Full-text Article: The Information Society 12(4)

The end of university?

Majid Tehranian

The end of the century seems to have generated a great psychic effect on the minds of many scholars and pundits. Of late, it has become fashionable to declare the end of nearly everything-- ideology (Bell 1960), history (Fukuyama 1989), geography (Mosco 1994), modernity (Mowlana & Wilson 1990 ), journalism (Katz 1992 ), racism (D'Souza 1995), work (Rifkin 1995), and now university (Noam 1995). Is there anything to these prophecies? How would life look like in the 21st century without the fun and frolic of history, geography, modernity, journalism, racism, and university?

In the absence of any hard evidence, it is comforting to note that nothing seems to be coming to an end-- except the 20th century. And since time and centuries are figments of our own imagination in order to punctuate our conditions of finitude, their end also seems to be illusory. As Jean Baudillard (1994) has argued in a brilliant essay, all notions of "the end" are founded on linear concepts-- of history, geography, modernity, journalism, work, university, etc. True, linearity is coming to an end in the postmodern age. But new trajectories of meaning are inventing new histories, geographies, modernities, journalisms, works, and universities. "So far as history is concerned," Baudillard (p. 2) notes, "its telling has become impossible because that telling (re-citatum) is, by definition, the possible recurrence of a sequence of meanings. Now, through the impulse for total dissemination and circulation, every event is granted its own liberation; every fact becomes atomic, nuclear, and pursues its trajectory into the void." In this sense, history and modernity are both accelerating and decelerating. Technological innovations are accelerating social change, but social inertia is presenting passive resistance against change. Witness the rise of
neo-traditionalism (a.k.a. "fundamentalism") in a variety of religious traditions. As Baudillard (1994, 3) notes again:

"This is the most significant event within these societies: the emergence, in the very course of their mobilization and revolutionary process... of an equivalent force of inertia, of an immense indifference and the silent potency of that indifference. This inert matter of the social is not produced by a lack of exchanges, information or communication, but by the multiplication and saturation of exchanges. It is the product of hyperdensity of cities, commodities, messages and circuits. It is the cold start of the social and, around that mass, history is also cooling. Events follow one upon another, canceling each other out in a state of indifference. The masses, neutralized, mithradatized by information, in turn neutralize history and act as an ecran d'absorption."

Nevertheless, the phantom of the "end, " contains an element of reality. Since the university is closest to my heart, and I would grieve were it to disappear from the face of history, let us focus on that disappearing act. In an essay, Eli Noam (1995) has argued that the current telecommunication revolution is turning universities into dinosaurs. The three most important functions of the university (creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge), he argues, are being rapidly usurped by the telecommunication networks (broadcasting, cable, Internet, World Wide Web).

Let us first look at the case for the end of the university as we know it. Scientific knowledge, Noam argues, is growing exponentially at the rate of 4 to 8 percent per annum with a doubling period of 10 to 15 years. The main response to this phenomenal growth has been to specialize. But there are financial and physical limits to how specialized a university can get. The ever-narrowing experts, who get to know more and more about less and less, have had to find
refuge elsewhere - in think-tanks, consultancies, corporate research and development departments, and government research institutes. The first function of universities as creators of knowledge is thus being overtaken by the better-funded and far more specialized government and private research institutions. Moreover, universities used to have the advantage of having a critical mass of scholars present on their campuses who could interact among themselves to the benefit of all, but modern transportation and telecommunication have offered alternatives that are rapidly growing in use.

In fact, however, universities have never had a monopoly of knowledge in society. The modern electronic networks such as the print, broadcasting, and micromedia (copying machines, audio and video recorders, personal and laptop computers, etc.) have historically served to disperse and democratize knowledge. We should be all grateful for that. Cyberspace is further deschooling, or rather, schooling society. The real policy issue, however, is how to avoid a new kind of information feudalism that may come out of a total commercialization of the knowledge networks. If access to information becomes too costly and out of reach of the less fortunate in society, we may be facing a grim and explosive future in the development of a permanently unemployed and
unemployable underclass. The recent rise of functional illiteracy in the United States to the alarming levels of about 28% is not a reassuring sign. Privatization of information in an Information Society is inevitably driving some information consumers out of the market. There is some historical precedent for this. In the English Enclosure Movement, common pastureland was gradually "enclosed" into private property for large-scale breeding of sheep and production of wool. Something like that is currently happening to public information, which is being rapidly processed into Value Added Networks (VANs) and priced out of the reach of common folks. For instance, Lexis-Nexis contains some 500 million documents growing at the rate of 30 percent per month. It is arguably the world's biggest electronic library, but access is limited to those few who can afford it. In a democratic society, the open access traditions of public universities
and libraries must be maintained in order to avoid a bifurcation of society into information-rich and information-poor.

