How must universities evolve to fulfill their diverse roles as a source of human talent, scientific progress, and economic innovation?
Administrators must lead their universities into a future in which every constituency has distinct needs and every decision has implications for all. Benjamin Disraeli’s ironic comment, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” aptly describes the feelings of many college and university administrators as they develop institutional plans for information technology (IT) that will support research, teaching, and learning in the coming decades. The context in which we are expected to lead our institutions in IT decisions has changed dramatically. We are experiencing unprecedented technological change emerging from a much greater diversity of sources than ever before. Students, faculty, and staff arrive at the beginning of each school year with new ideas (and associated hardware and software) for using information technologies that will enable them to accomplish their diverse goals— educational, professional, and personal. Technology firms along with increasingly influential open-source software development efforts present us with a staggering number of technologies that hold promise for enabling our fundamental missions of creating and transferring knowledge. What leadership strategies are appropriate in such a complex, dynamic, and unpredictable context?
Innovative approaches to increasing classroom productivity are the best option for controlling the escalating costs of research universities. In 1997, management guru Peter Drucker predicted that in 30 years the big university campuses would be relics, driven out of existence by their inexorable increases in tuition and by competition from alternative education systems made possible by information technology (IT). Drucker overstates the case, but the nation’s major research universities, both the publics and the private nonprofits, will have to make fundamental changes in the way they provide education if they are to thrive, rather than merely survive, in the coming decades. Drucker’s alleged implement of destruction, IT, can actually be an essential tool in maintaining the strength of the research university.
Industry restructured dramatically in response to IT progress, and education leaders should prepare for similar upheaval. U.S. research universities are going to change, and education leaders would be wise to begin now to direct that change. This will not be easy, but they have the advantage of being able to learn from the experience of many U.S. corporations that have reinvented themselves to respond to the market changes caused by the rapid advances in information technology (IT). Because of their long history and tradition, universities are often viewed as unchanging, but in reality the U.S. university system seems to undergo radical transformations about twice a century. Notable examples include the creation of the state land-grant colleges in the middle of the 19th century and the transformation of public and private colleges into massive research universities after World War II. The IT revolution will force the universities to undertake the next radical (and overdue) reinvention.
Online sharing of data, computing power, and expensive equipment is transforming research and blazing the trail for widespread advances in cooperative efforts in all human endeavors. One of the most stunning aspects of the information technology (IT) revolution has been the speed at which specialized, high-performance tools and capabilities originally developed for specific research communities evolve into products, services, and infrastructure used more broadly by scientists and engineers, and even by the mass public. The Internet itself is the best example of this phenomenon. We have come to expect that the performance of one era’s “high-end” tool or application will be matched or exceeded by the next era’s desktop software or machine. Although the funding of IT-intensive research communities is justified by the results they produce in their own domains, the added value that they provide by proving concepts, developing features, and “breaking in” the technology to the point where it can be adapted to serve larger markets can in some cases have even greater social and economic benefit.
Change is coming, and the biggest mistake could be underestimating how extensive it will be. Rapidly evolving information technology (IT) has played an important role in expanding our capacity to generate, distribute, and apply knowledge, which in turn has produced unpredictable and frequently disruptive change in existing social institutions. The implications for discovery-based learning institutions such as the research university are particularly profound. The relationship between societal change and the institutional and pedagogical footing of research universities is clear. The knowledge economy is demanding new types of learners and creators. Globalization requires thoughtful, interdependent, and globally identified citizens. New technologies are changing modes of learning, collaboration, and expression. And widespread social and political unrest compels educational institutions to think more concertedly about their role in promoting individual and civic development. Institutional and pedagogical innovations are needed to confront these dynamics and ensure that the canonical activities of universities—research, teaching, and engagement—remain rich, relevant, and accessible.
A decade ago, many people had yet to accept that the inexorable progress of information technology (IT) would result in fundamental change in universities. Experience is shrinking that group. The basic premises that underlie the need for change are the same today as they were then, but are even more compelling:
Funding for academic research from all sources grew quite satisfactorily in the 1980s, at about 5.6 percent per year in constant dollars. Yet when I examined the picture in 1991, the future looked dim. The United States was just emerging from a recession, federal deficits were projected as far into the future as we could see, and the country was struggling to regain international competitiveness in a number of industries. The incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science had issued a gloomy report stating that the academic research community suffered from low morale as a result of inadequate support and dim prospects.
The decade of the 1980s was marked by declines in the United States' manufacturing skills and the apparent invincibility of Japanese industry. In this climate, many people in the academic community were concerned that the U.S. government might impose restrictions on the open publication of academic research results or on the openness of U.S. universities to international students and scholars. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, had a variety of industrial liaison activities under way, and we argued that such programs were in the national interest. Today, the concerns of the 1980s that were based on the economic ascendancy of Japan seem alarmist, at best.
