Envisioning a Transformed University

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.

Aware of these developments, in February 2000 the National Academies convened the Panel on the Impact of Information Technology on the Future of the Research University, which in November 2002 published the report Preparing for the Revolution: Information Technology and the Future of the Research University. As a follow-up to the report, in Fall 2002 the Academies launched the Forum on Information Technology and Research Universities, which conducted a series of discussions among university leaders at various locations across the country. The diversity of opinions and viewpoints that emerged during these meetings would be impossible to summarize in a report. Besides, no consensus is possible on such a complex and uncertain subject. Instead, in the spirit of continuing and broadening the discussion, we have asked several people who participated in the discussions to present their personal perspectives on particular aspects of the subject. These articles are meant to inform readers and stimulate further exploration. In no sense are they meant to convey the collective opinion of the organizing panel or the participants, but we do hope that they reflect the richness and seriousness of the discussions. Much more information is available at www7.nation-alacademies.org/itru/index.html.

The pace of change

In thinking about changes to the university, one must think about the technology that will be available in 10 or 20 years, technology that will be thousands of times more powerful as well as thousands of times cheaper. The effect of this technological progress on the university will affect all of its activities (teaching, research, service), its organization (academic structure, faculty culture, financing, and management), and the broader higher education enterprise as it evolves toward a global knowledge and learning industry.

Although it may be difficult to imagine today’s digital technology replacing human teachers, as the power of this technology continues to evolve, the capacity to reproduce all aspects of human interactions at a distance could well eliminate the classroom and perhaps even the campus as the location of learning. Access to the accumulated knowledge of our civilization through digital libraries and networks, not to mention massive repositories of scientific data from remote instruments such as astronomical observatories or high energy physics accelerators, is changing the nature of scholarship and collaboration in very fundamental ways.

The Net generation of students has incorporated IT completely into its vision of education and has begun to use it to take control of the learning environment. From instant messaging to e-mail to blogs, students are in continual communication with one another, forming learning communities that are always interacting, even in classes (as any faculty member who has been “Googled” can attest). Adept at multitasking and context switching, they approach learning in a highly nonlinear manner, which is a poor fit with the sequential structure of the university curriculum. They are challenging the faculty to shift their instructional efforts from the development and presentation of content, which is becoming readily accessible through open-content efforts such as MIT’s Open CourseWare initiative, to interactive activities that will transform lecturers into mentors and consultants to student learning.

Increasingly, we realize that learning occurs not simply through study and contemplation but through the active discovery and application of knowledge. From John Dewey to Jean Piaget to Seymour Papert, we have ample evidence that most students learn best through inquiry-based or “constructionist” learning. As the ancient Chinese proverb suggests “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” To which we might add, “I teach and I master.”

But here lies a great challenge. Creativity and innovation are essential not only to problem solving but more generally to achieving economic prosperity and sustaining national security in a global, knowledge-driven economy. Although universities are experienced in teaching the skills of analysis, they have far less experience with stimulating and nurturing creativity. In fact, the current disciplinary culture of U.S. campuses sometimes discriminates against those who are truly creative, those who do not fit well into the stereotypes of students and faculty.

The university may need to reorganize itself quite differently, stressing forms of pedagogy and extracurricular experiences to nurture and teach the art and skill of creativity and innovation. This would probably imply a shift away from highly specialized disciplines and degree programs to programs placing more emphasis on integrating knowledge. To this end, perhaps it is time to integrate the educational mission of the university with the research and service activities of the faculty by ripping instruction out of the classroom—or at least the lecture hall—and placing it instead in the discovery environment of the laboratory or studio or the experiential environment of professional practice.

An equally profound transformation is going to occur in university laboratories. The ease of communication, the growth of shared electronic databases, and the ability to use sophisticated equipment such as supercomputers, telescopes, and particle accelerators through Internet connections is dramatically altering the way researchers work and creating an essential cyberinfrastructure. Clearly, cyberinfrastructure is not only reshaping the way people work but actually creating new systems for science and engineering research, training, and application. Once the microprocessor was imbedded in instrumentation, Moore’s Law of rapidly increasing capacity took over scientific investigation. The availability of powerful new tools such as computer simulation, massive data repositories, ubiquitous sensor arrays, and high-bandwidth communication are allowing scientists and engineers to shift much of their intellectual activity from the routine collection and analysis of data to the creative work of posing new questions to explore. IT has created, in effect, a new modality of scientific investigation through simulation of natural phenomenon, which is serving as the bridge between experimental observation and theoretical interpretation. Globalization is a particularly important consequence of the new forms of scientific collaboration enabled by cyberinfrastructure, which is allowing scientific collaboration and investigation to become increasingly decoupled from traditional organizations such as research universities and corporate R&D laboratories as new communities for scholarly collaboration evolve.

