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June 1, 2023+Nathan Harter
+Campus Climate

The University as a Caravanserai: A Metaphor

For 1,500 years, the Silk Road was a network of pathways some 4,000 miles long connecting Europe with China. Medieval travelers risked violence, robbery, and enslavement on the open road, especially through alien and unfamiliar territory. Often, they banded together for mutual protection. Nightly, these caravans had to pause at large structures known as caravanserais to eat and rest, protected from wild animals and brigands. The caravanserai was therefore an emblem of hospitality, as well as a source of revenue for villages along the route. Merchants, pilgrims, and emissaries from different cultures going in different directions relied on these sources of water and safety. Ordinarily, a caravanserai was a large walled enclosure where strangers and their animals (and their merchandise) converged temporarily, before they all packed up in the morning and went their separate ways.

A successful installation did not have to provide all the necessities, yet it did have to keep everybody safe inside (and safe from one another). In that way, the caravanserai entertained a diverse mixture of people of every type. One can imagine as the sun set, the music and tufts of aroma, the chatter and the lowing of the weary beasts — mules, camels, and dogs — as the stars gathered gently overhead. Travelers who shared a language no doubt swapped stories by the fire, comparing notes with one another about the road ahead and divulging a bit about themselves — their missions, their faiths, their heritages, and their fears. Occasionally, regular visitors recognized one another from the road and renewed their acquaintance, but if they made the journey often, they certainly became increasingly familiar with their hosts along the way. Relationships at the caravanserai were brief but colorful, and probably on occasion fraught with drama — a richly textured node in a vast and treacherous network, for many centuries stretching across hostile territory, linking stupendously different civilizations.


The modern university is meant to be a way station for students to pause along their life’s journey. They come from different places for different purposes, staying together long enough to fortify themselves before going in different directions. The host promises to keep them safe and offer some necessities, but it works only if they respect the diversity of those who pass through its gates. Much of the appeal comes from the spontaneous interactions that ensue, the acquaintance of strangers open to one another who share a common interest in managing their respective journeys successfully, even profitably. Students can be said to pass through the university, like lines converging on a dot, only to scatter again the next day. In systems thinking, we refer to this as an institution’s input/output model.

For the metaphor of a caravanserai to work, the university must attract many students and provide them with shelter and respite. Obviously, that pause lasts longer than a night. And we as hosts are focused more on what we provide in the way of an education and do not serve merely as a convenient stopping place for busy people. In fact, we often help these students decide where they want to go next, because they may not know. Neither is it certain they know what to expect once they venture forth. Many of them will travel together loosely as they make their way. Some will need accompanying protection. But while we have them within the massive walls of our enclosure, we gain as much from them as they do from us. We all come to know one another, hearing one another’s stories and practicing our virtue, rarely suspecting the dazzling visions they will see at their destinations or the harrowing perils they must face en route, while each morning we sweep off the flagstones again, lay in fresh provender, and make ready for tonight’s guests, over and over.

Professors especially practice their craft, taking responsibility for what it is that we do, so we often forget that these students are indeed simply passing through. Tomorrow, they will stop at the next inn, where somebody else will welcome them and beguile them and shelter them. We live here. This is our home. And what we do, we do repeatedly. So of course, our attention will belong to this place. We are as the villagers, native to the soil, sharing our bounty, but fixated on ourselves — on our continued existence, our culture, our identity. And we know that occasionally, we must rise up in the darkness to turn back the thief or the wolf.

Now and then, of course, a voyageur falls in love with a local and chooses to stay. That happens. And we will rejoice that we have become someone’s new home. Why more people would not choose to stay here baffles us, because of course we love it here. Everybody else though we must allow to leave (and even push out the gate, if they linger). Then we can resume our prayers, mend our clothing, and wait.


Eventually, travelers found alternate routes to the Orient: quicker routes, less arduous routes. And the fabled Silk Road fell into disuse, more of a byway really, off the beaten path — many of these caravanserais falling into disrepair or taken over by marauding armies. And the local villagers, the hosts, now relatively isolated from the world, must scratch out their existence in new ways or migrate at last to the city looking for jobs.

The recent pandemic exacerbated a trend in the United States of declining undergraduate enrollment at higher education institutions. Students are increasingly bypassing college or dropping out at alarming rates. Or they are pushed out after becoming academically ineligible. Compounding the crisis is the inability of universities to manage mental health on campus. Many who remain in higher education opt for online services, rather than — or in addition to — the traditional residential experience, where undergraduates physically gather in a shared space. A recent report on PBS NewsHour asked the question: “Is residential college worth the cost?” Sheer demographics might be rendering the campus experience as obsolete. Those of us staffing these outposts for the venturesome wayfarer might find ourselves increasingly isolated, if we are unable to provide hospitality for an eclectic group of strangers hoping to pick up and make their way onward.


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