Even Universities Change

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.

The IT-driven changes that have occurred in industry are coming to universities as well, albeit a little later. They are likely to affect the style and environment of the research university, as well as collegiality, economics, and effectiveness. The IT revolution will affect all university activities, altering the cost and process associated with each. Remote interactions and the sharing of data are already commonplace. Many faculty members interact more frequently with their worldwide disciplinary communities than with faculty in different fields on their campus. Students share experiences (and test questions) through mobile communications. The recent research literature is more easily available electronically than in person, and a researcher at a less prestigious university can see preprints of important work at the same time as a peer at a famous university. In the future, raw research data will also be broadly accessible.

The transformation of industry

A quick survey of the many ways in which IT has changed industry practices illustrates how pervasive its influence has been and provides hints about the university practices that are likely to undergo similar change. In the past decade, technological developments have shifted the relative costs of the factors of production. In particular, huge drops in the costs of information storage, distribution, and analysis have changed what tasks are practical or easy to do. We have better tools to support collaboration. There are exciting improvements in our ability to model, simulate, understand, and then change the structure of organizations and the processes they use. Some old skills have been devalued and new opportunities have been created. Bookkeepers are no longer prized for their ability to add rapidly and accurately. Middle managers are not paid for remembering facts about recent business performance. Most large companies outsourced their payroll departments years ago. Many are now outsourcing other administrative parts of human resources departments, such as pension plan management. Large international specialized manufacturing firms assemble (and in many cases design) many of the products that carry the names of more famous companies. In the same way, university librarians are not valued primarily for their knowledge of what books are in the collection.

Many tasks that once required creative individual attention can now be standardized and then performed repeatedly and efficiently by computer. It is also possible to evaluate formalized activities objectively and compare them with alternative means of achieving the same goals. Analysis of a customer’s interests is now performed automatically with “recommender” systems on Web sites such as Amazon.com, and rating systems such as those found on eBay have given consumers a new way to evaluate products. Similar effects are seen in student-run campus course guides and the use of citation indices for grant and promotion decisions.

Costly custom services can become commodities that are marketed on the basis of price or fashion. Basic personal computers (PCs) are now a commodity, and some models are sold on the basis of the color, shape, or the metal of their case rather than on the electronics within. Although this trend might appear to be a recipe for a race to the lowest acceptable quality, it can also lead to competition on the basis of quality and a raising of expectations and standards: Today’s PCs are expected to work well right out of the box, and customers have become blasé about these engineering marvels. The move to standardized services, with well-defined interfaces and qualities of service, is part of a profound shift in business structure. Outsourcing is feasible when interfaces and expectations are very clear. Call centers can easily be relocated if the operators get all their information from a screen. Payroll checks can be issued by independent specialist companies. X-rays can be analyzed by radiologists 10,000 miles away. Standardized tests can be given anywhere, and are graded at many sites, with processes that enforce uniform scoring even of essay questions.

New activities and functions can result from combinations of services and applications. Advanced e-business applications integrate multiple activities and can support coordination across organization and corporate boundaries. The management of a modern supply chain, as seen in almost any large manufacturing or retail company, involves many interactions between buyers and sellers; decisions about replenishment and delivery are often made automatically through shared sets of rules and authority. We have even seen the birth of a new business sector: the hundreds of thousands of part-time and full-time sellers on eBay. New tools and computing standards are making it easy to provide new services that use existing services such as databases, geographic images, and accounting data. The Internet2 research network has supported not only remote lectures and global data-sharing, but artistic performances, with performers at great distances from each other.

Customer expectations are rising rapidly with experience. As people become accustomed to new services and levels of capability, they rapidly lose patience with older levels of technology and service. Personal experience with services such as home Web surfing and banking raises general expectations about the operations of services in other contexts. Google and Amazon run all night, as do ATMs and vending machines. IBM and many other companies have had no choice but to offer round-the-clock service. Students will ask why the university library should ever be closed. They will not want to wait for official office hours to ask a question of the professor, and they will want online review sessions to be held at 11 p.m. if desired.

Tempos have been accelerating, and time scales for decision and operation will become even shorter. Companies have learned to respond to disruptions in complex supply chains in hours or days, not months. PC companies frequently introduce new models every few months and keep very lean stocks of components that will predictably become obsolete in a matter of weeks. Call center operators get information about new models and problems just before they become available. At the university, the online course catalog does not have to be finalized months in advance. Extra sections of a course can be added when enrollment surges, and corresponding reading materials can now be printed overnight or provided online. Networking permits students to check professors’ assertions and references during lectures, sometimes to their consternation.

Campus-specific change

Although one can find relatively straightforward parallels between many industry and business activities, universities are engaged in many activities that are particular to education and research. There might not be industry changes to serve as literal models, but one can certainly speculate about how IT is likely to drive change in these areas.


