Launching C21U: What’s the point of the University, anyway?

September 28, 2011 at 10:15 am 8 comments

Yesterday was the launch of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, with an impressive event.  Jonathan Cole (former provost at Columbia) gave the keynote talk based on his book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it Must Be Protected.  There was a terrific panel, including Cole, Alan Kay (teleconferenced in from California), Roger Schank (who looked maybe a decade younger than the last time I saw him–not being faculty somewhere suits him), our research provost Steve Cross, Lynne Weisenbach who is a vice-chancellor with the University System of Georgia,  and Devin Fidler from the Institute for the Future, moderated by Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle (whose blog post on the launch is linked below).

I took pages and pages of notes from yesterday’s event, enough to feed several blog posts.  Roger and Alan were a great one-two punch of challenging and even outrageous ideas.  For example, Roger’s first comment of the panel: “First step [to improving universities]: Close down all classrooms. They only exist for economic benefit. Second step: No courses. They were invented so professors don’t have to work more than three hours a week.”  Devin Fidler kept doing end-runs around the panel, highlighting issues different from the rest, like the fact that student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt in the United States.  With that kind of debt, don’t the economics that Roger is talking about matter?

The most interesting idea that I took from the launch wasn’t talked about, but was the point most often talked past.  What’s the point of the American University, anyway?  What’s the goal? Who is it for?

  • Here’s Cole talking about the research benefits of American universities.  I asked him, “What about teaching? Are better researchers better teachers?”  His reply, “We should change admissions standards, so the kinds of students we bring in can learn from one another, led by a great researcher.”  What happens to those who can’t?
  • Beth Mynatt from our Institute for People and Technology asked the panel about the impact on Universities of “gigonomics,” the idea that the nature of work is changing in the 21st century, from a job/career to a series of “gigs.”  The panel pretty much ignored her question.  Isn’t there a relationship between work and Universities?  Should there be?  If Universities are just about creating great products like GPS and Viagra (two of Cole’s examples), then maybe not.  If Universities are about creating workers for a modern information-based economy, then maybe so?
  • Probably the best view of the tension that I saw in the C21U Launch can be seen in the reviews on the Amazon page for Cole’s book.  First review on the page are all these stunningly great comments from faculty and institutions. But the reader reviews are decidedly negative — not because of the book but because of the message. “This is an ironic book that illustrates unintentionally the problems at the top of American higher education. The first problem is that education itself is considered completely irrelevant to the mission of the institution. Cole sees Universities as factories that produce “results” rather than serve a community, state or nation. They are entitled to an essentially unlimited amount of public funding to do whatever they please. And while they are funded with public money, they are not accountable to the public. The problem is of course that whatever these institutions have evolved into, they are certainly not universities anymore nor is their mission remotely educational.”  Who is the University for anyway?  What is its purpose?
C21U has had a great start.  There  are big, deep, hard questions about the future of the American University, and C21U is trying to explore them. Rich DeMillo has his work cut out for him, and it looks to be an interesting and fun ride!

DeMillo already has a number of projects in the pipeline, including a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and a TechBurst competition where students create short, sharable videos on particular concepts, and the university as a whole is thinking of others. One favorite of Georgia Tech’s president, Bud Peterson, is X-College, which would allow students to essentially design their own degree programs focused on “grand challenges” facing society. It would also allow faculty members to experiment with learning techniques and the semester calendar itself. In keeping with the test-and-learn philosophy, Peterson wants it to start small, perhaps with 50 honors students next fall.

via Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Congratulations to Richard Tapia, National Medal of Science recipient The Economist letters on how to improve UK CS education

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Small college faculty member  |  September 28, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    It’s worth mentioning that the large research-focused university is not the only model. I teach at a small teaching-focused college, and we definitely know what our purpose is. Every day I see my colleagues doing the things discussed on this blog: moving away from traditional lectures, emphasizing active learning, peer instruction, integrated lecture/labs, etc. And we get rewarded by our institution for our efforts. I do wonder what our students miss out on by not having R1-level research here, but how many undergrads at universities really benefit from that, anyway? As a teaching-focused institution, we have a relatively high teaching load (4/4), but that translates directly into reduced cost for students.

    Reply
  • 2. Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert)  |  October 1, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I’m in agreement with the first commenter. I’m at a mid-sized Master’s level public university that is definitely focused on outstanding teaching, although we have a great culture of research focused on undergraduate engagement. We know what our mission is and are very good at bringing it about. So it’s puzzling with people comment about “the university” as if it were one thing only. There are many models of education, and it seems to me that a lot of what people mean by “the higher ed bubble” is just the realization of how many options are available already, without any radical shifts in the concept of academia, for learners and their families.

    C21U sounds very interesting, though, and it’s nice to see GT take the lead in thinking outside the box as it were.

    Reply
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