Drastic Ideas for Reshaping the University – Again

John Connell in his provocative post entitled ‘Are the University’s Days Numbered?’ takes his cue from a review by Dan Colman about the opinions of Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia. Summarised for us by Dan the bold ideas Mark puts forward are:

  1. getting rid of free-standing academic departments and making academic work cross-disciplinary
  2. developing multi-disciplinary programs that focus on “real” problems
  3. increasing collaboration among institutions, partly with the help of the internet, so that universities don’t have to develop redundant strengths
  4. moving away from traditional, citation-packed dissertations and instead having grad students communicate their research in more contemporary digital formats
  5. helping grad students plan for a life beyond scholarship itself
  6. imposing mandatory retirement and abolishing tenure, essentially in order to keep faculty responsive and productive

I have to agree strongly with ideas 1 through 5. Just last week I had to knock back a Masters in IT Honours thesis by a brilliant student whose citation-packed thesis was very poorly done. I am certain he could have made an animated video that would much better convey his advanced ideas for esoteric computer science data structures for user-generated content in popular computer games. Sadly he is constrained to write a 60-page thesis to a centuries-old formula.

It the current global financial crisis that forces me to vote against idea 6 – my superannuation account needs to be topped up with a year or two of my working beyond the currently accepted retirement age. I like to defend my continued employment on the basis I seem to be capable of spotting new trends such as the ideas above before the bulk of my younger colleagues! [A trait that a previous, much older Dean of my faculty also possessed in abundance.]


About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

3 Responses to Drastic Ideas for Reshaping the University – Again

  1. Pingback: Drastic Ideas for Reshaping the University – Again « MyPage Builder

  2. David Tangye says:

    Hi Michael,

    I read the chain of articles. I especially agreed with this by Dan Colman: “What Taylor is suggesting is not entirely new. These ideas have been floating around for some time. But they’re packaged well, and they drive home the point that universities, like so many other traditional institutions (newspapers, book publishers, fossil fuel-based energy systems, General Motors, etc), are increasingly feeling outdated. Or, put differently, they’re not responding to rapid changes in technology and the global economy. There’s an older generation that likes these institutions pretty much as they are. And that generation now runs them.”

    1. One small point though: “traditional institutions … are increasingly feeling outdated”: In my opinion modern communications technology is resulting in traditional institutions actually BEING outdated, inasmuch as part of the basis of ‘business’ in western economic commercial model revolves around obfuscation. This is blown away by free information now being available via the internet. For example traditionally a business could often make a profit by adding no real value when selling you goods and/or a service. They simply knew where to get something, and/or how easy it was to add little value and charge a premium. The internet came along and the consumer now easily finds he can cut all these middlemen out and either deal directly from the source where value is produced, or armed with free knowledge, do it himself. Many businesses still exist based soley on obfuscation, eg offering subscription services to their knowledgebase. They simply keep the knowledge hidden, unless you pay to get at it. There is a huge number of ‘middlemen’ businesses out there whose absence of real value is now out there to see. Their customers have evaporated. Larry Ellison predicted this as part of his keynote speech in the mid ’90’s at an Oracle User conference, themed “The internet changes everything”. (I wonder if there was a record of the speech.)

    2. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and much of traditional institutions are run by old dogs, desperately hanging onto power the only way they have ever known how; the same way rulers have for thousands of years. Dylan said “The times they are a’changing” and “get out of the new world if you can’t lend a hand” nearly half a century ago. Most of these old dogs are already leaving & will be gone in the next 10 years. Of course there will still be several younger ones who are modelled on them for a short while to come, but increasingly a free world will dictate that provision of a real service of real value will be the only way to be rewarded.

    What sort of insidious battle is going on right now by all the traditional institutions: the corporate news, comms, music and print publishers, knowledge brokers/universities, software companies etc to curtail freedom of information via the internet, to gag the internet, to preserve the model of obfuscation (and also to crush open-source software too), in order to return/retain their power?

    ps If it barks like an old dog, growls like an old dog, its an old dog. (Apologies to the duck for stealing his expression.)

  3. Michael Rees says:

    Excellent comment, David. More grist to the mill.

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