The second function of universities is the preservation of knowledge. Libraries as the repositories of such knowledge are often thought of as the heart of a university. But as the production of knowledge grows exponentially, so does the cost of acquisition and storage. "For example," Noam observes, "in 1940 an annual subscription to Chemical Abstracts cost $12; in 1977 it was $3500; and in 1995 it was $17,400." University libraries are thus finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the volume and cost of information storage. Consequently, they are turning to investment in electronic access rather than physical storage. But universities have never had a monopoly in storage of knowledge as witnessed by the public library system in the United State. Again, the challenge lies in making sure that the public and university libraries are enabled to catch up with the rapid rise in storage facilities by a shift to the new, cost and space saving technologies (online data bases, optical disks, etc.).

The third function of universities is transmission of knowledge-- their teaching role. "Already," Noam argues, "electronic distant education is available for a wide range of educational instruction through broadcast, cable, on-line, and satellite technologies." He goes on to cite the examples of Agricultural Satellite Network (AGSat), International University College, and Mind Extension University (on which Newt Gingrich has lectured), all of which employ communications technologies to offer courses of instruction entirely on their own or in cooperation with traditional institutions of higher education. To this we might add a number of others, including Arizona University with the largest on-line student registration in the United States and, increasingly, a number of online degree programs conducted by traditional universities.

Are the cards thus stacked against conventional universities? Will they survive? Can they survive the combined blows of technological obsolescence, legislative underfunding, rising costs, moral browbeating, and declining students lured away to the new, perhaps more efficient, and less costly alternatives for higher education? A look at the origins of modern universities might provide a clue to what would probably happen. There is conclusive evidence to suggest that the invention of print technology in Europe undermined the authority of the Church and boosted the nascent secular institutions of learning in the modern universities at Padua, Bologna, Monpellier, Prague, Vienna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg. However, the Church did not disappear from the
face of the earth. It survived, but it was transformed from the monolithic institution that it used to be into a diversity of Catholic and Protestant churches reflecting national ethos, class divisions, and individual preferences. The rise of a new secular priesthood, namely modern scientists, also gradually took away the monopoly that the Church enjoyed over revealed knowledge. The Bible became subject to a diversity of interpretations. Churches gradually became primarily the refuge for spiritual healing, social gathering, and moral education rather than centers of learning.

Similarly, the new network technologies are further dispersing the sources of production and distribution of knowledge. It is still hard to tell what impact they will have on conventional universities. However, it is safe to assume that universities have to respond to this challenge by reinventing themselves. Universities can no longer pretend to be the ivory towers of yesterday. Since the new network technologies are global in character, education must become global in
scope. Since they have blurred the institutional boundaries between government, corporate, and academic worlds, universities must be willing to respond to the needs of other institutions in society. Since lifelong learning has become a necessity, they must also adapt their programs to suit an older generation of students. There is ample evidence to suggest that conventional universities are responding to all of these challenges. In fact, universities have been on the forefront of the educational uses of Internet and World Wide Web. We may criticize them for their institutional conservatism and slow rate of adaptation, but they are gradually adapting to a new open learning environment.

Noam neglects, however, to mention four other central functions of universities that cannot be easily performed by the networks. These may be considered to be professional certification, moral education, scientific socialization, social criticism, and elite recruitment. In modern societies, universities have served as the primary agents for the performance of these functions. Universities continue to be the main clearing house for educating and certifying the professionals in industrial societies. Other sectors of society have so far gladly relegated that function to universities, but if universities fail to keep up with the changing job markets, they will be replaced by other institutions. In the United States, there is already a corporate system of higher education that rivals conventional universities in its budgetary outlays. Moreover, conventional universities themselves are increasingly under the spell of corporate demands and patronage. In a cride coeur, Lawrence C. Soley (1995) has lamented the corporate takeover of American universities during the past few decades. Governors of 11 Western states also recently met in Denver to advance the cause of virtual universities in order to save on costs (Blumenstyk, 1995). In some states, demand
for college education is expected to rise significantly, and the governors wish to pre-empt spiraling budgets. In Utah, for instance, it is projected to double in the next 20 years. The certification function of conventional universities can thus be passed on to virtual universities without much ado.

