Cardinal John Henry Newman was born this day in 1801, and in his essay, "The Idea of a University," he defines its prime function as "a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country." That's as good a definition as any.
Equally astute is his observation that "one generation forms another, and the existing generation is ever acting and reacting upon itself in the persons of its individual members." He believes a university should be a place where "inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and exposed, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge." It's a remarkable summation of what higher learning is about.