The Modern University

5 September 2010 at 5:31 pm 15 comments

| Peter Klein |

[I]f you were starting a top university today, what would it look like? You would start by gathering the very best minds from around the world, from every discipline. Since we’re living in an age of abundant, not scarce, information, you’d curate the lectures carefully, with a focus on the new and original, rather than offer a course on every possible topic. You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?

What would this modern university look like? It certainly wouldn’t resemble Harvard or Swarthmore or Michigan or Texas A&M. It would look like TED, profiled in this month’s Fast Company. Or Wikiversity or the Mises Academy or some nonprofit or for-profit alternative we haven’t heard of yet.

See also: “Are Universities Worth It?”

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions.

Analyzing the WikiLeaks Data Blogs About Organizations

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. srp  |  6 September 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I’m going to be an equilibrium guy for now and say that the universities we have are pretty much the ones that are viable. You may see path-dependence and inefficiency, hence entrepreneurial opportunity, but I see a mature industry facing environmental changes much like home construction, hospitals, or auto manufacturing.

    Most reform proposals for universities involve some sort of unbundling of their research, certification, teaching, networking, socializing, and entertainment functions. I’m not convinced that joint production of these isn’t still the most efficient configuration.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  6 September 2010 at 2:52 pm

    It’s possible, but I’m not convinced that the complementarities are that strong. Besides, what do you think the equilibrium configuration would be in the absence of huge public investments in higher ed?

  • 3. Academia Escapee  |  6 September 2010 at 7:06 pm

    It seems to me that the current university system is, to a great extent, affected by the fact that FedGov loans make it possible for a majority of students to attend university in the first place– students who would not have otherwise been able to attend a university in the past.

    This has probably been the major contributing factor in the result that a degree is considered by too many to be as essential as a high school diploma. And this continuing trend has grown to the extent that a graduate degree is fast becoming a requirement, with a post-doctoral position of 5+ years following the PhD.

    So, in my opinion and observation, the wreck that is our current university system is a result of government interference in the economy and the education system.

    To be blunt, open, and honest:Higher education is wasted on some people, and some of these people are currently enrolled in university programs.

  • 4. srp  |  6 September 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Well, most of our private research universities started out this way. Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Chicago, etc. were graduate-oriented engines of research first and only got into undergraduate affairs later. The Ivies had different origins but quickly moved in the same direction long before they were affected by public investments of any kind. MIT was more of a trainer for industry at first but after the efforts of some visionary professors and administrators moved to a research orientation before government money became a major factor. So the post-WWII surge in government support to higher education doesn’t really explain the genesis of the research university.

    I also think there is a bit of a moving target here, in that high-school dropouts were exposed to a pretty rigorous curriculum back in the 19th century. Letters written by Civil War soldiers seem to show that the average guy then functioned at a high level of literacy compared to today’s modal undergraduate. We have more advanced topics in math and science taught earlier now, but I suspect that today’s undergrad is roughly equivalent to yesterday’s high school grad in terms of ability and literacy.

  • 5. Randy  |  7 September 2010 at 1:10 pm

    The TED-University lacks the one thing that will keep universities and colleges going for the rest of this century. Where else can one off-load late-teenage children and make them someone else’s project for maturation? Or, at least, get them out of the house. Bricks and mortar matter, at least for residence halls.

    I suppose the Department of Corrections could establish an SBU with this purpose. An it would be cheaper.

  • 6. Bill Schulze  |  7 September 2010 at 3:52 pm


    If you want to see some of those ideas in action, click on the following link to the Foundry.

    Technology? Everything is on-line (facebook, google docs/calendar, dropbox, YouTube). We have recorded 80+ “lectures” (5 to 8 minutes in length) that are posted to YouTube and hence, accessible on demand. We started in May with 21 teams. 16 have incorporated, 8 have revenue and two are launching in the next two weeks. Total revenue across all teams since May 15 is about $150k and we created 25 jobs.

    Its been a wild ride, but fun. It also looks like this approach works. Will keep you posted.

  • 7. Bill Schulze  |  7 September 2010 at 4:40 pm

    One more thing: We also host an annual TEDx event (the local version of TED).

    We held our first TEDx in June, 2010

    Our second TEDx is scheduled for April 22, 2010.


  • 8. Warren Miller  |  8 September 2010 at 10:09 am

    Randy asked, “Where else would we offload late-teenage children and make them someone else’s project for maturation?”

