Public Squares, Thinking Spaces, “Embedded” Research: Imagining the Public University of 2050

It is obvious, right? Even as some universities take the decision to funnel precious dollars into the creation of MOOCs — dollars that they claim they don’t have for existing aspects of their operations — other universities will buck the trend and aim to strengthen their core activities by re-articulating the importance of what goes on in their classrooms and elsewhere on their campuses, in real time and real space. An institution can try to surf a “tidal wave,” or it can freshly communicate and support the importance of what it is already doing.

Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter will be leading SFU in doing the latter. In a speech at the World University Forum in Vancouver last week, now published in the Globe and Mail, Petter urges an emphasis on community engagement by which universities define themselves as “public squares.” And a group of professors who came together last Winter at the University of California Santa Barbara for a “charrette” process in which they imagined what they would like the UC system to look like by 2050 have just issued a report in which they suggest that public universities re-establish their significance as public goods in part by turning campuses into spaces in which students — undergraduate as well as graduate — join professors in research projects, with such projects “embedded” in courses. The introduction declares that the writers “hope . . . to create a document that will record the ideas of all participants and in doing so promote a continuing iterative process of generation, selection and refinement.” I say not only “Hear, Hear!” to that, but also why don’t faculty here consider our own iterations of what the UC faculty generated last Winter?

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 10.41.32 AMThe Uses of the Public University in 2050 showcases 12 “design principles” that will protect public universities in the face of developments such as MOOCs, which (as professor and video-game designer Ian Bogost has just asserted in the Atlantic Monthly) funnel public resources into private hands so that “high-risk ‘disruptors’ [can] produce rapid, speculative financial value by converting ‘inefficient’ social processes into ‘efficient’ industrial ones.”  The report urges that “education . . . be understood and acted upon as a public good, not a commodity,” with “creativity in research and teaching protected by academic freedom [remaining] central to the University’s mission.” Three of the twelve principles focus specifically on the spaces and dynamics of instruction, with the emphasis falling on the need for the University to create “flexible spaces that inspire social learning, collaborative inquiry, and a sense of ownership and stewardship of the campus shared by students, faculty, and staff,” and where “through public funding, . . . pure and applied research thrive and continue to serve the public good.”

Imagine what the University of Alberta might do if it chose to define itself, in this moment of supposed “crisis,” as committed to nurturing the University as a place where students receive education as a “public good, not a private benefit,” and do so in part by joining professors in research projects that involve understanding or participating directly in the protection of other resources — oil, water, land — as public goods? What curricular changes might reinforce the principle of the University as “an ideal environment for proactive, cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary thought that moves beyond the tradition divide between the sciences and the humanities” (my emphasis)? Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 10.47.23 AMAnd what if the University of Alberta finally re-invested in its Faculty of Arts (for example) by building some new spaces for it — spaces whose very design conveys the University’s openness to the community and has within it venues that allow for dynamic interactions — you know, the kind that classrooms with rigid benches and students sitting in a row facing forward make so difficult? The Californian team imagines (for example) “community table” spaces as well as what they call “collision spaces”: small, intimate spaces equipped with “marker boards, chairs and coffee” in which groups can work.

What would it take to bring any of this about here?

One of the photographed graphics that emerged from the small-group discussions at UCSB last February encapsulates the idea that might (as the UCSB report urges) lead to iterations of its ideas elsewhere: faculty must be “mobilized” to be “designers of their own institution.” In the model the UC team produced, the envisioning of the University of the future is not left to administrators. Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 10.40.49 AMBottoms-up action is required, along with “work spaces for system innovation” to which faculty on every campus can resort “to explore scenarios and to develop prototype models for the future University.” Amongst other things, the report suggests that administration be redefined so that it is no longer conceived of as “management” but rather as “facilitation”: administrators are to aid the execution of a vision that faculty members generate, and the report suggests that “executive-level compensation” should be “comparable to that of public servants in similar positions outside the University.” Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 11.13.07 AMAll of this makes sense, given their emphasis on the University as a place of learning that “inspires students to pose urgent and original questions . . . in an active, social setting.” The selection of the “grand challenges” that faculty would take on with students should therefore “emerge from faculty, in partnership with students,” with the emphasis not necessarily on end-products but rather “on the design of innovation and collaborative teaching and research experiences” in which both research and teaching are strengthened by maintaining their interactive bond. Administrators should be working to make all of that happen. (The UC team suggests that the challenge of defending the University to the public and ensuring public funding for it should fall to Boards.) To be clear, the report isn’t against “virtual learning” but rather urges a recommitment to and revitalization of “place-based learning” through the articulation of its “unique rationale.”

In other words, the faculty from across the UC system who gathered at UCSB last winter aren’t against “disruptive thinking.” In fact, they’re for it. The “disruptive thinking” they desire? One that drives an “advocacy mechanism to encourage planning efforts by faculty,” and which “establish[es] the faculty as a truly collective body” working to ensure the vitality of the public university as a place where faculty and students come together to engage in creative thought that deals with the “grand challenges” that face the planet. Given that the province of Alberta is busy contributing to these challenges with its practices of resource extraction and distribution of wealth from material resources into private hands, don’t we have all the more reason to fashion a University squarely centered on the idea of meeting those challenges?

* * *

Sponsors of the UCSB “charrette” included the UCSB Faculty Association, as well as the Faculty Association at Berkeley. Full lists of participants and sponsors are at the end of the report.

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