Many have questioned the relevance of higher education over the last century. It is a time period that has seen many shifts in the way we work, the way we live and the overall global mindset. It can be argued that the advancement and accessibility of technology is the prime, impacting factor in these shifts. People’s lives have been altered as a result of technology, workplaces have been impacted by technological advancements, and these advancements have altered societal expectations for higher education. The Internet, in particular, is now a collaborative space that is independent of space and time. The ability for people to gather and collaborate no matter where they are changes most aspects of our lives, and “we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change” (p. 20), says Internet scholar Clay Shirky (2008). This collaborative space allows for a kind of creation and documentation that can be routinely updated. Wikipedia, for example, is a dynamic encyclopedia on the Web. What makes it so dynamic is that it is constantly reviewed and updated by the public (Shirky, 2008, p. 116). It has not only become a space to document history, but to detail the present. Shirky (2008) tells the story of the July 2005 London bombing page, which was established within minutes of the bombing and featured over “a thousand edits in its first four hours of existence” with news sources, contact numbers and advice for those trying to get home (p. 116). The dynamism of Wikipedia pages is that they are never finished (Shirky, 2008, p. 119). As more information unfolds over time, pages can be updated and new sources can be referenced. The result is an information rich and multi-perspective history that anyone can contribute to (Shirky, 2008, p. 119). Meer kids with mobile phones can conjure audiences of thousands, the introduction of a Website that features classified ads can have a profound effect on “the entire newspaper industry”, and a college dropout can become a billionaire who creates a free space for people to connect and share (Jarvis, 2009, p. 3). This is the ‘new norm’. Shirky (2008) calls this “mass amateurization”, where the question no longer is “Why publish this?” and is, instead, “Why not?” (p. 60). Shirky (2008) also reminds us that the Web has created, not just a new competitor in the marketplace, but “a new ecosystem” (p. 60). According to Jeff Jarvis (2009), journalist and associate professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, anyone can “find a public,” on the Web, “the public he or she merits” (p. 239). Students today grow up with the ability to learn and create anything with an Internet connection. Colleges today must acknowledge the new digital literacy skills needed to manage one’s virtual identity, be good digital citizens, and to triangulate the sources of the information they come across.

As the Internet continues to drive down costs due to accessibility and increased competition, the higher education market continues to increase its costs and limit accessibility. This is partially due to the fact that States are decreasing funding for higher education, “one of the many factors stemming the momentum of increased accessibility to our nation’s colleges and universities” (Crow and Dabars, 2015, p. 30). As Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and William Dabars, Senior Research Fellow for University Design and Director of Research for the New American University in the Office of the President, Arizona State University, (2015) point out, socioeconomic inequality remains a barrier to intergenerational economic mobility as well as access to higher education” (p. 42). If students decide to take out loans, they now face another set of barriers not present for previous generations of borrowers. Students now accrue up to a 7% interest rate starting the date they take out a school loan. In years past, the interest wouldn’t begin accruing until after deferment. This new process makes it harder for students to pay off loans since so much more money is accrued in addition to the principal before they even graduate. This debt stays with students, impacting their ability to buy houses, cars, or take risks in the job market long after graduation.

Lastly, students today are of a different generation. As Holden Thorp, Chancellor of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Buck Goldstein, University Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice in the Department of Economics at the same college, (2010) point out, they are “interested in solving the world’s great problems but fail to see a correlation between the academic disciplines and their social concerns” (p. 109). Many of today’s societal expectations stem from the values needed to be a citizen in this interconnected world. Philosopher and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum (1997), reminds us that one does not “need to give up local affiliations”, but to continue to draw the circle around one’s self to include family, neighbors, “fellow city dwellers”, “fellow countrymen”, affiliations (ethnic, religious, etc.) and, then, “humanity as a whole” (p. 60-61). For individuals to be able to draw this last circle, they must be educated with some “some fundamentals about the histories and cultures of many different groups.” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 68), which includes “some understanding of the major world religions” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 145). With what may seem to be the indefinite impact of the Internet and technology on society, it may be hard to teach students everything they need to know to be world citizens. For this, Nussbaum (1997) recommends that “if we cannot teach our students everything they will need to know to be good citizens, we may at least teach them what they do not know and how they may inquire” (p. 295).

