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A student walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass, on Jan. 2.Steven Senne/The Associated Press

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

The forced resignations of two high-profile university presidents, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay of Harvard, have unleashed a new wave in the front of the culture wars. The two women were forced out in part because of their now-notorious legalistic replies about campus speech codes and antisemitism, with Dr. Gay’s disgrace compounded by charges of plagiarism.

The third administrator targeted by the congressional hitters, Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of technology, is still in her job. It is no coincidence that the three targets of Elise (Two Down) Stefanik were women – one Black and two new to their jobs.

Like everything else in the topsy-turvy madhouse of contemporary media, these spectacular implosions have been subject to multiple interpretations. For some, they are examples of right-wing cancel culture and partisan “weaponization” of academic sloppiness. For others, this is simply diversity, equity, and inclusion ideology coming home to roost, a woke wake-up call. The first group is alarmed, the second gleeful, but both are wide of the mark.

Neither faction seems to have a good idea of what a university is for, especially in a high-stakes world like the Ivy League, where donors can dictate policy and graduates run the world. But that is no surprise, because nobody has a very good idea of what higher education is for. One of the things higher education does, like all education, formal or otherwise, is to put itself into question.

I think that is why so much mainstream punditry about universities strikes those of us who work in them as cartoonish. The commentary seems about as accurate as depictions of college life on television or in the movies, where every measly department chair has a wood-panelled office and aging instructors are eccentric and tweedy, vague yet egotistical, even as they fulminate over pronouns and gender-neutral bathrooms.

Written satire is better at capturing the true weirdness of academic life. My three decades of faculty experience suggests that Microcosmographia Academica (1908), The Groves of Academe (1952), Lucky Jim (1954), and Dear Committee Members (2014) are the must-reads here, but there are many others that strike the correct note of cynical hilarity.

Of course it’s not all fun and games, as English theologian Cardinal Newman reminds us. Universities exert tremendous social and cultural influence, and control vast resources. They confer status and vouchsafe expertise. They also foster critical thinking, good citizenship, and human curiosity. They are many other things besides: job-training sites, warehouses for wayward youth, mental spas, socialization machines, guarantors of tradition, incubators of innovation, and yes, sometimes, indoctrination camps.

This multiplicity is what rival sides in the war always miss. Universities, despite their name, are never one thing. They are fractured, sprawling, contradictory and incomplete. The Canadian philosopher George Grant suggested we should call them multiversities.

Of course, everybody has their own aspirational or nostalgic view of higher education. For some, the recent resignations signal a tectonic reckoning or a repetition of bad history. Dr. Gay herself saw her ouster, with some reason, as a sign of dwindling trust in all public institutions – ironically agreeing with critics on the other side.

The “ideological rot” of DEI, conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote this week, “blew up the excellence model, centered on the ideal of intellectual merit and chiefly concerned with knowledge, discovery and the free and vigorous contest of ideas.” Now the tables are turned. Meanwhile, the historian Niall Ferguson recently suggested that the soft-on-Hamas Ivy League had enacted a new-millennium version of “the treason of the intellectuals,” just as German academics had succumbed to the allure of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

DEI bureaucracy is overweening in places, yes, and radical ideas get a warmer welcome in universities than conservative ones. But the idea that there was some “excellent” former intellectual idyll, lately corroded by utopian political influence, is itself a dangerous nowhere-man fantasy.

Those of us who recall Bill Readings’s searing 1997 indictment of the techno-corporate university, The University in Ruins, will recognize this “excellence.” It is yet another dream of annexing thought to the current arrangement. Education is always political, and too often in the service of dominant ideas, not novel ones.

Mr. Readings, just 34 years old, was killed in a plane crash as his book was going to press. Despite its title, his parting message is an optimistic one. A university is always a kind of ruin, a provocative folly. Trust isn’t the point; this is not a banking system but a crucible of thought.

Intellectual inquiry should not offer comfort or affirmation of what we already believe. It’s not even about social justice either, unless we individually choose that path. It’s about ideas, and they are challenging, unruly, inconvenient things.

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