Institutional upheaval

While promising significant new opportunities for scientific and engineering research and education, the digital revolution will also pose considerable challenges and drive profound transformations in existing organizations such as universities, national and corporate research laboratories, and funding agencies. Here it is important to recognize that the implementation of such new technologies involve social and organizational issues as much as they do technology itself. Achieving the benefits of IT investments will require the co-evolution of technology, human behavior, and organizations.

Although the domain-specific scholarly communities, operating through the traditional bottom-up process of investigator-proposed projects, should play the lead role in responding to the opportunities and challenges of new IT-enabled research and education, there is also a clear need to involve and stimulate those organizations that span disciplinary lines and integrate scholarship and learning. Perhaps the most important such organization is the research university, which despite the potential of new organizational structures, will continue to be the primary institution for educating, developing, and financing the U.S. scientific and engineering enterprise. Furthermore, because the contemporary research university spans not only the full range of academic disciplines but also the multiple missions of education, scholarship, and service to society, it can—indeed, it must—serve as the primary source of the threads that stitch together the various domain-focused efforts.

Many in the research university community expect to see a convergence and standardization of the cyberinfrastructure necessary for state-of-the-art research and learning over the next several years, built upon open source technologies, standards, and protocols, and they believe that the research universities themselves will play a leadership role in creating these technologies, much as they have in the past. For the IT-driven transformation of U.S. science and engineering to be successful, it must extend beyond the support of investigators and projects in domain-specific science and engineering research to include parallel efforts in stimulating institutional capacity.

The primary issue in managing the IT environment involves the balance between the centralized control and standardization necessary to achieve adequate connectivity and security, and the inevitable chaos that characterizes the university IT environment because of highly diverse needs and funding sources—particularly in the research arena. A balance must be achieved between infinite customizability and institution-wide standards that protect the organization. University leaders must be willing to tolerate freedom— even anarchy—in domains such as research, while demanding tight control and accountability in areas such as telecommunications and financial operations.

Although some institutions are still striving for centralized control, most have recognized that heterogeneity is a fact of life that needs to be tolerated and supported. It is important to move beyond the contrasts between academic and administrative IT and instead recognize the great diversity of needs among different missions such as instruction, research, and administration as well as among early adopters, mainstream users, and have-nots. The faculty seeks both a reliable platform (a utility) as well as the capacity to support specific needs; researchers would frequently prefer no administration involvement, because their grants are paying for their IT support. The students seek the same robust connectivity and service-orientation that they have experienced in the commodity world, and they will increasingly bring the marketplace onto the campus. In some ways, executive leadership is less a decision issue than a customer relationship management issue.

In a sense the library has become the poster child for the impact of IT on higher education. Beyond the use of digital technology for organizing, cataloguing, and distributing library holdings, the increasing availability of digitally-created materials and the massive digitization of existing holdings is driving massive change in the library strategies of universities. Although most universities continue to build libraries, many are no longer planning them as repositories (since books are increasingly placed in off-campus retrievable high-density storage facilities) but rather as a knowledge commons where users access digital knowledge on remote servers. The most common characteristic of these new libraries is a coffee shop. They are being designed as a community center where students come to study and learn together, but where books are largely absent. The library is becoming a people place, providing the tools to support learning and scholarship and the environment for social interaction.


What is the university library in the digital age? Is it built around stacks or Starbucks? Is it a repository of knowledge or a “student union” for learning? In fact, perhaps this discussion is not really about libraries at all, but rather the types of physical spaces universities require for learning communities. Just as today every library has a Starbucks, perhaps with massive digitization and distribution of library holdings, soon every Starbucks will have a library—indeed, access to the holdings of the world’s libraries through wireless connectivity.

Libraries must also consider their critical role in the preservation of digital knowledge, now increasing at a rate an order of magnitude larger than written materials. Without a more concerted effort for the standardization of curation, archiving, and preservation of digital materials, we may be creating a hole in our intellectual history. Traditionally this has been a major role of the research university through its libraries. The stewardship of knowledge will remain a university responsibility in the future, but it will have to be done in a more collaborative way in the digital age.

In a sense, the library may be the most important observation post for studying how students really learn. If the core competency of the university is the capacity to build collaborative spaces, both real and intellectual, then the changing nature of the library may be a touchstone for the changing nature of the university itself.

