A couple weeks ago I wrote about Henry Jenkins’ "youniversity" talk. As you may have seen, he has an article in Chronicle by the same name, which also appears on his blog. The article goes in a slightly different direction and offers more insight into what a youniversity might look like, drawing some on Jenkins’ work at MIT. In a nutshell, Jenkins is asking what would happen if the "bottom-up," wisdom of the crowds, folksonomic qualities of networked media (or Web 2.0 or smart mobs or whatever you want to call it) informed the university. Jenkins employs Cory Doctorow’s term "adhocracies" and writes:
An adhocracy is a form of social and political organization with few
fixed structures or established relationships between players and with
minimum hierarchy and maximum diversity. In other words, an adhocracy
is more or less the polar opposite of the contemporary university
(which preserves often rigid borders between disciplines and
departments and even constructs a series of legal obstacles that make
it difficult to collaborate even within the same organization). Now try
to imagine what would happen if academic departments operated more like
YouTube or Wikipedia, allowing for the rapid deployment of scattered
expertise and the dynamic reconfiguration of fields. Let’s call this
new form of academic unit a "YouNiversity."
As a commenter on Jenkins’ blog laments "I’d say that what you have described is the future irrelevance of most
higher education – it’s hard to imagine the change you describe
surviving the institutional antibodies of the modern university. Of course the institution will survive for a long time, but it may face
the prospect of becoming a vestigial appendage." I agree, in that I imagine that what would happen is that many departments couldn’t function this way, that they will choose to go down with the ship (In English, I think it’s the author-ship, sorry couldn’t resist).
However, I’m honestly not too worried about the parts of higher education that will sink. The history of the university indicates that academic practices, fields, disciplines, and so on rise and fall (all you natural philosophy majors out there raise your hands). Like everything else, changes that in the past happened over centuries or decades now take place in years or months. Just like it used to be that your life would be much like your parents’ life, it used to be that the academic department & college you retired from would look much like the one you graduated from.
Not so much anymore.
I would be more concerned that other institutional structures will not be able to adapt to our more fluid context. Can the university really manage to give up its self-delusion of control? Hierarchy has never really been about control, even "quality control." You can get these things now in a more dynamic and participatory way through adhocracies. Instead, it’s always been about slowing the rate of change.
What happens if you allow a dozen or so faculty to form an adhocracy across disciplines and build an educational program without filling out a hundred forms, getting approval from half a dozen faculty committees, and getting signatures from every administrator from chair to provost? Well, for one thing, change would happen probably five times faster. That is, you could accomplish in two years what now takes a decade. More importantly you could accomplish in less than a semester, what now takes two years to make happen. For example, let’s say right now I realized that we needed to add a new course to our curriculum. I could put it together and offer it next semester. As it is structured now, that would take years.
Now someone might complain that the result would be chaos, a total lack of coordination. However that person would probably also be under the mistaken apprehension that there’s any coordination going on right now. Such a person would also likely believe that order was a top-down phenomenon rather than an emergent one. Clearly, moving to a "youniversity" model would require changes in administrative procedures and oversight; it would require some top-down functionality. But it would hardly be chaotic.
Remember we’re talking about academics here. Despite claims about our politics, intellectual conservatism is deeply ingrained in most faculty. They’re plodders. It’s what makes them good at undertaking the close study of their disciplinary object. The faculty are the control rods in the intellectual reactions of the university. You don’t need anything else.