Transforming Universities

All my career my work was launched from a disciplinary base, but grew from developing an interdisciplinary character. And now some of the best of natural and social sciences is just that – complexity theory, for example is a lovely mix of just about any discipline imaginable, infused with the idea of complex adaptive system theory. And the practice of living in our world now is infused with the same spirit and the recognition of the power of the uncertain and unknown. That simply is delightful.

I was always in a situation where I could be interdisciplinary , but I carefully nurtured the needs to maintain disciplinary roots. And my courses drew upon grad students from just about any discipline imaginable – to their benefit, and my own.

I once asked the President of the University of Florida in a public meeting, what his image of a future university was. His answer, basically, was “just the same as it has always been”. I had been hoping for an answer closer to what this Nature editorial – The university of the future - presents. This editorial speaks very much to the future I see , one very much being attempted at ASU. Our Resilience Alliance has one of those interdisciplinary teams as a member and that enriches us all.

The American research university is a remarkable institution, long a source of admiration and wonder. …

Seen from the inside, however, everything is not quite so rosy. … the structure of these institutions is straightforward and consistent. The bedrock of each university is a system of discipline-specific departments. The strength of these departments determines the success and prestige of the institution as a whole.

This structure raises a few obvious questions. One is the relevance of the department-based structure to the way scientific research is done. Many argue that in a host of areas — ranging from computational biology and materials science to pharmacology and climate science — much of the most important research is now interdisciplinary in nature. And there is a sense that, notwithstanding years of efforts to adapt to this change by encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, the department-based structure of the university is essentially at odds with such collaboration.

A second set of issues surrounds the almost static nature of the departmental system. In a country where most things are highly fluid, the fields covered by departments, as well as the pecking order between them, have remained largely unchanged for many years. As people and money have flowed, particularly over the past twenty years, to the south and the southwest, the strongest US universities and departments remain embedded in the northeast and in California. League tables drawn up by the National Academy of Sciences and others show little movement in this pecking order, even over several decades.

Another, perhaps more contentious, issue concerns the relevance of the modern research university to the community it serves. The established model, whatever else its strengths and weaknesses, reflects the desire of the middle classes for undergraduate training that prepares their offspring for a stable career. But how does it serve a society in which people may have to retrain and recreate their careers throughout their adult lives?

These questions are being asked throughout American academia, but nowhere more searchingly than at Arizona State University (ASU), a huge public university that is expanding to meet the needs of the United States’ fastest-growing major city (see page 968). Michael Crow, its president, is executing an ambitious plan to replace the traditional model with one in which both influence and research excellence are concentrated not in departments, but in large, broadly based interdisciplinary centres with clear commercial or societal goals.

… ASU’s effort already tells us plenty about the likely direction of the research university in the up-and-coming regions of America. The university of the future will be inclusive of broad swaths of the population, actively engaged in issues that concern them, relatively open to commercial influence, and fundamentally interdisciplinary in its approach to both teaching and research.

2 thoughts on “Transforming Universities”

  1. See “Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University
    By Michael M’Gonigle and Justine Starke

    Planet U places the university at the forefront of the sustainability movement. Questioning the university’s ability to equip society to deal with today’s serious challenges such as economic growth, democratic citizenship and planetary survival, it calls for a new social movement to take a lead in reforming the university – the world’s largest industry.

    The book reviews the university’s 900-year history from medieval religious philosopher, to Renaissance nation-builder, to its modern function as training grounds for the world’s managerial class and the world’s largest industry. It examines diverse campus initiatives across North America and Europe and their traditional concerns of green buildings, renewable energy and transportation demand management. But it also demonstrates the promise for social and ecological progress open to the “planetary university” once the university takes its place seriously and discovers its new mission: to create diverse models of local and global innovation centered around tough new questions about what universities – and their societies – can achieve:

    How might the university help move us to a post-automobile, energy-saving society?
    How might universities help refashion the city to be sustainable?
    How might universities be governed for sustainability?

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