Few, if any, institutions have the capacity to go it alone in technology development and implementation, particularly in the face of monopoly pressures from the commercial sector. This growing need to build alliances is particularly apparent in the middleware and networking area. A new set of open educational resources (open-source tools, open content, and open standards) is being created by consortia such as Open Knowledge Initiative, Sakai, and the Open CourseWare project and being made available to educators everywhere. Networking initiatives, grid computing, and other elements of cyberinfrastructure are gaining momentum through alliances such as Internet2 and the National Lamba Rail.

Just as in the IT industry itself, there are emerging trends where universities are cooperating in areas such as cyberinfrastructure and instructional computing that allow them to compete more effectively for faculty, students, and resources. The growing consensus on the nature of the IT infrastructure of research universities over the next several years—based on open-source standards and outsourcing stable infrastructure—will demand cooperative efforts.

Lack of vision

Although most university leaders agree that IT will have the most profound effect over a decadal scale, they still devote most of their attention to managing the next few years. The major research universities have long histories of adapting readily to change and sustaining leadership in areas such as technology. The richest universities may well be able to ignore these technology trends, pull up the lifeboats, and feel secure with business as usual. But such complacency appears ill-advised when one considers how much the corporate world is changing in response to IT developments.

There is remarkably little conversation about the major changes occurring in scholarship and learning, driven in part by technology. Although there is recognition that new IT-based communities are evolving for faculty (e.g., cyberin-frastructure-based, global research communities) and students (e.g., social learning communities based on instant messaging), there is little discussion about how the universities could take advantage of this in their educational and research missions.

There is also little evidence that these leaders understood just how rapidly this technology is driving major structural changes in other sectors such as business and government. Today, an industry chief information officer is expected to reduce IT costs for given productivity by a factor of 10 every few years. Although university leaders are aware of the productivity gains enabled by a strategic use of technology in industry, they find it difficult to imagine the structural changes in the university capable of delivering such improvement.

University leaders must be willing to consider scenarios that push them out of their comfort zone:

  • Suppose the digital generation were to take control of its learning environments, demanding not only the highly interactive, collaborative learning experiences but the sophistication and emotional engagement of gaming technology and the convenience of other IT-based services.
  • Imagine that the extraordinary advances in cognitive science, neuroscience, and learning theories actually began to be applied in educational practice, yielding significantly improved outcomes at lower cost. What would happen if some adventuresome lower-tier universities were able to offer demonstrably better educations? What would that do to their competing colleges and universities? Would the top tier emulate them?

If students vote with their feet (and fingers) and their dollars, what changes would they demand? If courses based on game technology, excellent graphics, and pleasant surroundings compete with current offerings such as 8 AM lectures in uncomfortable auditoriums, what changes would result?

  • What happens if the Google digitization project creates in every Starbucks access to all the world’s libraries?
  • What are the deeper implications of new collaborations enabled by cyberinfrastructure that allow scholars to do their work largely independently of the university?
  • Could these emerging scientific communities compete with and break apart the feudal hierarchy that has traditionally controlled scientific training (particularly doctoral and postdoctoral work), empowering young scholars and enabling greater access to scientific resources and opportunities for collaboration and engagement?

What will be the impact of cyberinfrastructure on publication, collaboration, competition, travel, and the ability of participants to assume multiple roles (master, learner, observer) in various scholarly communities? Will the relative importance of creativity and analysis shift when cyberinfrastructure expands access to powerful new tools of investigation such as computer simulation and massively pervasive sensor arrays?

Change already in motion

The report characterizing the first phase of the National Academies study of the impact of information technology on the university was entitled Preparing for the Revolution. But what revolution? To a casual observer he university today looks very much like it has for decades: still organized into academic and professional disciplines; still basing its educational programs on the traditional undergraduate, graduate, and professional discipline curricula; still financed, managed, and led as it has been for many years.


Yet if one looks more closely at the core activities of students and faculty, the changes over the past decade have been profound indeed. The scholarly activities of the faculty have become heavily dependent on the developing cyberinfrastructure, whether in the sciences, humanities, arts, or professions. Although faculties still seek face-to-face discussions with colleagues, these have become the catalyst for far more frequent interactions over the Internet. Most faculty members rarely visit the library anymore, preferring to use far more powerful, accessible, and efficient digital resources. Many have ceased publishing in favor of the increasingly ubiquitous preprint route. Even grantsmanship has been digitized with the automation of most steps in the process from proposal submission and review to grant management and reporting. And as we have noted earlier, student life and learning are also changing rapidly, as students of the net generation arrive on campus with the skills to apply this technology to forming social groups, role playing (gaming), accessing services, and learning—despite the insistence of their professors that they jump through the hoops of the traditional classroom culture.

