Reflecting their broad interest in the health of America’s research enterprise, the National Academies launched a study in early 2000 on the implications of information technology for the future of the nation’s research university—a social institution of great importance to our economic strength, national security, and quality of life.
The premise of this study was a simple one. Although the rapid evolution of digital technology will present numerous challenges and opportunities to the research university, there is a sense that many of the most significant issues are not well understood by academic administrators, faculty, and those who support or depend on the institution’s activities.
The study—organized under the Policy and Global Affairs Division of the National Research Council, and undertaken during the past two years—had two major objectives:
To identify those information technologies likely to evolve in the near term (a decade or less) that could ultimately have major impact on the research university.
To examine the possible implications of these technologies for the research university—its activities (teaching, research, service, outreach) and its organization, management, and financing—and the impacts on the broader higher-education enterprise.
In addressing the second point, the panel examined those functions, values, and characteristics of the research university most likely to change as well as those most important to preserve.
In pursuit of these ends, a panel was formed that consisted of leaders drawn from industry, higher education, and foundations with expertise in the areas of information technology, the
Drawing on its own information-gathering activities, as well as on the growing literature that deals with higher education and information technology, the panel reached several conclusions that should help guide the future efforts of the research university and its stakeholders:
The extraordinary pace of information-technology evolution is likely not only to continue for the next several decades but could well accelerate. It will erode, and in some cases obliterate, higher education’s usual constraints of space and time. Institutional barriers will be reshaped and possibly transformed.
The impact of information technology on the research university will likely be profound, rapid, and discontinuous— just as it has been and will continue to be for our other social institutions (e.g., corporations and governments) and the economy.
Digital technology will not only transform the intellectual activities of the research university but will also change how the university is organized, financed, and governed. The technology could drive a convergence of higher education with IT-intensive sectors such as publishing, telecommunications, and entertainment, creating a global “knowledge and learning” industry.
Procrastination and inaction are dangerous courses for colleges and universities during a time of rapid technological change, although institutions will also need to avoid making hasty responses to current trends. Just as in earlier periods of change, the university will have to adapt itself to a radically changing world while protecting its most important values and traditions, such as academic freedom, a rational spirit of inquiry, and liberal learning.
Although we are confident that information technology will continue its rapid evolution for the foreseeable future and may ultimately have profound impacts on human behavior and social institutions such as the research university, it is far more difficult to predict these impacts with any precision. Nevertheless, higher education must develop mechanisms to at least
sense the potential changes and to aid in the understanding of where the technology may drive it.
It is therefore important that university strategies include: the development of sufficient in-house expertise among faculty and staff to track technological trends and assess various courses of action; the opportunity for experimentation; and the ability to form alliances with other academic institutions as well as with for-profit and governmental organizations.
Although the study’s discussions and workshops explored a number of policy issues—such as the changing environments for funding and intellectual-property protection—that affect how the research university can best utilize information technology, the panel concluded that to offer recommendations for specific policy changes would be premature. Digital technology is evolving so rapidly that an overly prescriptive set of conclusions and recommendations would be in danger of becoming irrelevant soon after the report’s publication.
Given that the foreseeable future will be marked by great uncertainty, the panel instead recommends that the research university and its stakeholders develop a continuing dialogue, with national and grassroots components, to help research institutions and the broader higher-education enterprise understand the advances in information technology and address their potential impacts. The dialogue should involve monitoring specific technological changes and the resulting scholarly, educational, and social shifts; identifying crucial issues, challenges, and opportunities; stimulating awareness on the campuses; and identifying action items for further study.
Briefly put, the dialogue should grapple with the many aspects of the question: How will the research university define and fulfill its missions in a twenty-first century characterized by ubiquitous and rapidly evolving digital technology?
The ultimate goal is to expand and strengthen the research university’s intellectual resources and institutional infrastructure not only to manage the anticipated transformation but to lead it. This will require a commonality of understanding among members of the university community (administrators, faculty, students), between disciplines, and between the university and its key external constituents (governing bodies, state governments, federal agencies, and foundations). Such a dialogue can