research demands the highest personal dedication and where only the best professors – by rotation – as deans take comprehensible decisions about the academic directions.”


“The confusion and dissatisfaction here, prove that systems of equity representation and participation do not lead to courageous decisions. National politicians refuse to put the money where their mouth is, the management of universities is paralyzed by internal struggles and lack of resources, and the professors… ah, they’ll go their own way. There is no Universitas here, no desire to jointly shape a university.”


“This is, my friends, the sad ending of a grand tradition that, from Bologna, via Coimbra, Paris, Heidelberg and Cambridge led to the nice European promises of Lisbon. Does this mean the end of the university? Will she implode because of the increasing bureaucratic pressures from within and from outside, and the centrifugal forces of market oriented research that is destroying the classical faculties? Will the university go to pieces because of a lack in leadership or because of the increasing student numbers? However things may be in Amsterdam, my dearest friends, we in Oeloemia need to go forward! Because he who saves one university, saves them all!”

Dr. Sarastro ends his last letter with the following passage:

“Oh friends, how my heart longs for the gardens of Oeloemia, for the jasmine shrubs that are touched by the quiet drops of the fountain – like by the finger tips of a lover – , for the honorable calmness of our inner courts where one only reads and whispers. There should be as many universities as there are plants flourishing in our gardens. Too long have I found myself in this grey mist, between empty trees and the smell of fried potatoes, in this country where the moon appears to be slower and paler than elsewhere. I have told you in detail about my visit, since I could only survive by telling you my story”

(*) Sarastro, H. Letters from My Travels Searching for Universal Serendipity, the case of the University of Amsterdam (English summary). University of Oeloemia, Sunpower Press, Oeloemia, 2006. Circulation restricted.

(**) In an end note to the speech, Louise Fresco reveals her real source of inspiration: Lettres persanes by Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu), anonymously published in Amsterdam in 1721. Montesquieu is such an inspiring character because he was interested in – and experienced in – all sciences, from philosophy to physics. The name Sarastro does not come from the Lettres persanes, but of course refers to the keeper of the Temple of Wisdom in Mozart’s Zauberflote. Fresco has named him Hakim (‘the wise man’). Oeloemia is a name made up by Fresco, coming from ‘Uluum’, the Arabic word for Sciences.

Some of Sarastro’s words come directly from Montesquieu. In other instances, Fresco has added some words from Persian poetry (from Thackston, W.M.: A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry: A Guide to the Reading & Understanding of Persian Poetry from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, 1994 Ibex Publishers, Bethesda (MD)). The comparison with the barking dog (Letter V) comes from a speech by Adlai Stevenson from the University of Wisconsin (in 1952: ‘If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain’).

[With thanks to ScienceGuide for pointing me to the speech. The full speech, in Dutch, can be found here]

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