Students today also must be ready to learn throughout their lives, especially in order to prepare for evolutions in their chosen industry or a career change. Famed futurologist, Alvin Toffler, told Cathy Davidson (2012), Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that “unlearning” is one important trait that all citizens are now required to have so that they can adapt the changing circumstances. Frank Rhodes (2001), former President of Cornell University, points out that higher education institutions “once controlled access to knowledge” (p. xii), in libraries and minds. They also used to control “accreditation, graduation, and certification”, accessible only through their rules of “place, time, style, and substance” (Rhodes, 2001, p. xii). New competitors made possible by technological advancements have challenged many of these traditions. The “knowledge business” (p. xii), as Rhodes (2001) calls it, is forever changed. Higher education has a crucial role to play in American society now that technology has influenced the ability to learn and perform jobs virtually. Derek Bok (2006), former President of Harvard, reminds us that if we fail to prepare our American students for the future, that individuals from “all over the world are eager to take their place and are empowered by technology to do so” (p. 5).

Lack of Futures Thinking

Most individuals will never come across the concept of futures thinking in their higher education curriculum. Most campuses around the world offer no futures degrees and you will find very few futures focused courses. There are, however, some institutions and instructors we can look towards for examples. James Dator (2002) and his colleagues chronicled their futures courses in a collection titled, Advancing futures: Futures studies in higher education. Dator (2002) warns that futures studies shouldn’t actually be a discipline at all. Disciplines, as he sees it, are “contributing to the demise of the modern university because of the inability of any one discipline to address the pan-disciplinary, future-oriented problems of the world” (p. 21). Futures studies should be introduced interdisciplinarily. Wendell Bell insists that, “no college education is adequate unless it includes some systematic study of the concepts and principles of the futures field” (p. 34). Students, he believes need to know not only about alternative futures, but also how to select and align their actions towards a preferred future. Not only do students not engage in what Bell calls “planful action” (p. 45) for themselves, but also for future generations. Bell has been incorporating futures thinking into his sociology classes for the past four decades and he believes that higher education institutions should create interdisciplinary “Departments of Futures Studies” (p. 50) composed of faculty from a variety of disciplines. Soheil Inayatullah cautions that teachers also need to be sensitive to the “different ways” students get to know the world and be open to exploring “many academic, cultural, and historical frameworks” (p. 120).

In Dator’s own undergraduate and graduate classes, he introduces “various theories of social stability and change, and then various methods for forecasting, inventing, and creating preferred futures” (p. 12) after having the class consider multiple images of the future. By the end, students are able to speak to their own preferred future. Tamkang University in Taiwan actually requires all students to take futures courses before they graduate (p. 18). Inayatullah takes a different approach with his classes. He asks his students to define the past, present and future in order for them to understand how the past and present is malleable depending on who tells the story. He asks students to consider their preferred future through the lens of their own culture in order to “decolonize the future and make it their own” (p. 116). Peter Bishop, former Director of the graduate program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston and Executive Director of Teach the Future, teaches futures from the perspective of systems and change. Social systems are complex, and they change. This illustrates to students, not only that “every system (person, group, organization, society) is ultimately accountable to some outside force” (p. 141), but also “to encourage them to create their own novelty in the time they have” (p. 142). Sam Cole, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo in New York, describes the heuristic (shortcut) model he uses to teach planning students about futures. It borrows elements from widely used methods in futures studies, including: computer modeling, scenarios and the delphi method (p. 244). One such course, “Global Issues and Futures (GIFS)” is comprised of “seminars, guest lectures, films, readings, and exploration of issues on the Web, culminating in group activities and presentations” (p. 245).

Why Should Higher Education Care?

