Not your parents’ university

Innovative ideas for the future of higher education

Higher education should be a transformative experience, not just a business proposition, says David J. Staley. If we really want to offer that transformative experience, higher ed has to break free of the traditional education model. Consider a university that moves around the world with students working on real-world problems while being immersed in local culture. How about one based on the idea that the future of cognition will be a hybrid of human and machine intelligence? Or an Institute for Advanced Play where imagination is valued more than knowledge? In Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins, 2019), Staley, a professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Humanities Institute, describes 10 such alternative model universities as metaphors. “They are alternatives to the existing institutional forms of the university as a way to critique our current practices.”

You say that this book began as a thought exercise. What was the impetus for that?

About eight years ago, I was invited into a group that was working on a business plan to develop a new kind of online university. In the end, it didn’t get funding. Part of my role was helping with the conceptualization, which was, if nothing else, a really interesting intellectual exercise.

I started to imagine other options beyond an online university. As I was thinking about that, I came in contact with [higher education philosopher] Ronald Barnett, who has a very hopeful view of the future of higher education. He said that our idea today about what universities can be is impoverished. We need people to be thinking more imaginatively. And I thought, “OK, I’m going to pick up that challenge.”

Have you been approached by others since then?

Not to do an online university, but I’ve had some preliminary conversations about turning some of the models in my book into actual, functioning colleges and universities. As I say, they’re at the very early or “let’s have coffee” stages. But ultimately, I would like to explore at least some of these models.

Of the alternative models you describe in the book, do you have a favorite that you believe can take off?

I really like the Microcolleges that each comprise one professor and about 20 students. Each Microcollege is as unique as the professor who leads it—whether they are a poet, an architect or an entrepreneur. The idea already exists in some ways, but I think it is one of the models that could really work. In fact, some of the early conversations that I’m having with people are about starting Microcolleges.

My book is predicated on the idea that higher education needs greater imagination.

Polymath University is one of my favorite models. Each student is required to major in three different disciplines—one from the sciences, one from the arts or humanities, and one from the professional disciplines. Again, that’s something that a lot of institutions could start today.
The only challenge with the Polymath University model is whether it would pass accreditation muster because of its “attitude” and because of how general education is treated.

Another one that I like—because it’s going to become necessary—is the Interface University model, in which we educate people to interact with artificial intelligence. I don’t think many institutions have really thought through the implications of AI for higher education.

Besides accreditation, what other roadblocks would you face?

If we’re talking about transforming an existing institution, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do because of culture, because of inertia, and because of resistance from faculty, staff and even administrators in some cases.

It can be done, of course. The University of Central Florida turned what was once a commuter college into a research university. But that was an incredibly slow and difficult process.

My sense is that if we’re going to actualize any of these alternative universities, we would have to start from scratch, in the way that we did with research universities. Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago and Stanford—all had to be born new.

With many small colleges closing, it seems like the right time to explore these models.

Yes. In fact, that’s another challenge that many institutions face. We talk a lot about the “cost disease,” but education, in many cases, has become commoditized. Institutions start to look an awful lot alike, such that they can really only compete on price.

I’m often amazed at the billboards advertising colleges and universities, and how similar the marketing is. That is exactly the sort of thing that I address in the book. Institutions start to look so much alike that you have to wonder what’s drawing the students to ABC College or XYZ University.

Creating the kinds of schools you propose means changing a lot of minds. It’s new; it’s scary. How do you do that?

One of the big challenges that we face is the public perception about the value of higher education. One way that I would attempt to change public perception is to draw a distinction between higher education as a transactional experience as opposed to a transformative one.

When I went to university in 1982, I expected—maybe even demanded—that higher education was going to be transformative and that I’d be a different person at the other end of it. And I’m not certain that’s what drives higher education today. It’s more about the perceived economic benefits, job training—those sorts of things.

Read: Building ‘the perfect university’

We see higher education as transactional. I pay you money. You give me your certified life skills or something like that. If we can change perceptions so that the value of higher education is around transformative experiences, that’s something that could help change the trajectory. But it’s not going to be easy.

You write that we’ve been talking about the coming seismic shift in education for the past 20 years, but it hasn’t appeared.

If there’s going to be a seismic shift, it might be carried out by institutions that aren’t universities. For instance, corporations could start the process. I wrote recently about the new corporate university, which IBM and AT&T used to have, but that focuses on real research.

That function plus the corporate training function we think of today could be married into something that really looks like what a university does. It’s the kind of transformation that could occur.

My book is predicated on the idea that higher education needs greater imagination. That requires a certain amount of courage because it’s a risky endeavor. The book is a call for greater courage and imagination in “university making.”

I don’t want to simply be a dreamer. I want to try to put these models into practice. And I’ve been trying to find the right venues to do that.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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