Universities are not adequately reimbursed for the indirect costs of research; a joint effort is needed to balance the books. The government has gone too far in its efforts to shift the costs of federally funded academic research to the universities. This transfer has reduced researcher productivity, led to inadequate research management, and has almost certainly prevented access to research universities by qualified students who happen to be poor. In spite of these negative side effects, there are some who advocate additional constraints on reimbursement of facilities costs, constraints that would make universities reluctant to do research in critically important fields where the facilities are expensive.
Today's engineering schools are not preparing their graduates as well as they might for useful practice in the 21st century. Hollywood directors are said to be only as good as their last picture. Maintaining their reputations means keeping up the good work--continuing to do encores that are not only high-quality but that fully reflect the tastes and expectations of the time.
Federal regulations must be streamlined and coordinated so that society's values can be upheld without impeding science. The body of federal regulations designed to ensure that university research adheres to generally accepted societal values and ethics has grown rapidly in recent years, creating an administrative burden and a potential impediment to research. As publicly supported and publicly accountable institutions, universities are expected by force of regulation to develop effective procedures to deal with a number of research-related issues. Some of the most challenging sets of issues, which we focus on here, involve protecting human and animal research subjects, and detecting and managing scholarly misconduct. Other important issues include dealing with conflicts of interest among researchers and protecting the research environment for the benefit of both scientific workers and research subjects. The university research community has long accepted responsibility for these various tasks and recognized that reasonable regulations to achieve these goals are worthwhile and necessary, but the requirements imposed by the regulatory system are reaching the point where they may no longer be called reasonable.
Students should be selected on the basis of their demonstrated success in learning, not some ill-defined notion of aptitude. Every year, more than a million high school students stake their futures on the nation's most widely used admissions test, the SAT I. Long viewed as the gold standard for ensuring student quality, the SAT I has also been considered a great equalizer in U.S. higher education. Unlike achievement tests such as the SAT II, which assess mastery of specific subjects, the SAT I is an aptitude test that focuses on measuring verbal and mathematical abilities independent of specific courses or high school curricula. It is therefore a valuable tool, the argument goes, for correcting the effects of grade inflation and the wildly varying quality of U.S. high schools. And it presumably offers a way of identifying talented students who otherwise might not meet traditional admissions criteria, especially high-potential students in low-performing high schools.
The growing population of postdoctoral scholars needs better working conditions, compensation, and benefits. In recent years, this nation's science and engineering research has come to depend increasingly on the work of postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs: junior researchers who have a Ph.D. and are pursuing further training in research. It is largely these postdocs who carry out the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tedious, day-to-day work of research. Many of them will go on to uncover fundamental new knowledge, chair prestigious academic departments, and form the fast-growing technology companies that power our economy. It is largely they who account for the extraordinary productivity of science and engineering research in the United States.
Faculty cooperation, intellectual independence, and research quality must remain hallmarks of higher education. Half a dozen years ago, as I was looking at the research university landscape, the shape of the future looked so clear that only a fool could have failed to see what was coming, because it was already present. It was obvious that a shaky national economy, strong foreign competition, large and escalating federal budget deficits, declining federal appropriations for research and state appropriations for education, diminished tax incentives for private giving, public and political resistance to rising tuition, and growing misgivings about the state of scientific ethics did not bode well for the future.
Innovation at the for-profit University of Phoenix foreshadows change throughout higher education. Higher education around the world must undergo a dramatic makeover if it expects to educate a workforce in profound transformation. In 1950, only one in five U.S. workers was categorized as skilled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1991, the percentage had risen to 45 percent, and it will reach 65 percent in 2000. This dramatic upheaval in the labor force and in its educational and training needs reflects the fact that a great shift has taken place in the corporate world from an overwhelming reliance on physical capital, fueled by financial capital, to an unprecedented focus on human capital as the primary productive asset. This development, combined with the aging of the baby boomers, has been altering the course of higher education at a pace and with a significance undreamed of even five years ago. Likewise, this rate of change in the workforce and its educational needs has been the context for the success of the new for-profit, postsecondary institutions--making it possible for the University of Phoenix (UOP), with nearly 70,000 full-time students and more than 26,000 continuing education students, to become the largest accredited private university in the United States.
Changing times demand a new social contract between society and the institutions of higher education. Perhaps the unique characteristic of higher education in the United States is the strong bond between the university and society. Historically, universities have been shaped by, drawn their agenda from, and been responsible to the communities that founded them. Each generation has established a social contract between the university and the society it serves.
In an age when the entire store of knowledge doubles every five years, where prosperity depends upon command of that ever-growing store, the United States is the strongest it has ever been, thanks in large measure to the remarkable pace and scope of American science and technology in the past 50 years.
We are in danger of undermining the value of research universities if we regard them simply as sources of technology. During the 1980s, the university was posed as an underutilized weapon in the battle for industrial competitiveness and regional economic growth. Even higher education stalwarts such as Harvard University's then-president Derek Bok argued that the university had a civic duty to ally itself closely with industry to improve productivity. At university after university, new research centers were designed to attract corporate funding, and technology transfer offices were started to commercialize academic breakthroughs.