What's The Question?

by Fred Esplin, Publisher

The primary purpose of some institutions is to provide answers. The primary purpose of others is to ask questions. Universities are the latter: their greatest virtues and contributions to society are in the nature of the questions they pose.

Among our unique characteristics as humans is our constant quest for something more than food and shelter. Our reach for answers always exceeds our grasp. "The informing principle of all life, the cosmic DNA—call it God, Nature, or the indwelling creative principle—does a strange trick with humans," says theologian/philosopher Sam Keen. "It implants an impulse that will carry us beyond its own programming. We are created to be self-transcending." While not limited to the academy, this is the principle that provides the yeast for the intellectual
ferment of a university.

Keen suggests that what shapes our lives are the questions we ask, refuse to ask, or never think of asking. Asking one set of questions can set us in search of what happened during the Big Bang, or how we can end violence, or in pursuit of a cure for cancer. Conversely, as Keen suggests, "When the mind wraps itself in a security blanket of answers, the brain closes down its quest, moves away from adventure, and ceases to expand....Thought becomes received and recycled opinion and travels round and round the familiar highways," creating a "closed circuitry of The Answer."

At its best, the University of Utah poses probing questions—in its teaching, its research, and its public service. In doing so, it helps students become critical and imaginative thinkers, researchers assault the borders of ignorance, and—by sharing knowledge and insight—faculty and staff to better the human condition.

This issue of Continuum tells the stories of just such people. One is William Orrison, medical director of the Center for Advanced Medical Technology, who, with his research colleagues, is using magnetic-source imaging to create real-time images of the brain at work. The research offers new insight into how the brain functions—and dysfunctions. Among the implications of Dr. Orrison's research is the possibility of better understanding and treating such mental disorders as autism.

Another article profiles a teacher who has a special gift for inspiring her students to stretch themselves intellectually and to link their studies to the communities in which they live. Martha Bradley BFA'74 PhD'87 is an assistant professor (lecturer) in architecture and holds a joint appointment with Tom Kass as University Professor. Bradley has been honored with a Distinguished Teaching Award, a Service-Learning Professorship, and the ASUU Student Choice for Excellence in Teaching. Among her means of engaging her students is a class on the theme of community. This includes a service-learning component that helps students to not only become more aware of diversity, but to value it.

Writer Kirsten Wille BA'92 MA'97 raises questions of her own in an article that looks at the role of Greek-letter fraternities and sororities in campus life. Among her questions: What are the contributions and liabilities of fraternities and sororities to campus, community, and to their members? Has their role in campus life changed? Should it? And how do you keep the peace between the fraternity boys and their residential neighbors?

Finally, Byron Sims BS'57 looks at the University's strategic initiatives to bolster student retention and strengthen enrollment by creating opportunities for students to become more engaged in campus life. He describes plans to improve campus residential life through the Heritage Commons and other on-campus experiences. He also examines various steps being taken in academic and student affairs to broaden and deepen the student experience at the U.

As these articles reflect, the U is going about the business of cultivating questions. There are answers along the way, to be sure, but the lifeblood of the institution continues to be in the quality of the questions we pose-to students, researchers, and the communities we seek to serve. When we get it right, we're not just asking questions to receive answers, we're also helping save ourselves from a life of premature closure.

As Sam Keen puts it, to love the great questions "is to be reminded that the life we are given is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be explored, suffered, and enjoyed."

—Fred Esplin MS'74 is the newly appointed vice president for university relations and publisher of Continuum. The quotations from Sam Keen are from an article in the Spring 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.


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Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association