For well over a decade, the university of Western civilization has faced and continues to grapple with challenges to its traditional function: the pursuit of truth. Will it survive - and in what form? The American, European, and Australian scholars whose papers are published in this book bring a worldwide perspective to these and other questions. The result is a very fine cross section of what's happening to higher education.
A major concern is the infusion of politics into academia, stemming from the student riots of the 1960s and '70s. These demonstrations took place - with greater or lesser severity, depending on the location and circumstances - in a number of countries, not just the US. The changes in university administration and education that grew either directly or indirectly out of them have been mixed benefits, at best. For instance:
* Democratization, or the belief that everyone should, or even must, have a degree, has led to lower standards and inflated grades. As Allan Bloom says in his superb essay, ''University Standards and the Decline of Humane Learning,'' getting an ''F'' now practically requires an act of will by the student. This cheapening of the grading system has left a vacuum because the college record no longer reflects the talents or achievements of the student. Standardized tests such as those prepared by the Educational Testing Service have rushed to fill the void. But does the university then become a mere prepping place for the exams?
* Confusion has developed over the types of studies that should be offered. Is a degree program meant to give people practical skills - engineering, business, applied science? Or should it impart ''pure'' research and scholarship? In some parts of the world, the gap between the ''pure'' and the ''applied'' is growing. This could lead to the loss of valuable cross-fertilization between the two. Should the trend be reversed, and if so, how?
* Direct government control of university systems in some countries and increasing dependence on government funding in others has opened the door to political interference in curriculum, faculty, policy. Some schools have begun to rely on these funds to bring laboratories and other facilities up to date. One danger is that they will pursue projects likely to be funded instead of exercising the intellectual curiosity that leads to fresh discoveries.
* Burgeoning bureaucracy, often resulting from paper work required by government programs, affirmative action, and the like, can stifle innovation in red tape and swallow up funds that might be used for teaching posts. At the same time, universities that overexpanded during the enrollment boom a few years ago are facing a need for severe retrenchment.
These are some of the major topics tackled in the papers, which were presented originally in 1981 at the Third International Conference of the International Council on the Future of the University. Begun in Norwich, England , in 1970 as the International Committee on the University Emergency, the theme of the council's 1981 conference was ''The Pursuit of Truth in a Changing World.'' The book presents three different aspects of this theme:
The Idea of the University. These five essays describe the philosophical basis of the university's functions and how they relate to quality and equality, democracy, autonomy, and freedom. In this section, Nikolaus Lobkowicz's essay, ''Man, Pursuit of Truth, and the University,'' is outstanding and refreshingly honest. A professor of philosophy and president of the University of Munich, Lobkowicz comments on the time of radical change in which we are living. He says , ''This turmoil is mainly caused by technological advance, but its essence is spiritual. Our societies no longer seem able to transmit their values to the new generation.'' After discussing some of the reasons for this, he declares that as a result of the way society is permeated with change ''everything becomes hypothetical and provisional; with virtually nothing unquestioned, the sense of stability and permanence evaporates. . . .''
The Pursuit of Truth. This section covers the elements of university life that make up the truth it seeks: research, teaching, natural science, humanities , social science. Also included are two complementary essays: ''The Mediterranean Experience'' by Julio R. Villanueva and John A. Scott's ''Research in Italy.'' From these essays one learns much of value, including the fact that computer technology is playing a key role in education around the world. For instance, Italy is the only country with a uniform system for its computers. The Instituto di Linguistica provides key services, primarily in philology and linguistics, between computers and about 50 research centers. Links have also been established with centers outside the country because the European Economic Community is creating a computer network with an international linguistic bank.
Academic Standards and University Organization. This final section is perhaps the best. It discusses university standards and programs in the US, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In addition to Allan Bloom's essay, mentioned above, this portion includes Robin W. Winks's insightful ''Government and the University in the United States,'' and Folke Halden's ''The University and the Economy in Sweden.''
The book's only serious flaw is that the quality of the writing varies greatly. Despite the uneven quality, the message is clear: Only great alertness will keep colleges and universities alive intellectually and free politically. This is a book to be pondered. The fact that these authors represent schools throughout the world, makes their warning more worth heeding.