However, there are dissenting voices such as that of Governor of Hawaii, Benjamin Cayetano, who argues that many of his values were shaped during college and doubts if a virtual university can replace that (Blumenstyk 1995, A1). But universities' function of moral education has been under attack in recent decades. In a November 1995 Republican gathering, while introducing Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrish spoke of his genius and how it has been left uncorrupted because Limbaugh dropped out of college after his second semester (CSPAN report as conveyed to the author by Rob Kling)! In the United States, under the banners of political correctness and its critics, the town-gown rituals of mutual recrimination have thus taken on new dimensions. Is a new
Age of Darkness upon us? If conventional universities are disbanded tomorrow, society would have to reinvent them to provide for the moral education of the young during their most volatile, adolescent years. Otherwise, society may have to suffer the self-righteous arrogance of many half-educated and unreflective pundits and politicians. The moral moratorium of college campuses has worked in the past to refine the intellect and spirit of youth. In conjunction with other institutions in society such as the family, the church, and the schools, universities have an obligation to morally educate the young in our traditions of civility while allowing them to explore alternative life styles and personal identities. In this process, too, cyberspace has already supplemented conventional campuses as the arena for migrating identities testing competing personas in their search for meaning, self-definition, and identity crisis resolution (Turkle 1984, 1995; Anderson 1995). Just like universities, Internet also has come under attack by moralists for allowing "too much" self-expression.

Universities, most of all, teach students how to learn. Given the exponential growth rate of scientific knowledge, learning to learn is the best bequest students can receive from their education. This requires scientific socialization of a high order. The development of a scholarly temperament, including a passionate commitment to the search for truths combined with rigor and dispassion in method, tolerance in practice, and humility in errors, are all qualities that are often
conspicuous by their absence on and off campuses. But those are the qualities that good universities nurture in their faculty and students. It is difficult to see how virtual universities by themselves can socialize the students in these values.

Closely related to this function, of course, is the universities' function of social criticism. Modern societies are, above all, reflexive societies. They monitor themselves and take note of errors of judgment and behavior in order to correct them. Universities, along with the religious and media institutions, are particularly charged with this responsibility. Modern universities are expected to criticize society from the standpoint of its own ethical standards. The principle of academic freedom and the tenure system have been established at the universities in order to safeguard their function of independent social criticism. During the past two decades, however, universities in the United States have been threatened by the excesses of censorship, self-censorship as well as
vocationalization and commercialization of education. If critiques of conventional universities mean that they are not self-censoring, commercializing, and vocationalizing fast enough, that criticism is asking universities to change their fundamental character.

Finally, elite universities in the United States and elsewhere are also performing another function as well-- elite recruitment. The high tuitions they require may be regarded not only as the going cost of education but also as the elite club membership fees. Former Harvard President Derek Bok once admonished that "if you think the price of education is too high, try ignorance." Rising tuitions, dwindling scholarship funds, increasing reliance upon corporate support, and the weakening of the middle classes, are currently raising the moral and material price of elite education. A self-perpetuating and non-circulating elite threatens not only democracy but also the moral and political basis of its own legitimacy. Higher education faces a real threat of bifurcation into a system of conventional elite universities and an emerging system of virtual and ghetto universities tending to the needs of the masses.