    There’s a better answer to that question than dumping them in college, where the typical 18-year-old has about as much appreciation of the environment as a Luddite has of the internet. The solution is three years of compulsory national service. It need not be military, though that is certainly one of the choices. But our society needs a whole lot more exposure to the moral responsibility we all have to give back, and the best place to start inculcating that, IMLTHO, is when youngsters graduate from high school.

    Those years from 18 to 21 will show them what their lives are going to be like if they don’t get an education. It also gets them away from Mom and Dad, but in a structured environment where they are earning money, rather than living on the dole. It will make them far more motivated when their three-year “hitch” is up, plus such a program could be structured, as the military service is today, to provide them with major-league financial assistance when they completed their obligation.

    Bill Buckley was a long-time supporter of this idea. I know that the anarcho-purists won’t like it, but so be it. Besides, whree I come from, ideology is a perversion of reason; for proof, one need look only at the wing nuts on both Left and Right.

  • 9. Peter Klein  |  8 September 2010 at 3:48 pm

    @Bill: Thanks for the pointers! That is great stuff.

    @Warren: Leaving aside the ethical issues associated with a compulsory program, do you really want to put the dunderheads in Washington in charge of teaching young people moral responsibility?

  • 10. Warren Miller  |  8 September 2010 at 4:40 pm

    You really know how to point the question, Peter. And I anticipated a much more strident question from someone (not you) because of my reference to “anarcho-purists.” Still your question is dead-on.

    As I think you know, I take a seat behind no one in my skepticism about the D.C. dunderheads (sorry to repeat myself). But I also know that the armed services are well-managed, even now. I can’t speak to management of the Peace Corps, Americorps, or similar ventures. But I’d be willing to give the “dunderheads” a try so long as we had a mandatory sunset on the initial legislation so that it could die a natural death if it didn’t work. That assumes, of course, that said dunderheads would LET it die. Maybe the sunset would require a supermajority vote of some kind to be overridden.

    Bill Buckley, whom I still miss to this day, was not a libertarian purist. He was conservative with some libertarian instincts. But he was also pragmatic about certain things. I know that pragmatism carries risks, but without it, I don’t think we’ll ever get any change at all, whether it’s “change we can believe in” or not. JMLTHO, as always. Thanks for raising the issue. It needed raising.

  • 11. srp  |  8 September 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Mandatory national service is one of those ideas that won’t go away completely no matter how little rationale it has. Even ignoring the compelling principled and practical reasons for opposing it, the thirst for it by people who would be too old to be subject to it (and past service doesn’t count–this is about imposing a new obligation on the margin) is disturbing. Get off my lawn! Turn off that noise! Get a haircut! Join the Army! Sheesh.

  • 12. Warren Miller  |  8 September 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Give me a break, Steve. There is a ton of rationale to the idea of mandatory national service. Had you ever invested serious time around undergraduates, you’d know that. Yeah, I’m too old to be subject to it. But I’ve favored the idea for 46 years, which, come to think of it, is about four years fewer than your date of birth. I favored the idea as soon as I heard about it, which was right after I served in the Marine Corps (1961-64). Your anarcho-purity is in your way – see my comment above about “perversion of reason” – your rant is Exhibit A. I’ve forgotten more about serving our country than you’ll ever know, dude.

  • 13. FC  |  9 September 2010 at 1:37 am

    Yeah, well, I’m more awesome than all of you put together.

    I think this is a great idea. After three years of corvee labor under some Health and Human Services GS-3, these people will be libertarians for life.

    Hope and Change THIS, Generation Y!

  • 14. Peter Klein  |  9 September 2010 at 8:50 am

    Gentlemen, let’s stick to the issues — no ad hominems, please. Let’s no be like, well, you know, those *other* blogs.

  • 15. Dick Langlois  |  13 September 2010 at 3:33 pm

    It appear that we have some empirical evidence. Yale and the National University of Singapore are about to start a new school to be called Yale-NUS College.

    Click to access w3_57046_YNC_Prospectus.pdf

    According to Rick Levin in an alumni email, the model is actually Yale College in the 19th century: “in the tradition of Yale’s role in 19th century America, we would help to bring the concept of residentially-based liberal arts education to Asia — complete with interactive pedagogy, an innovative curriculum, and true residential colleges where living and learning would be integrated.”

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