Choosing the Future: Findings and Options
Information technology clearly poses many challenges for higher education in general and the research university in particular. But while the challenges are significant, so too are the opportunities to enhance the important social role of these institutions. The panel endeavored to reflect that spirit in this study.
As noted in Chapter 2, we can expect enormous technological changes over the next 10 years, and with an ever-increasing rate of change. Yet Chapter 3 observes that individual human beings cannot modify their behaviors with respect to technology as rapidly as the technology itself is changing. Social institutions such as the law and the university have an even greater inertia with respect to exploiting new technology.23 Academia’s greatest challenge, therefore, will be to resolve this great and growing discrepancy. In order to avoid squandering resources, exhausting faculty, and disappointing students, the higher-education community—and particularly the research university— needs to develop agile processes for experimenting with and assessing alternative courses of action.
Some might argue that while other societal institutions have been transformed or made obsolete by information technology, this is no guarantee that the same will happen to the research university. After all, given the important role of this institution in society and the economy, and its political strength at the statehouse and national levels, it has proven able to resist or deflect outside pressures in the past. For example, some might argue that inexhaustible demand for the research university’s degree-granting, or “credentialing,” role will ensure a steady stream of students regardless of the intrinsic educational quality it offers.
Although the panel is not in a position to prove its arguments beyond all doubt, we note that a significant number of experts, both panel members and others of diverse outlooks, predict that higher education will undergo significant change as a result of information-technology advances (Collis, 2000; Duderstadt, 2000a; Gilbert, 1995; Katz, 1999; Newman and Scurry, 2000; Noble, 2001).
In addition, Chapter 3 discussed several trends affecting higher education that may not trace their origins to digital technology but that the panel expects will be catalyzed by technological change to further transform institutions and educational processes. For example, there is a growing demand for universal, lower-cost, lifelong education tailored to the needs of learners, as contrasted with the more exclusive, expensive, traditionally structured approaches that the research university and other elite institutions have been accustomed to determining themselves and uniquely providing. The panel expects this growing demand will be met in part, perhaps in large part, through the expansion of current for-profit educational providers or the success of new entrants. In any case, technology is helping to enable this shift.
Another trend that has spurred some controversy is the growing linkage between the research university and the commercial world. Concerns raised about this linkage generally focus on the potential compromising of academic research activities (Press and Washburn, 2000). But some critics worry that the recent rush by universities to establish for-profit subsidiaries specializing in distance education is a mechanism for “deprofessionalizing” the faculty (Noble, 2001). This movement, they suggest, could presage a future in which education is “delivered” by information technology and courses are created by teams of adjunct faculty, contract lecturers, and technical helpers rather than by tenured professors, with the courses owned by the university (Noble, 2001).
Whether or not one shares these particular concerns, it is clear that a range of futures is possible for the research university. The panel believes that institutions, working with their constituents, can develop and fulfill a vision for the future in which information technology is a vehicle for sustaining and expanding their core values and missions. The research university can be more effective in education, teach in entirely new ways, reach a wider segment of the U.S. population, and meet
the lifelong learning needs of its students. It can create new knowledge at an accelerating rate through new forms of collaboration across institutional and disciplinary lines, while maintaining diversity of thought and academic freedom. It can be more effective at traditional service functions, and make entirely new contributions to the broader society. It can become even more central to the intellectual and social life of our communities and the nation as a whole than it has been before.
Given the pace of technological change, and the non-technological pressures mentioned above, the next decade will be a critical time for individual institutions and for the higher-education enterprise as a whole. While the transformation of the research university is more or less inevitable, it is important that the changes be proactive and the result of serious self-examination. The aforementioned rush to establish for-profit distance-learning subsidiaries, some of which have already expired while others are in trouble, is an example of change hastily undertaken by institutions in reaction to trends of the moment and the fear of “being left behind.” We can learn a great deal by examining this experience.
Given this context, the panel’s main findings are as follows:
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 boundaries 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 and the economy. There are likely to be major technological surprises, comparable in significance to the personal computer in the late 1970s and the Internet browser in 1994, but at more frequent intervals. The future is becoming less predictable.
Digital technology will not only transform the intellectual activities of the research university (teaching, research, outreach)
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 the university 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.
For at least the near term, meaning a decade or less, the research university will continue to exist in much its present form. But it must devote itself during this interval to anticipating the needed changes, developing appropriate strategies, and making adequate investments if it is to prosper thereafter.
Over the longer term, the basic character and structure of the research university may be challenged by the technology-driven forces of aggregation (new alliances, for example, and the conversion of the academic marketplace into a global industry) and disaggregation (such as restructuring of the academic disciplines, detachment of faculty and students from particular universities, and decoupling of research and education).
Although we are confident that information technology will continue its rapid growth 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.
DISCOVERING OPTIONS: THE NEED FOR CONTINUED DIALOGUE
Although part of its charge was to make policy recommendations, the panel ultimately decided not to do so in this first phase of activity. One factor in this decision was that information technology is evolving so rapidly that any prescriptive set of conclusions and recommendations could quickly become out-dated. Also, the panel was unable to examine the numerous issues bearing on the topic (such as the state and federal funding environment for higher education, intellectual property laws and practices, regulatory and certification issues, information privacy, and information security) with the depth needed for recommending policy changes. The focus of our examination of needs and priorities for action was on what institutions themselves and their broader constituencies (which definitely includes state and federal governments) need to monitor, explore, learn, and understand at this time.