In one sense it is amazing that the university has been able to adapt to these extraordinary transformations of its most fundamental activities with its organization and structure largely intact. Here one might be inclined to observe that technological change tends to evolve much more rapidly than social change, suggesting that a social institution such as the university that has lasted a millennium is unlikely to increase its pace of change to match technology’s progress. But other social institutions such as corporations have learned the hard way that failure to keep pace can lead to extinction. On the other hand, it could be that the revolution in higher education is well under way, at least with the early adopters, and simply not sensed or recognized yet by the body of the institutions within which the changes are occurring.

Universities are extraordinarily adaptable organizations, tolerating enormous redundancy and diversity. It could be that information technology revolution is actually an evolution, a change in sea level that universities can float through rather a tsunami that will swamp them. Evolutionary change usually occurs first at the edge of an organization or an ecosystem rather than in the center where it is likely to be extinguished. In this sense the cyberinfrastructure now transforming scholarship or the communications technology enabling new forms of student learning have not yet propagated into the core of the university. Of course, from this perspective, recent efforts such as the Google library project take on far more significance, since the morphing of the university library from stacks to Starbucks strikes at the intellectual soul of the university.

It is certainly the case that futurists have a habit of overestimating the impact of new technologies in the near term and underestimating their effect over the long term. There is a natural tendency to assume that the present course will continue, just at an accelerated pace, and thus to fail to anticipate the disruptive technologies and killer apps that turn predictions topsy-turvy. Yet we also have seen how rapidly IT has advanced and know with some precision how quickly it will continue to improve. When one takes into account the rate of development in biotechnology and nanotechnology, almost any imaginable scenario becomes possible.

The discussions that took place under the Academies IT Forum reinforced the good-news, bad-news character of digital technology. The good news is that it works, and eventually it is just as disruptive as predicted. The bad news is the same: this stuff works, and it is just as disruptive as predicted.


During the 19th century, in a single generation following the Civil War, essentially everything that could change about higher education in the United States did in fact change: small colleges, based on the English boarding school model of educating only the elite, were joined by the public universities, with the mission of educating the working class. Federal initiatives such as the Land Grant Acts added research and service to the mission of the universities. The academy became empowered with new perquisites such as academic freedom, tenure, and faculty governance. Universities increased more than 10-fold in enrollments. The university at the turn of century bore little resemblance to the colonial colleges of a generation earlier.

Many in the university community believe that a similar period of dramatic change has already begun in higher education. In fact, some are even willing to put on the table the most disturbing question of all: Will the university, at least as we know it today, even exist a generation from now? Perhaps the focus of our study should not be “the impact of technology on the future of the research university” but “the impact of technology on scholarship and learning, wherever they may be conducted.”

Certainly the monastic character of the ivory tower is lost forever. Although there are many important features of the campus environment that suggest that most universities will continue to exist as identifiable places, at least for the near term, as digital technology makes it increasingly possible to emulate human interaction, perhaps we should not bind teaching and scholarship too tightly to buildings and grounds. Certainly, both learning and scholarship will continue to depend heavily on the existence of communities, since they are, after all, highly social enterprises. Yet as these communities are increasingly global in extent and detached from the constraints of space and time, we should not assume that today’s version of the scholarly community will dictate the future of our universities. Even in the near term, we should be aware that these disruptive technologies, which initially appear to be rather primitive, are stimulating the appearance of entirely new approaches to learning and research that could not only sweep aside the traditional campus-based, classroom-focused approaches to higher education but also seriously challenge the conventional academic disciplines and curricula. For the longer term, no one can predict the impact of exponential growth in technological capacity on social institutions such as universities, corporations, and governments.

To be sure, there will be continuing need and value for the broader social purpose of the university as a place where the young and the experienced can acquire not only knowledge and skills, but also the values and discipline of an educated mind, which are so essential to a democracy; where our cultural and intellectual heritage is defended and propagated, even while our norms and beliefs are challenged; where leaders of our governments, commerce, and professions are nurtured; and where new knowledge is created through research and scholarship and applied through social engagement to serve society. But just as it has in earlier times, the university will have to transform itself once again to serve a radically changing world if it is to sustain these important values and roles.

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Cite this Article

Duderstadt, James J., Wm. A. Wulf, and Robert Zemsky. “Envisioning a Transformed University.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005).

Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall 2005