Business process analysis and service-oriented implementation make many of the relationships explicit and visible. Good automation depends on having an accurate description of the steps to be performed, as well as any constraints, decision rules, and relationships. (Scheduling a class requires assigning a professor and a classroom, putting a course description in the catalog, checking student prerequisites, and so forth.). The costs of each step and the opportunity costs (what else could have been done in that classroom, how many students clamored for this course or another) become clear. Allocation decisions then must be made consciously or according to a definite rule, rather than being based on tradition. The university then can make better use of scarce resources (such as highly desired professors or specialized laboratory equipment) and ensure that students can actually take the courses they want or need.

With improvements in computer simulation, many lab courses or experiments could conceivably be offered online. Similarly, demands on lab space and resources could be addressed through creative uses of IT such as distributed computing and remote access to expensive equipment. Game technologies create the potential to develop interactive virtual experiments and simulations that have real educational value. Medical schools are making pioneering use of simulated patients for training and for detailed monitoring of student learning, thus improving their ability to certify the students and reducing risks to patients. Performing surgery in a computer simulation with realistic feedback can be a valuable exercise before attempting a procedure on a living person.

The extent and capabilities of the campus network and services will increasingly determine how attractive a campus is to students and faculty members, independent of their fields of interest. The convenience of mobile access and the amount of off-campus bandwidth will be crucial. Students in the performing arts will be at least as interested as those in computer science in responsive networking and media. Just as computer gaming has been pushing the frontiers of personal computing, students and faculty are likely to be among the most demanding customers for networking capability.

IT is making it increasingly easy to work together across distance, thus increasing the value and functionality of “invisible colleges” based on mutual research interests. The shift puts further strain on campus-based departments and programs as well as investments in collegiality. Collaboratories are a successful example of the tight integration of distant research groups. The time could come when it is less important who is on campus and more important to know how well connected the faculty is to colleagues around the world.

Like businesses, universities have become aware of the importance of branding, but the criteria for measuring the quality of a university are in flux. Is the perceived value of the university created by the quality of students in residence, by their accomplishments as graduates, or by the fame of the faculty? In the future, a transcript might list the name of the instructor and personal comments rather than a school and grade. The size of a university’s library and the quality of its scientific instruments will matter little if massive collections are digitized and researchers have online access to remote instruments.

Recipe for a research university

Our current understanding of the functions of a research university is the result of a long history that has been shaped by economics, government policy, and a rich mix of social and cultural forces. One can argue about the wisdom of the current collection of missions and priorities (see “Research University Ingredients”), but the important question is what one would include in the recipe for a university that makes optimum use of the technological capabilities that are on the horizon to meet the needs of the society that will exist in coming decades. Industry’s experience in the past decade should make it clear that nothing is sacred. If IBM can move out of the PC business, what roles might no longer be appropriate for the research university?


U.S. education leaders must be willing to question the value of everything the university does. They can already see institutions such as professional schools, for-profit colleges, and universities in other countries that work with a very different list of ingredients. But the range of possibilities that they should consider is far more varied. How many of the current ingredients would be combined into a single organization if one started afresh? Which are unique to the research university or best performed by it? Which provide joint value through horizontal or vertical integration? Which provide an enjoyable lifestyle for employees? The e-business approach disentangles these many strands and their joint and separate values, and clarifies alternatives. It enables the university to decide rationally about the effects of spinning off activities that others can perform as well (such as bookstores and dormitories) and bringing others in-house (such as formerly independent research labs), just as firms decide to buy companies and to sell off some of their own divisions to maximize efficiency and strategic value.

Competitive forces, weakening legal constraints, and softening political support may allow providers with different cost structures and missions to offer some of these services more effectively and/or inexpensively. We have already seen such encroachments at a trivial level, such as school stores run by bookstore chains, dormitories run by hotel operators, and campus dining services provided by restaurant franchises. Some students are engaged in a form of education arbitrage, taking basic (highly profitable) courses at low-cost institutions and transferring credits to an elite university where they concentrate on taking advanced and unusual (money-losing) courses. Should universities contract out introductory courses to the for-profit University of Phoenix? Should they limit the number of credits that can be transferred? Can they find a more cost-effective way to offer mass courses as well as the highly specialized courses?

Just as new business models such as eBay and improved means for consumers to share their evaluation of products are putting increased pressure on businesses, alternative approaches to education can impinge on the core of the traditional university mission, and the increasing credibility of external rating agencies and certification bodies can affect a school’s reputation and the value of its diplomas. Business schools have become particularly sensitive to magazine ratings, and undergraduate programs grouse about the influence of the ratings from U.S. News & World Report.Colleges with little research activity but a sharp focus on the education experience can teach basic courses well and inexpensively. For-profit universities with practitioner instructors are delivering professional training. Non-university and off-campus research institutes can advance knowledge and even train researchers through intense focus and strong funding. Which functions other than professional discipleship, tenured faculty positions, and encouraging assortative mating are the sole preserve of the research university?

Universities are superb at resisting pressure and maintaining the status quo, but financial strain (from increased costs and decreasing government subsidies), shifting student interests and expectations, the changing expectations of faculty, and competition are forcing soul-searching and hard but salutary decisions. Even universities change. And if university leaders make wise decisions, it will be for the better.

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Cite this Article

Feldman, Stuart J. “Even Universities Change.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005).

Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall 2005