Published on 2014/02/13
Five Elements That Make Up the Ideal University
The Ideal University would be open access and would not focus on delivering once-in-a-lifetime education, instead focusing on creating a culture of lifelong learning that kept students coming back over the course of their career.
Higher education is in a state of flux. Our industry is changing, our norms are adapting, our student base is shifting, our resources are dwindling and the expectations of our stakeholders are rising.

It’s times like these that lead us to consider the “What if?” questions. I have gone down a path to consider what the ideal university would look like.

If I were starting the ideal university from scratch — one not tethered to existing structures, habits and regulatory frameworks — here are the five elements that would form its frame:

1. Technology Would Be Married to Face-to-Face Instruction

Ideal University would employ adaptive learning tools to allow students to learn at their own pace. Students would not sit in large classes for fixed periods of time at certain times of the year, but would move through the curriculum at a pace and duration of their choosing.

These “autonomous learners” (as I have referred to them earlier) would not be isolated and alone. Students would cluster together in study groups and other such associations; they would meet in self-organized associations around shared interests and in affiliation with faculty. Technology would not eliminate the need for skilled teachers. Professors would tutor students in individualized settings, enhancing what has been taught through the adaptive learning tools. Thus, professors, students and technology would work in concert to create a customized educational experience.

2. It Would Be a “Generative University”

The research university — established in this country at the end of the 19th century — was layered on top of the pre-existing undergraduate college. The purpose of the college was to preserve and disseminate knowledge to students, whereas the goal of the research university was to discover new knowledge.

Ideal University would be based on a new paradigm: the generative or creative university. Research is about discovering that which already exists “out there” while a generative university creates that which does not yet exist; it fashions something new, innovates, makes and creates. In order to receive a degree, students would need to “make something,” which would be construed broadly to mean any novel creation (a poem, a business plan, a device). In addition to teaching undergraduates and engaging in research, professors would be evaluated and promoted based on their innovations, whether a patentable idea, a new product, a work of art, a new procedure, a new line of inquiry, a new way of seeing a problem or a new business venture. Ideal University would be a “generative university” layered on the foundation of a college and a research university.

3. All Undergraduates Would Be Double-Majors

At Ideal University, the general education curriculum would be scrapped in favor of a system where every student would be required to major in two subjects. Further, those double majors would need to be in disparate disciplines. Thus, students could not major in both English and History or Finance and Accounting. Instead, they would choose double majors in History and Accounting or Finance and English. A recent report from Vanderbilt University noted that, “Many students report that their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles, and approach assignments more creatively. These gains are greatest when students major in two disparate domains of knowledge, especially combining science with art and humanities.”

Ideal University would produce students who were flexible and creative interdisciplinary thinkers. Additionally, faculty at Ideal University would be selected because they possessed competency in two disparate disciplines.

4. There Would Be a Culture of Lifelong Learning

Four years ago, the Wharton School announced a new “knowledge for life” service, whereby “All Wharton MBA alumni in the class of 2010 and all subsequent classes, beginning seven years after graduation, are eligible to take one Wharton Executive Education open enrollment course every seven years.”

Ideal University would expand on this idea: matriculated students would continue to receive a host of services and educational opportunities as an ongoing benefit. Students would never really be “alumni” of the institution. Even though they would have received an undergraduate degree, students would still take classes — in order to receive certificates, micro-credentials or other job retraining skills — or receive career counseling and executive coaching. Like a gym membership, continued membership at Ideal University would allow students to exercise their brains, popular among those aware of the research that shows that an active brain can stave off the effects of aging. Some older students, active and successful in their careers, would be invited to teach classes and to otherwise “give back” to younger students.

5. There Would Be No (Or Little) Cost for Students

For all of the problems the epidemic of student debt has caused, one of the most pernicious is that those who would benefit from having educated and skilled graduates — the marketplace and our democratic society — pay an increasingly smaller price for that benefit. Companies are constantly telling us they require skilled graduates to fill positions; others say we need educated citizens to sustain our democracy. Yet our states and other polities are spending less and less on such civic education; businesses reap the benefit of an educated workforce, but do not directly pay for that benefit.

Instead, students are expected to foot most, if not all, of the increasingly larger bill for either their own vocational training or civic education. Ideal University would look like a combination of the University of California-Berkeley (as it once was) and an apprenticeship program. The state and businesses would underwrite the cost of educating students.

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Readers Comments

Ian Hollis 2014/02/13 at 11:55 am

One strategy institutions may consider in order to cultivate a culture of lifelong learning among alumni is looking at what Harvard did. I read a piece recently that said Harvard is encouraging its alumni to enrol in an alumni-only MOOC. I know, in the past, Harvard has also scoured alumni lists to fill the roles of volunteers, teaching assistants and others in their online offerings. Getting alumni actively involved in creating, maintaining and participating in continuing education fosters the type of environment Staley describes.

Glenda Cullen 2014/02/13 at 5:10 pm

Interesting concept of “generative learning.” I agree that the focus should be shifted from pure knowledge to production, the idea that the student can create knowledge. This fosters the critical thinking and problem solving skills we often say we hope university graduates acquire during their time at our institutions.

In addition, it goes a long way toward putting all disciplines on par with each other. Right now, when we think of production, we usually assume it has something to do with the sciences — a new formula, technique or product. However, if the “creative work” students are responsible for generating can be a new sound, style of communicating or thought about a piece of literature, it brings the value of the humanities and liberal arts up to par with the more technical disciplines.

D. Terry Rawls 2014/02/18 at 10:31 am

Thank you for these thoughts David, this is a very interesting piece. I particularly like the Generative Learning element and the Life Long Learning focus. In the spirit of brainstorming, I would want to add one element to Ideal U: All undergraduate students would study a foreign language and travel– at least for a few weeks– to a country where that language is spoken. It seems to me that a hallmark of higher education MUST be an awareness of the global nature of our world today. Thanks again!

David Staley 2014/02/19 at 7:07 am

An excellent idea, Terry!

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