The panel believes that the higher-education community should create ongoing mechanisms for:
Monitoring technological changes and the consequent scholarly, educational, and social shifts.
Identifying crucial issues, challenges, and opportunities for the research university and the broader higher-education enterprise.
Stimulating awareness on the campuses.
Making recommendations for actions or further studies.
The National Academies has been awarded funding to launch such an effort through the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable. This process will address the need for monitoring and expanded dialogue not only on campus but at the national level. It will involve technology specialists as well as experts in higher education and state and federal policy makers. Of course, it will also involve faculty from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and students themselves.
Box 4-1: Examples of key questions and issues that might be addressed through continued national and campus-based dialogue
For the Higher-education Enterprise and its Public Stakeholders
Why is such an an intensive, expanded dialogue necessary? One reason is the complexity and broad range of issues related to information technology and the research university. This panel took a broad look at the technological, institutional, and policy issues. Given the time and resources available, it was able to cover considerable ground but was unable to delve into issues at great depth. Some important topics, such as the impact of information technology on the service and outreach missions of the research university, were treated only superficially. An expanded national dialogue will allow a deeper examination of the broad range of issues.
A second reason for a continuing dialogue is that the research university itself, its internal component groups, and its key external constituents come to the issues with different interests and perspectives. This report has touched on some of those differences. Effective communication and better common understanding will be necessary to effectively manage the consensual change processes in higher education.
Administrators, faculty, and students, for example, come to the issues with different experiences, expectations, and concerns. University governing bodies and state governments are charged with ensuring effective management of the university and responsiveness to the public interest, yet this oversight is necessarily colored by their respective political and institutional interests. Federal agencies, foundations, industry, and the various higher-education associations are key research-university constituents with their own particular perspectives. In this regard, several nonprofit groups and university-based institutes that are focused on the future of higher education or the use of information technology may contribute a great deal to the discussion.
A third reason for a continuing dialogue on information technology and the research university is that the activity can serve as an ongoing mechanism to track technological changes and their implications for universities. Individual institutions would be unlikely to do this systematically on their own.
What would the continued dialogue consist of, and what could it accomplish? One model for the National Academies activity is the Stresses on Research and Education at Colleges and Universities project that was undertaken during the 1990s by the National Science Board and the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (NSB-GUIRR, 1994 and 1998;
Texas A&M University, 1994). This effort consisted of several national colloquia and linked campus-based dialogues to explore and address the new stresses on university-based research that appeared in the early 1990s.
Campus dialogues will be an important grass-roots-level component of the new activity. For example, participating institutions will organize structured dialogues to bring together faculty, students, and administrators to discuss challenges and opportunities presented by digital technology and formulate possible responses. Serving as precedent is the Stresses project, in which several of its campus dialogues unexpectedly catalyzed longer-term strategic planning and change exercises at the participating institutions (Texas A&M University, 1994). In this new activity, therefore, building an infrastructure for continued campus dialogue and change will be consciously built into its own exercises.
Periodic national conferences and workshops will be employed for proposing strategies. Standing subgroups might be formed to develop follow-up strategies and actions (including possible alliances). In addition, the Internet will be used to facilitate the dialogues themselves (through the provision of collaborative space on the project’s web site) and to encourage regular exchange among the participating institutions and the broader public.
Additional dialogues will be organized among institutional leaders, such as deans, university trustees, and top faculty, and links will be forged with state and national policy makers and industry leaders. The panel believes that the policy dimension is crucial, although it also believes that public discussions and thinking have not advanced to the point where specific policy issues could be addressed in this present report.24
Such sustained activity would be aimed at producing specific initiatives and demonstration projects to help research universities develop appropriate strategies for the digital age. Examples include the use of very-high-bandwidth networks (e.g., Internet2) to support new activities such as multicasting and telepresence, novel approaches to using technology to enhance teaching and learning, and innovative approaches to sustainable financing of information-technology infrastructure.
As a result of this three-year project, we expect that the intellectual community studying issues related to information technology and the research university will be enlarged and
strengthened; dialogue across institutions, disciplines, and functions will be enhanced; governmental leaders and key foundations will be engaged; and new approaches to change at the campus and national levels will be taking shape.
There is little doubt that the status quo in higher education cannot, and should not, be maintained as this “disruptive” digital technology finds its way into every corner of our society, and in ever more significant ways. Yet while the challenges to the research university will be great, so too will be the potential to enhance the important social role of this institution.
Academics should approach issues and decisions on information technology in that spirit—not as threats but as opportunities. Creative, visionary leaders can respond by guiding their institutions in new directions that reinforce and augment their most critical roles and values. They can use information technology to help their students learn more successfully, their faculty members become better scholars and teachers, and their institutions serve society inclusively and to ever greater effect.
We are on the threshold of a revolution that is making the world’s accumulated information and knowledge accessible to individuals everywhere. It has breathtaking implications for us all, but the challenge is particularly great for the academic community. Our mission—our responsibility—is to develop a strategic framework that enables us to understand this extraordinary technology and shape its impact with skill and imagination. If we are successful, the research university can remain a major source of sustenance for a free and spirited democracy, a vibrant intellectual life, a healthy economy, and other national values.