How Universities Can Prepare for the Future

November 01, 2009

Posted in Higher Ed.

If higher education is to avoid a painful death in the coming decades I have a relatively simple plan: create an R&D process.

Add it to the Strategic Plan

Executive leadership, the board, deans, and officers of the University must be aware of this effort. The goal isn’t survival – that’s playing defense and it’s easily compared to a number of industries that resisted change. The goal is to thrive in this shifting environment and create lasting, positive changes to the way your institution will do business in the future.

Form a Center for the Future of Higher Education

A number of Universities have established centers, institutes, or commissions dedicated to studying higher education. This seems like a logical place for the conversation about the future of higher ed to start.

Institutions should create such a center (or direct an existing one) for the purpose of studying how changing cultural forces act on higher education, the implications for the future, and ways to adapt to such change. These centers should aim high, but produce meaningful research to be applied in a real world setting. One excellent example of this is the University of Michigan’s Millenium Project, which states:

“Rather than being simply a think-tank where ideas are generated and studied, the Millennium Project is a do-tank where ideas lead to the actual creation of working models or prototypes to explore possible futures of the university.”

The Center should be staffed or led by visionaries, higher ed leaders, faculty, etc. They should ask questions like “what might higher ed look like in 50 years?” and “what if we weren’t able to charge tuition to attend our school?”

Create a Workshop to Test Prototypes

It doesn’t do you any good to have a theory about how to adapt. Ideas are worthless until they’re put into action. But ideas aren’t guaranteed to pay out – they are far more likely to fail than succeed. This department (or an extension of the center, if you like) must be empowered to develop prototypes based on the work generated by the Center.

Like any good skunkworks operation, the Workshop requires talented and creative people. This also requires funding and the understanding that not all projects will pan out. Fail early and fail often must be an acceptable motto for this crew.

Establish a System of Accountability

On one hand, there’s academic freedom and the usual liberties afforded such pursuits in higher education. On the other, there’s some urgency: we’re facing (if not already in the midst of) a looming crisis. Accountability is important if we’re to benefit from such investments in our future. This means setting reasonable goals and measuring projects (as well as these departments) against them. This might be as simple as setting goals for a project, and pulling the plug if it doesn’t perform within the agreed parameters. I’d expect such a system to include the usual accountability for centers and faculty: publications and grants.

Don’t Be Afraid to Do Something Crazy

Rather than play follow-the-leader and mimic the models of other Universities, challenge the Center and Workshop to explore bold, new approaches. Not many Universities consider mergers and acquisitions, but it’s not unprecedented. How about alternative residential experiences? Or developing more customizable degrees that cross the traditional boundaries of colleges, schools, and departments?

The Future is Wide Open

Nothing I’ve written about here is ground-breaking. But few schools are attempting this. And even fewer are investing appropriately. While a new building may cost $50 million, it has a very specific and limited value to the University. Compare that to the potential cost of being ill-prepared as higher education evolves and shifts. For a school with an operating budget in the hundreds of millions, or even in the billions, the opportunity is worth the investment.