There are a few reasons why higher education should be interested in participating in futures thinking. For one, higher education institutions should be concerned about the future of their surrounding communities. If the surrounding community prospers, so does the institution. Parents are more likely to send their students to an institution located in safe neighborhoods and students are more likely to attend colleges located in regions that are exhibiting growth. Growth requires concentrated and sustained effort. So many times, city or country efforts fall through with leadership turnover. Higher education institutions are well positioned to be guardians of their region’s future. As Thorp and Goldstein (2010) point out, the longevity of higher education institutions is a good example that “they will be around long enough to see social projects through for years to come (p. 70). Once futures projects are determined, institutions can continue to coordinate and advocate for them decades after their conception. These institutions also possess a unique collection of talent to do so. They are the only organizations “where world-class technologists work in direct proximity with world-class humanists” (Thorp & Goldstein, 2010, p. 156). Through repurposing talent already on hand, higher education institutions are also well staffed with the expertise to coordinate and carry out parts of the determined futures projects.

As the concern for higher education relevance grows, so does the need for institutions to reinvent themselves. A key reinvention point is the rising costs. Higher education institutions are raising tuition costs because state funding is at an all-time low and “endowments are 30 percent smaller than they were at the beginning of the financial crisis” (Thorp & Goldstein, 2010, p. 151). Where the role of higher education has traditionally been the gatekeeper of knowledge, the impact of the Internet has made this role irrelevant. Society now expects the value of higher education to match its rising costs. Thorp and Goldstein (2010) argue that this new role includes “helping reshape America and the world” (p. 1) and to address challenges that extend beyond economic. The authors believe universities have the potential to be “engines of innovation” (p. 1). Although institutions possess great intellectual resources, very few are coordinating their piecemeal efforts to maximize their impact. Carole A. Beere, James C. Votruba, and Gail W. Wells (2001), all former high-level administrators at Northern Kentucky University, speak from experience when they say that this new role also requires institutions to partner with their local communities in order “to help ameliorate community problems” (p. 18).

Higher education institutions are also tasked with the preparedness of future generations. This doesn’t only mean preparedness to enter the workforce, it also means the societal preparedness that only a liberal arts education can deliver. The liberal arts influences individuals to “exercise the option to think for themselves and ask tough questions” (Crow and Dabars, 2015, p. 144), traits that prepare graduates to tackle societal problems. As Thorp and Goldstein (2010) point out, they will make “ideal partners” (p. 15) when higher education steps into its new role to “respond to the problems of our time” (p. 16). Thorp and Goldstein (2010) believe the liberal arts also allow students to “participate in the innovative and rapidly evolving economy” (p. 161). Where the economy once focused its rewards on factory workers, the “creative class” is now in high demand. This term, “creative class” was coined by sociologist and economist, Richard Florida (2014), in his highly cited book, “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Thorp and Goldstein (2010) reference Florida and this term to describe the “scientists, artists, poets, designers, computer programmers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs” who have an adaptable skillset. This skillset influences the creative class to “migrate to academic hubs” (p. 5), such as Boston or Silicon Valley, creating ecosystems that also contain a similar feature: higher education institutions. There is also the much-needed element in preparing future generations: lifelong learning, continuing to learn and relearn throughout one’s life. As Davidson and Goldberg (2010) point out, “increasingly rapid changes in the world’s makeup mean that we must necessarily learn anew, acquiring new knowledge to face the challenges of novel conditions as we bear with us the lessons of adaptability, of applying anew lessons known to unprecedented situations and challenges” (p. 71).

Rising to the challenge of reinventing one of the oldest institutional structures in the United States is not easy. Some institutions will have an easier time trying to innovate than others. Donor dollars, state funding and mass tuition revenue will help some of the more prosperous and large size institutions. The small size, private institutions will struggle. Accomplishing this task, however, will put them on better footing for tackling what may come their way in the future and will help to set them apart from the homogenous landscape of higher education institutions. Thorp and Goldstein (2010) also advocate that, “innovation and entrepreneurship are equally important in the private sphere” (p. xii). This landscape is now being expanded to include institutions competing across State lines through online education (Docking and Curton, 2015, p. 5) and a discerning public deeply affected by the 2008 financial crisis and competition oversees eroding the labor market (Docking and Curton, 2015, p. 6). Many small institutions find themselves in a hole they are trying to find a lifeline out of. Some are turning to “rebranding”. Others are turning to development by building a high-tech or green buildings. Rebranding can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and buildings cost millions, yet as Docking and Curton (2015) point out, neither make a difference in a high schooler’s mind (p. 24, p. 28). For small institutions, it doesn’t make sense to spend limited funds and manpower on these piecemeal bandaids.

