Insights · October 4th, 2013

By Sara Robinson

Americans share a broad understanding that their educational system is overdue for a major overhaul. The visions of what a new system should do, and what it needs to accomplish for both the student and for the sake of our civilization, are a subject of increasing debate. But the fact that the debate is now raging everywhere reveals at least one clear point of consensus: the old industrial-era model that’s been in place for the past 150 years is no longer delivering the goods.

While much of this furor is over K-12 education, our universities are also looking ahead to a rapidly-changing landscape. Faculty and administration are grappling with challenges they’ve never seen before, and are trying to figure out what comes next.

This is the first in a three-part series that will examine the nature of the deep transformation that American universities are now confronting. In this first part, we’ll look at the mission and purposes of the university as we’ve understood it in the past. The second part will look at some of the biggest disruptive forces that are driving the current transformation. The third part will consider the questions we need to be answering now in order to begin re-visioning the university and re-tooling it to survive in the information age. My hope is that this series will stimulate deep-level discussion about the role of universities in the 21st century, and give those involved in this transformation some new perspectives on how to approach the changes they’re facing.

What Is A University?
What is a university? What do we need it to do? Why does it matter, and why should we continue to support its existence? These questions are at the heart of the transformation universities are facing right now, and how they are answered will have a profound effect on the form that the next iteration of higher education takes. So it’s important to start by getting these deep values and expectations out on the table, in order to understand the full implications of our future choices.

The university as we currently know it is built on values, expectations, hierarchies, and a mission that has been virtually unchanged and unchallenged since the Renaissance. As an institution, it was the product of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age. That passing era demanded that our universities fulfill some specific and essential civilizational functions, including:

Furthering Knowledge — Storing, extending, and imparting the accumulated knowledge and wisdom that are essential to maintaining a complex civilization. Setting and maintaining the highest standards of intellectual and cultural excellence. Retaining and transmitting the most important knowledge from the past; and conducting the cutting-edge research that will continue to advance society and ensure our future prosperity. Nurturing, developing, and sustaining intellectuals who are gifted at communicating new knowledge to their students, and to the masses. Creating a place where creative synergies between disciplines can occur, leading to productive new insights and connections.

Advancing Economic Development — Generating research that will yield important and useful new information, technologies, and processes that will open the way to new inventions, new industries, and new markets — or else expand productivity in existing industries and markets. In particular, we’ve historically relied on universities to do cutting-edge theoretical research that business won’t invest in because it has no immediate or apparent market value — but, once done, sometimes provides the basis for vastly increased prosperity decades down the road.

Credentialing — Educating and certifying the next generation of leaders, managers, and skilled professionals who will oversee our society. Ensuring that our society’s most promising talent is cultivated for maximum potential benefit to themselves and the rest of us, and that these people clearly understand their ethical role as trustworthy stewards of the common good within their professions.

Sustaining Meritocracy —  Serving as the most reliable path for upward mobility in a meritocratic society by both formally educating and informally socializing students from the middle and lower classes to take their place in the upper-middle and upper classes. At the same time, universities give students from the upper classes a greater awareness of how the other 99% live, and impart a commitment to use their greater resources to lead the world to a better place.

Arguing For The Good Life — Holding up the idea that there are essential human values and goods that transcend those offered by the marketplace. This isn’t just the role of arts and humanities; good science also depends on scientists who are able to value their quest for scientific truth ahead of their own personal interests. This has, in recent decades, become a harder sell.

Offering a contemplative oasis apart from the larger society — Most of us who loved our college years are at least somewhat invested in the future of the university as a place — a geographical center in which the important work of civilization is performed, and a physical community in which the above values are upheld. The future of the university as a physical place is in particular jeopardy right now, with threats coming from several directions at once.

Self-Perpetuation — All institutions, in time, adopt self-perpetuation as their #1 purpose, and universities are no different. Their rewards systems and value set are, in the end, almost entirely aimed at generation more professional academics, even in spite of a long-standing market glut.

Understanding what we want and need from our universities helps us understand why they are the way they are now. It also opens the door to another set of questions: Which pieces of this mission are still relevant, and worthy of being kept as  we go forward? Why are they important? And which should we re-define, re-imagine, or jettison entirely? Also: what new and emergent needs will our society have as we transition to the Information Age, and how should the universities of the future be configured to answer those needs?

In the second part of this series, we’ll consider some of the specific challenges that universities are facing now — a discussion that may point toward better answers to the above questions.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a consulting futurist specializing in social change. Her writing has appeared online at New York Magazine, Salon, Alternet, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and many other websites, as well as in print. She lives in Seattle.

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