Transforming Academia

The first universities in Europe — University of Bologna (1088), University of Oxford (1096), University of Paris (1150), University of Modena (1175) — began as private corporations of teachers and their pupils. Soon they realized they needed protection against local city authorities. They petitioned secular power for privileges and this became the model for academia.

The organizational structure of disciplinary departments, schools, and colleges emerged in the process.  The secular independence and this organizational structure represent the first major transformation of academia.  These characteristics of academia have persisted for over 900 years and seem immutable.  Yet, notable transformations of academia have occurred more recently.

Land-grant colleges and universities are U.S. institutions benefiting from the provisions of the Morrill Act (1862), which gave to the states federal lands for the establishment of colleges offering programs in agriculture, engineering, and home economics as well as in the traditional academic subjects.  This transformation more closely linked academia to society and economic development.

Between the 1880s and the 1920s, the German system of scientific research, traditionally dominated by the universities, underwent rapid institutional change and functional differentiation, resulting in the formation of national research institutes that were much more interdisciplinary in nature than typical German universities at that time. It has been argued that this served as an important factor in Germany’s transition from a predominantly industrial to a primarily knowledge-based society.

Several contemporary forces portend another transformation of academia:

  • Information and communications technologies have enabled distributed and relatively virtual organizations, both for education and research
  • Social technologies are fostering increasing collaborative interactions, with implications for education and research
  • Research challenges have become increasingly interdisciplinary, or even transdisciplinary, requiring greater networking among organizations
  • Traditional State and Federal funding sources are under continual stress of demands for resources, heavily constraining support for academia

This Spring, I am teaching a seminar that will address both the history of and prospects for transforming academia.  Students will research the nature of historical changes of pedagogy and inquiry.  They will also study the changing social and economic roles of academia over the centuries.  They will compile lessons learned in terms of driving forces, tipping points, and consequences of change.  Students will then apply this knowledge to formulating scenarios for future transformations of academia, including strategies for institutions to anticipate change, invest in competencies to excel at change, and leverage these competencies to assure a leadership position in the transformation of academia.

Please let me know of any suggestions for the reading list.  I will publish the list that emerges and share it with all of you.


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