Causes of Transformation in Academia

Our graduate seminar on “Transforming Academia” started this week. We focused on the roots of the modern university in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and The Enlightenment. We debated the interpretation of developments in terms of transformational versus evolutionary changes.

Also of central interest were the causes of change. The plague, printing press and paper all had substantial impacts. Literacy, for instance, became more important when things to read became more widely available. In general, there seemed to be a confluence of causes rather than a single overarching cause.

I will be co-leading a workshop in Australia in two weeks on “Understanding and Influencing the Causality of Change.” The participants are coming from a wide range of disciplines and domains, so there are many emerging contrasts among people’s points of view.

One debate concerns the extent to which one can “know” the cause of anything. If I slide my now empty coffee mug off the desk, I expect it will fall to the floor. Why?  Gravity will typically be the response. How do we “know” that, other than via rote learning in grade school?  The simple fact is that we just do not have a better explanation of the mug falling.

The workshop will not spend much time on coffee mugs. Instead, we will consider the causes of bank failures during the Great Depression, the recent housing market collapse in the United States, soaring healthcare costs in the United States, and Pickett’s Charge in the American Civil War.  Why did these things happen?

There are proximal causes like a run on a particular bank or the absence of a particular army general. However, there are also deeper, more fundamental causes such as institutional decisions to disassociate risks and returns or a substantial mismatch of resources between adversaries. Thus, there is often a cascading set of causes and catalysts that precipitate major events.

In our seminar, we are tracing the emergence and development of a network of causes that collectively may trigger the transformation of academia. Rapidly increasing costs are a major driver. At some point, students and their parents will be forced to find other means to higher education. Information and computer technologies are likely to be among those means.

It is, however, unlikely to be as simple as people going to college at their desks in the bedrooms of their parents’ homes. Young people will still need to go away to grow up and mature. However, this may not require massive infrastructures of bricks and mortar, football stadiums, and scores of senior vice provosts, associate vice provosts, and deputy assistant vice provosts.

New value propositions will emerge – indeed, are emerging. New means for delivering value will be created, developed, and refined. The result will be the transformation of academia.


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  2. When you consider the causes of bank failures during the Great Depression, the recent housing market collapse in the United States, soaring healthcare costs in the United States, it would be interesting to see what econimic similarities existed then as do today.

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