Information Technology and the University

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:

The modern research university provides a range of functions that are incredibly important to our society, all of which are highly information-intensive.

IT will continue to become faster and cheaper at an exponential pace for the foreseeable future, enabling alternatives to the ways that universities have traditionally fulfilled their various functions, and possibly even to the university as provider of those functions.

It would be naïve to assume that, unlike other businesses, the availability of these alternatives will not transform both the roles and character of the university.

Precisely because of the importance of the functions provided by the research university, it behooves us to explore deeply and critically what sorts of changes might occur so that, if they do occur, we are better prepared for them.

The capacity to reproduce with high fidelity all aspects of human interactions at a distance could well eliminate the classroom and perhaps even the campus.

It’s hard for those of us who have spent much of our lives as academics to look inward at the university, with its traditions and obvious social value, and accept the possibility that it might change in dramatic ways. But although its roots are millennia old, the university has changed before. In the 17th and 18th centuries, scholasticism slowly gave way to the scientific method as the way of knowing truth. In the early 19th century, universities embraced the notion of secular, liberal education and began to include scholarship and advanced degrees as integral parts of their mission. After World War II, they accepted an implied responsibility for national security, economic prosperity, and public health in return for federally funded research. Although the effects of these changes have been assimilated and now seem natural, at the time they involved profound reassessment of the mission and structure of the university as an institution.

Today, the university has entered yet another period of change driven by powerful social, economic, and technological forces. To better understand the implications for the research university, in February 2000 the National Academies convened a steering committee that, through a series of meetings and a workshop, produced the report Preparing for the Revolution (National Academies Press, 2002). Subsequently, the Academies have created a roundtable process to encourage a dialogue among university leaders and other stakeholders, and in April 2003 held the first such dialogue with university presidents and chancellors.

The first finding of the Academies’ steering committee was that the extraordinary pace of the IT evolution is not only likely to continue but could well accelerate. One of the hardest things for most people to understand is the compound effect of this exponential rate of improvement. For the past four decades, the speed and storage capacity of computers have doubled every 18 to 24 months; the cost, size, and power consumption have become smaller at about the same rate. As a result, today’s typical desktop computer has more computing power and storage than all the computers in the world combined in 1970. In thinking about changes in 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 second finding of the committee, in the words of North Carolina State University Chancellor Mary Anne Fox, was that the impact of IT on the university is likely to be “profound, rapid, and discontinuous,” affecting all of its activities (teaching, research, and 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. If change is gradual, there will be time to adapt gracefully, but that is not the history of disruptive technologies. As Clayton Christensen explains in The Innovator’s Dilemma, new technologies are at first inadequate to displace existing technology in existing applications, but they later explosively displace those applications as they enable new ways of satisfying the underlying need.

Although it may be difficult to imagine today’s digital technology replacing human teachers, as the power of this technology continues to evolve 100- to 1000-fold each decade, the capacity to reproduce with high fidelity 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. Each new generation of supercomputers extends our capacity to simulate physical reality at a higher level of accuracy, from global climate change to biological functions at the molecular level.

The third finding of the committee suggests that although IT will present many complex challenges and opportunities to universities, procrastination and inaction are the most dangerous courses to follow during a time of rapid technological change. After all, attempting to cling to the status quo is a decision in itself, perhaps of momentous consequence. To be sure, there are certain ancient values and traditions of the university, such as academic freedom, a rational spirit of inquiry, and liberal learning that should be maintained and protected. 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.

After the publication of Preparing for the Revolution, the Academies formed a standing roundtable to facilitate discussion among stakeholders. Earlier this spring, the roundtable had the opportunity to discuss these findings in a workshop with two dozen presidents and chancellors of major research universities. The conversation began with several presidents reviewing contemporary issues such as how universities can finance the acquisition and maintenance of digital technology and how they can manage the use of this technology to protect security, privacy, and integrity–issues that presidents all too often delegate to others. However, as the workshop progressed further to consider the rapid evolution of digital technology, the presidents began to realize just how unpredictable the future of their institutions had become. As University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl observed, presidents have very little experience with providing strategic visions and leadership for futures driven by such disruptive technologies.

Addressing this concern, Louis Gerstner, retired CEO of IBM, shared with the presidents some of his own observations concerning leadership during a period of rapid change. The IBM experience demonstrated the dangers of resting on past successes. Instead, leaders need to view IT as a powerful tool capable of driving a process of strategic change, but only with the full attention and engagement of the chief executive.

These early efforts of the National Academies suggest that during the coming decade, the university as a physical place, a community of scholars, and a center of culture will remain much as it is today. IT will be used to augment and enrich the traditional activities of the university without transforming them. To be sure, the current arrangements of higher education may shift. For example, the new knowledge media will enable us to build and sustain new types of learning communities, free from the constraints of space and time, which may create powerful new market forces. But university leadership should not simply react to threats but instead act positively and strategically to exploit the opportunities presented by IT. As Gerstner suggested, this technology will provide great opportunities to improve the quality of our activities. It will allow colleges and universities to serve society in new ways, perhaps more closely aligned with their fundamental academic mission and values.

Looking forward two or more decades, the future of the university becomes far less certain. Although the digital age will provide a wealth of opportunities for the future, one must take great care not simply to extrapolate the past but to examine the full range of possibilities for the future. There is clearly a need to explore new forms of learning and learning institutions that are capable of sensing and understanding the change and of engaging in the strategic processes necessary to adapt or control it. In this regard, IT should be viewed as a tool of immense power to use in enhancing the fundamental roles and missions of the university as it enters the digital age.

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Cite this Article

Wulf, Wm. A., and James Duderstadt. “Information Technology and the University.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003