Disrupting Academia

Academia has become rather frustrating.  Out of control costs have been leading to spiraling students debts, exceeding the total US credit card debt.  Increasingly narrow and unreasonable criteria for tenure have led to people spending endless years in servitude.  The overall academic value proposition has been completely eroded for all but the administrative leadership and staff, and perhaps those involved in major sports.

This sets the stage for disruption.  New value propositions that obsolete the old value propositions seem possible and likely.  Why pay $200,000 for what you can get for $16,000.  My recent book, Universities as Complex Enterprises, explores such scenarios.  It occurs to me that it would indeed be unfortunate to be the last person to pay $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

So, let’s start from scratch.  In terms of students, I would focus on the best and brightest, as well as the most creative and committed. Admission processes would include interviews and demonstrations of an intellectual portfolio.  This portfolio could range from academic accomplishments to art exhibitions to classic car restorations.  GPA and AP grades would matter little; SAT and ACT scores would be unnecessary. The focus would be on a student body that would start with 500 students and grow to at most 5000 students.

Of course, this would require high schools, indeed K-12, to prepare students quite differently.  Accomplishments would be characterized in terms of real things created, not test grades.  Teachers would be mentors more than lecturers.  Math, for example, would become a means to accomplish something rather than a set of rules to be memorized.  Education would be more like hands-on internships rather than an industrial process that cranks out standardized products.

How about tuition?  What about fees where, like the airlines, universities have been steadily adding charges for many things?  Both would be free, but students would have to engage with faculty members in research. Students would only be admitted if one or more faculty members agreed to pursue research with them.  The process would be more like picking professional draft picks than choosing among millions of standard applications.  Who cares about scores?  How quickly can you create a data analytics website?

The curricula would be oriented around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but laced with humanities and social sciences taught in the context of STEM.  You would still take Western Civilization, but the course would focus on technological and economic innovation, including innovations in music and the arts.  The curricula would also place great emphasis on teamwork, writing and oral communication.  Pure technical skills would not be enough for excellence.

How would the curricula be delivered?  There would be a mix of lectures, labs, and field experiences, all substantially supported by technology.  Classes would be very small, often with projects and research integrated into topics.  We would not be interested at all in students’ abilities to memorize; students’ abilities to solve real problems would be central.

Faculty members would be deep in terms of STEM knowledge and skills, but also great communicators and mentors.  Faculty members would usually have one or more avocations in history, languages, music, etc.  Faculty members would be expected to make student success a priority.  The faculty would start with 50 or so faculty members and grow to 500 at most.  There would be no departments, as faculty would be organized into interest groups, with chairs that rotate each year.

Scholarship will still be central, but much broader than the steadily narrowing research of most contemporary faculty members.  Faculty and students would generate a wide range of creative products, including articles, books, games, exhibitions, proof of concepts, tangible hardware and software prototypes, and perhaps organizations – companies, NGOs, nonprofits.

Tenure would not exist.  Faculty members would start with rolling three-year contracts, which would be extended another year for every year that they are acceptably productive.  The Dean would negotiate the terms of this agreement every year with every faculty member.  Contract terms could be extended to five years after the first three years, or any time later.

There would be two financing models, one for students and one for faculty and staff.   All students would receive 100% scholarships funded by industry, foundations, and governments. In some cases, but by no means all, students would be required to work for their sponsors for one year after graduation. Sponsors would be allowed to interview the students they might sponsor before students are accepted.

All other expenses would be financed by contracts, grants, and philanthropy.  The administration would include President, Dean and VP Academic Affairs, and VP for Finance and Administration, each with an Executive Assistant.  There would be Directors of HR, IT, etc.  The total administration would be roughly 10-20 people.  As noted earlier, faculty members would perform all student-related functions.

I can imagine many people thinking that this could be a great education for the 5000 students eventually enrolled, but what about the rest of the 20+ million college students in the US?  Could we replicate this model 4,000 times?  There are currently over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US – twice that if you count for-profit organizations — so 4,000 would not be a stretch.

Roughly 25% of students are enrolled in STEM disciplines, so only 1,000 universities could follow the model outlined thus far.  The other 3,000 universities would have programs organized around medicine, law, business, humanities, and arts.  Institutions would have agreements whereby students could be involved with more than one institution.  So, for example, people interested in STEM and medicine could satisfy their multi-disciplinary needs.

Universities currently employ over 4 million people, roughly 1.5 million as faculty members and 2.5 million as staff.  The model outlined here assumes 2 million faculty members and perhaps 100,000 administrative staff, not counting personnel for buildings, grounds, food services, etc.  Adding these personnel, total employment would remain in the neighborhood of 3 million.  Increasing faculty numbers by one half million, while reducing staff substantially would be rather disruptive.

Another major disruption would be in college sports.  Club sports would remain but these small institutions would be unable to serve as the farm teams for MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL.  A distinct possibility is that these professional leagues would pay universities to operate their farm teams.  This raises the prospect of universities having students that only play sports.  Roughly 170,000 Division 1 students participate in these sports.  Therefore, perhaps 30 or so universities could be dedicated to sports.  Only about 1,200 of these students would become professional athletes, but many could work in the $500 billion sports industry.

The overall concept presented here is an example of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” a new business model that, over time, completely destroys an incumbent business model.  The academia ecosystem’s cost bubble has placed it at risk of disruptive innovation, perhaps not in the way argued here, but inevitably in some manner.  Business as usual will be increasingly untenable.

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