Small private institutions possibly have a more direct purpose than universities. Where universities address the masses in the state and region, small private institutions have a direct connection with their surrounding communities. They are the “largest economic engine [communities] have to supply prosperity, jobs, and cultural activities to the businesses surrounding the college” (Docking and Curton, 2015, pp. 1-2). Taking a small private institution out of the community equation would mean a loss in “restaurants, bookstores, markets, and small retailers”, as well as families that flesh out surrounding K-12 schools and cultural events for the community (Docking and Curton, 2015, pp. 1-2). It also means limiting higher education options for the surrounding area. Small institutions offer a different education than what is found in universities. Small classroom sizes mean lots of personal attention with dedicated faculty members (Docking and Curton, 2015, p. 1). Some of these community-based institutions that are now at risk have been operating for over 150 years (Docking and Curton, 2015, p. 3). In their 2015 book, Crisis in higher education: A plan to save small liberal arts colleges in America, Docking and Curton (2015) express that they are “afraid many are going to run out of money, reach insolvency, fail the federal financial responsibility audit (as 150 small privates did in 2011), close their doors, or be swallowed up by large state universities as satellite campuses over the next several years” (p. 1) unless they do something to change their fait. As Docking and Curton (2015) point out, “several were established soon after our country was founded, and they survived wars, the Great Depression, epidemics, and natural disasters” (p. 3), yet over 30 institutions have closed their doors in the past 10 years (p. 2). The funding that was once present to build these institutions, whether from church, State, or investments from founding fathers, is now dried up and the complexity of needs these institutions hope to support far surpasses tuition revenue. For these small private institutions interested in adapting, what are their options?

What Could Higher Education Do?

Adaptation is a highly discussed topic in higher education and every higher education researcher has a focus to recommend. Online learning, finding a niche, new buildings, athletics investment, more research, enhanced teaching, creating an engaging general education program, a variety of choice, interdisciplinary faculty collaboration, international student travel, a return to tradition- all of these recommendations can be found in the latest round of higher education research. Very few recommendations address a deeper connection to the surrounding community, which also creates a recommendation landscape that perpetuates the isolation of higher education institutions. One has to question whether it is this isolation from the surrounding community that has made higher education institutions more fragile than they have ever been in history. Could an approach that considers the larger societal ecosystem and the future of that system create more sustainable higher education institutions?

A New Purpose: Societal Self-Renewal

As Erich Jantsch (1972) says, the university will need to be restructured with the “primary functions” (p. 228) shifting:

  • Education: “from training for well-defined, single track careers” … “toward an education which enables judgment of complex and dynamically changing situations” (p. 228).
  • Research: “from discipline-oriented research” … “toward research on complex dynamic systems” (p. 229).
  • Service: “from specialized, piecemeal research contributions”, “ to an active role in the planning for society” (p. 229).

This new purpose of the institution should be expressed “of the institution itself, not of its members” (p. 228). This shift in goals for higher education to be more embedded in the community is a “decisive role it plays in enhancing society’s capability for continuous self renewal” (p. 228), the ability for societies to resist decay by adapting to the needs of today. This concept of ‘self-renewal’ was coined by John Gardner in his 1964 book by the same name. It is a book that Jantsch studied closely and admired. In this book, he found a solution for many of the struggles found in higher education. When aligning the new goals of the university with the “principle characteristics of a society having this capability” of self-renewal, Jantsch argues that higher education goals should now include:

