Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. The conditions that have made this possible included, in the past, a loose, egalitarian organization, substantial autonomy for scholars and teachers, and a generous esprit de corps. Yet instead of preserving this distinguished and successful sector of British life, both Labour and Tory governments seem bent on rearing hierarchies, crushing autonomy, and destroying morale. The idea, apparently, is to reconfigure the universities on a corporate model—not, however, the democratic model used by Google and other corporations that are flourishing now, but the older one of the 1950s, which did wonders for such British industries as shipbuilding and car manufacturing.In which the New York Review of Books calls for the Warburg Institute Library to be saved from The University of London.
Particularly painful is the University of London’s attempt to disperse the unparalleled collections of the Warburg Institute. Named for a supremely imaginative historian of art and culture, Aby Warburg, the institute began as his library in Hamburg, which was devoted to the study of the impact of classical antiquity on European civilization. The library was rescued from Hamburg in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, thanks in part to the help of British benefactors. In the midst of World War II, Rab Butler, president of the British Board of Education, decided that the institute must be kept in Britain, and that the only way to do this was to make it part of the University of London, which was in those days a great force for openness and innovation in British higher education.