Universities now face a host of challenges: straitened budgets, casualised teaching staff, multiplying audit mechanisms ensuring ‘accountability’, technological developments that seem to throw traditional teaching practices into question, the erosion of tenure, closed publishing models, spiralling student-staff ratios, student loan debt crises, increasingly rigid and competitive research funding systems, perceived threats to academic freedom and independence and so on. Alongside well-publicised (and not-so-well-publicised) protests and counter-movements, this scenario has also produced an emerging body of scholarship: ‘critical university studies’. From a wide range of positions, this engaging literature critiques the directions the university as an institution seems to be heading in, notably in terms of its labour practices, its reconstitution in orienting to indicators set by government, and the educational and broader cultural and political implications of cuts to funding. Indeed, in this context, it is tempting to view the traditional ‘ivory tower’ ideal of the university as a kind of social-institutional ghoul: following Ulrich Beck, a ‘zombie concept’. But when we speak and write in defence of the university, what are we defending, from what, and why? By engaging with this literature, it is possible to excavate some of the spirits animating the critique and the defence of the university, and investigate the ghoulish possibility that what lies beneath might be a set of moribund and contradictory ideals projected onto the institution. With a better grasp of the moral and political aspirations mapped on to it, perhaps we can better understand what courses of action are open to those invested in occupying the university as a unique and ongoing social and cultural space.