  • “Enhancing the pluralism of society.” – Higher education, as Jantsch saw, was a collection of “creative energies”- faculty and students, that are rarely found together in any other industry. These energies, he believed, could be harnessed to enhance the “pluralism of society” and, in turn, “contributing to society’s self-renewal” (p. 229).
  • “Improving internal communication among society’s constituents.” – What Jantsch noticed, that is barely recognizable today, is that higher education and society share the same future, and more visible, small size institutions and their surrounding communities share the same future; they face the same implications of the decisions made today. He believed that communication needed to be improved between higher education and society. Both parties need to discuss “mutual implications of science and technology” and “social objectives”, but they also need to identify “long-range outcomes of alternative courses of action” (p. 229) via conversations that take place through the lens of social systems. Social systems, as he believed, needed to be designed. That design couldn’t be done by any one entity- but in collaboration between a handful – government, industry and higher education.
  • “Providing positive leadership.” – Higher education institutions can take on a leadership role in a way they are built to do: identifying “common objectives, setting priorities, … as well as by promoting experiments in society through ideas and plans” (p. 229).

This is a new purpose for higher education and in many ways this indicates the creation of a “political institution” that interacts with government and industry in the “planning and design of society’s systems” (p. 229). Jantsch was specifically concerned with how technology would impact social systems. He referred to this as the “joint systems of society and technology” (p. 229). His predictions were more than accurate; technology has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. With the magnitude of this impact, society should be concerned with its future, and the future of its social systems. The major changes in the structure of the university to support the new goals would include:

  • “Principal orientation toward socio-technological systems design and engineering at a high level” (p. 230). – A design focus of the institution that coordinates its three components, education, research and service, to work to achieve preferred futures.
  • “Emphasis on purposeful work by the students rather than on training” (p. 230). – Students, too, should be partaking in this research and service.
  • “The education, research and service functions of the university, which have increasingly come apart, will again merge and, in fact, become one (p. 230)”.

To support change, Thorp and Goldstein (2010) have several valuable recommendations for institutions, though one directly speaks to consistent points made in this paper. They recommend encouraging “temporary combinations as an alternative to permanent structures” (p. 116). When it takes a year to discuss the formation of a group to tackle a certain issue, the issue has already evolved well beyond the early discussions. Thorp and Goldstein instead recommend temporarily assembling “problem-based, multidisciplinary teams” that can work on these issues “without encumbering the institution with a major long-term commitment every time such a team comes together” (p. 116). Though they could just be assembled as a one-time team brought together to repurpose their talents to solve a problem, their time together could be extended once they demonstrate their productivity. When it comes to adaptation, higher education needs to become more agile. Many of the processes that have been developed in institutions are made of time frames acceptable to the Middle Ages. In contrast, we live in a world where technology has dramatically altered the ways in which we live, work and learn, in just a century. This shift has allowed individuals to transcend time in ways they were never able to before. In order to communicate with someone in Madrid, an individual in NY no longer has to wait for letters to travel by boat. They can simply email the Madrilenian or chat with them online in real-time, with video. Instead of a two-week voyage by boat, the New Yorker can travel to Madrid to see their friend in just 10 hours by plane. This dramatic advancement in how people can interact with each other impacts so many areas of our lives, and it might be a good enough reason to consider how higher education needs to evolve to acknowledge this advancement.

Eradicating Exclusion

While it would be ideal to have more young citizens participate in the research and service of socio-technological systems and multidisciplinary teams, the reality is that higher education is still a dream for many individuals. As Crow and Dabars (2015) point out, “America’s leading universities, both public and private, have become increasingly exclusive” (p. 61). In their book, the authors detail the redesign of Arizona State University (ASU) to offer “unmatched educational opportunities to the many gifted and creative students who do not conform to a standard academic profile”, as well as “access to students who demonstrate every potential to succeed but lack the financial means” (p. 61) pursue a degree. The university aims to do this without compromise, holding each student to the following standard listed in their new university charter, “The university seeks the success of each student regardless of socioeconomic background and assumes responsibility for contributing to and being held accountable for the economic, social, and cultural health and well-being of the community” (p. 62).

