PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
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ON THE SHELF: A New School of Thought

By Wray Herbert

A RECENT BOOK THOUGHTFULLY EXAMINES THE IMPACT THAT TECHNOLOGY AND BUDGET CUTS ARE HAVING ON ACADEMIA.

Reinventing the Research University Edited by Luc E. Weber and  James J. Duderstadt; Economica Press, 2004When The Lutheran Church was founded in 1530, some 66 institutions existed that still exist today in approximately the same form. In addition to the Lutheran Church, those included the Catholic Church, the Parliament of Iceland and the Isle of Man, and 62 universities.

This point was made some years ago by the late Clark Kerr, American educator and reformer, to emphasize just how resilient the university is as an institution. Kerr added: "They have experienced wars, revolutions, depressions, and industrial transformations, and have come out less changed than almost any other segment of our society."

Is such resilience to change a good thing or a bad thing? Kerr's observation is cited by former Cornell University president Frank H.T. Rhodes in the introductory chapter of the new book, Reinventing the Research University, a collection of essays on the condition of the modern research university and the challenges facing it. The consensus view from the 13 contributors to this volume—educators, administrators, and industry representatives from both the United States and Europe—is that, yes, resilience is a good thing—at least when it comes to the university's basic missions of creating and imparting knowledge. When it comes to its other purposes, some new to our age, these thinkers have more reservations and questions.

Here are a few of the major pressures for change suggested by the essayists.

  • So-called "massification" of the university: Higher education is no longer for the elite, and extending the privilege of a higher education to the masses is a major challenge facing university administrators and faculty for a variety of reasons. The massification of higher education is accompanied by a major shift in the demographics of entering students. For example, it estimated that by 2010 over 50 percent of all university students will be working adults over the age of 25.

  • Industry-university cooperation. In his essay "Globalization of Research and Development in a Federated World," Hewlett Packard's Wayne C. Johnson describes a new model for innovation—which he dubs "open innovation"—in which corporate labs and university labs no longer exist as separate entities. Instead, he argues, industry and academia need to break down the traditional boundaries between them to generate the kind of knowledge needed in our global economy.

  • Technological revolution: Not only is technological progress changing the face of the university and higher education with blinding speed; the world of work is demanding a workforce more technologically savvy than ever before. This requires some major rethinking of curriculum and departmental organization.

  • Shrinking budgets: Just as these social changes are demanding a greater investment in higher education than ever before, states are facing budget deficits that prohibit such expansion. In addition, there is less and less public support for what's perceived as the elite (and unaccountable) mission of the university, as baby boomers age and focus increasingly on other priorities, such as healthcare.

The fundamental issue underlying these other institutional challenges is the role of the university in relation to society's pressing needs, and many of the essayists touch on the tension between "applied education"—training in clearly useful disciplines—versus "curiosity driven" research. In the end, the editors conclude, the university must face these powerful changes as an opportunity rather than a threat if the basic mission is to be preserved.

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer on culture and society in Washington, D.C.

 

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