A liberal education, encompassing most of the above functions, entails modeling, mentoring, nurturing, guidance, and interaction. It aims at the development of the whole character of a person rather than focusing only on the acquisition of certain facts or skills. This calls for the development of an inquisitive mind and a moral sense of rights and obligations towards the community at its progressively higher levels of order and complexity, from local to global. Physical proximity
and interaction are the sine-qua-non of this kind of education. As distance becomes less and less important in acquiring additive knowledge (science and technology) through electronic networks, proximity will assume greater importance in obtaining regenernative (moral) and transformative (spiritual) knowledge. Regenerative knowledge is the kind of knowledge that each generation relearns through its own trials and errors, pains and sufferings. By contrast, transformative knowledge comes about only when and if the gap between additive knowledge and regenerative knowledge grows so wide that the need for a new paradigm of thinking is felt by all. Such may be the human conditions at the end of the 20th century. We are passing from modernity to postmodernity. Linearity is dead, yet we hear "Long Live Linearity!" We are becoming aware of other ways of seeing, yet we insist on our own single-minded ways of perceiving. The world has become a single lifeboat in a vast and apparently lifeless universe. Yet, our paradigms of thinking are still organized around single tribal, national, and institutional loyalties. In such a universe, once again, human intelligence has to adapt itself and its institutions to account for both distance and proximity, globality and locality, networks and institutions. The university of the future will be a combination of local nodes and global networks. It will hopefully combine the best features of face-to-face education and distance learning. In such a university, training can be relegated to the distant educational networks, but the education of the young is hardly possible in the absence of close and intimate educational interaction, mentoring, and modeling. Virtual universities will, no doubt appear and expand. They may serve the purposes of new types of certification for mid-career professionals or those who have missed the opportunities of conventional universities. But if the experience of some of the most well-known distant learning systems, such as the British
Open University, are any indication, those will succeed in such universities who have already acquired the self-discipline of autonomous learning, such as teachers and professionals of various kinds. From now on, quality education will have to combine face-to-face with distant learning (Tiffin & Rajasingham 1995).

What are the implications of all of this for higher educational leaders? First, do not despair. Despite state budget cuts, declining federal support, and parental grudges against high tuition, universities are here to stay. Second, just like churches some 500 years ago, universities have to adjust to a new social, cultural, and educational environment in which new communication technologies are blurring the boundaries between formal and informal education, schooling and
lifelong learning, as well as primary, secondary, and tertiary socialization. Technological transformation is, however, presenting both risks of obsolescence as well as opportunities for institutional self-renewal that can maximize open learning and minimize classroom drudgery. If all goes well, the entire human society will become a university without walls and national boundaries.

Learning how to learn is becoming, more than ever before, the central function of all schooling. Universities must diversify, localize, globalize, and socialize. In all of these efforts, the rigid boundaries between the hallowed halls of academe and disciplinary boundaries will have to give way to cooperation with other institutions of society in the lifelong education of its youth and an aging population. The universities of tomorrow will be even more diversified than they are
today. Some will primarily respond to the specific training needs of the corporations that sponsor them. Others will focus on educating broadly and liberally. The corporate sector will be hopefully wise enough to allow the universities to carry the burden of responsibility and cost of screening the liberally educated employment candidates for them because they know such candidates make better employees.

At the same time, universities must localize by responding to the social, economic, and educational needs of their own immediate environment. The traditions of land-grant universities are, in this respect, very relevant. However, universities can no longer stay aloof from the global society that has rapidly come into existence by the global markets, job opportunities, and language and cultural learning that all of this demands. Last but not least, universities can no longer afford the dubious luxury of staying within their ivory towers, aloof from the other social institutions and assuming a supercilious attitude towards the religious, military, economic, and political values and norms. Universities must engage the other institutions of society in a critical dialogue on societal goals and plans that transcend institutional boundaries by offering lifelong educational opportunities to mid-career religious leaders, military officers, corporate executives, and politicians in order as much to teach as to learn from them. For universities, mastering the emerging technologies of learning and power is as much a key to such strategies of survival and prosperity as any other single factor.

End Note:
I am grateful to Anthony Oettinger, Martin Ernst, and Rob Kling for their cogent comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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About the Author:
Majid Tehranian is Professor of International Communication at University of Hawaii, Research Affiliate of the Program on Information Resources Policy and Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and Director of Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Tokyo. He is a veteran of 32 years of teaching at institutions of higher education in Asia, Europe, and North America, including Lesley College, New College, Emerson College, and Universities of Tehran, Oxford, Harvard, Massachusetts, Tufts, and Schiller. Of late, he has created a Listserv, ACENET, on Internet that serves as a global classroom for the teaching of international communication . His latest books include Technologies of Power: Information Machines and Democratic Prospects (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1990), Restructuring for World Peace: On the Threshold of the 21st Century (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1992), and Globalism and Its Discontents: Dependency, Discourse, Development, and Democracy in a Fragmented World (forthcoming).