The aim of ASU to be more inclusive was done for a variety of the reasons already listed above, including to answer the “call for the university to respond to its cultural, socioeconomic, and physical setting, pursue a culture of academic enterprise and knowledge entrepreneurship; conduct use-inspired research; focus on the individual in a milieu of intellectual and cultural diversity; transcend disciplinary limitations in pursuit of intellectual fusion (transdisciplinarity); embed the university socially, thereby advancing social enterprise development through direct engagement; and advance global engagement” (p. 62). What Crow and Debars (2015) have helped put into play at ASU is not piecemeal. It is a coordinated effort of the education, research and service components of the university to respond to what is a needed, and to achieve a preferred future. The way in which they retell these efforts is done through a systems lens, “restructuring is thus key to adaptation and determines output—that is, useful knowledge”, and “adaptation for our purposes simply refers to the evolution of “fitness” in both individuals and the collective to respond to the scale and complexity of the emergent challenges that confront the global community” (p. 63). John Gardner would describe this process as self-renewal and Erich Jantsch would call this a new purpose for the university to enhance self-renewal.

Translational Scholars

Faculty members have a major role to play in this institutional transition. They are the experienced scholars, the transformational teachers, and the creators of new knowledge. Thorp and Goldstein (2010) say that, “a faculty appointment allows artists to continue their work while imparting their craft to eager students anxious to learn from a practitioner” (p. 99). For this reason, universities have to make sure that time is protected, so that faculty members have a chance to hone their craft, participate in field discussions, create new knowledge, and take up opportunities to share their work. There should also, however, be an expectation that a faculty appointment includes such a commitment. It is unfortunate how the apathetic nature of some tenured faculty members has diminished the perceived value of the teaching profession. Thorp and Goldstein (2010) coin the term, “engaged scholars” (p. 101) to describe the new role faculty members have to play in guiding students who “have an increasing interest in social change” and universities that are “being called upon to address the major problems of the world” (p. 101). This new role encourages faculty members to develop new formats of engaging their students that go beyond traditional, passive lecture, such as developing “service-learning courses and programs that combine academic rigor with experiential learning centered on a particular project” (p. 101). There is also a huge need for faculty members to lead the way in the creation of courses and programs that support the pluralism and self-renewal of society, such as “microlending, environmental and health policy, green energy, and venture philanthropy” (p. 101). As Thorp and Goldstein say, “important research, typically multidisciplinary, will inevitably grow out of these course offerings” (p. 101).

Community Embeddedness

Let us acknowledge that change is difficult for any organization, especially one whose international history is more than a millennium old. The oldest degree granting institution, the University of Al Karaouine, originally founded in 859– a year when Viking raiders attacked mosques in Spain, helped lay the groundwork for international institutions that were to come, including those in the United States. The disciplinary silos that we see now are built on the disciplinary foundations of these early institutions and much of the resistance we see in institutions reluctant to change can be viewed alternatively as a responsibility to uphold the extraordinary legacy that is higher education.

Yet, if we look at some of the founding institutions in higher education, we can identify that one purpose, in particular, has been lost. The University of Al Karaouine was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, daughter of a wealthy merchant, who constructed the madrasa and mosque to service her community. Many other institutions have been developed over the years with the intention to service their communities, realizing that educated citizens contribute to a preferred future for both the community and the institution. Beere, Votruba and Wells (2011) argue that institutions need to “move forward”, higher education institutions need to “deeply embed public engagement in the fabric of their institutions” (p. 31). For an organization that is deeply complex and multi-layered, this embeddedness needs to surface in multiple ways in the institution. One primary area is academics, where departments will have to determine how public engagement fits into the curriculum, service learning, and faculty involvement in the curriculum (pp. 57-58). Administration will need to support faculty members in these academic efforts by offering professional development in community relations and politics (p. 105). It also must be found in institutional mission and goals. As we’ve discussed, preferred futures are not achieved through piecemeal efforts, but through coordinated efforts to co-develop a preferred future.


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