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Multiplicity University

Multiplicity University

One of the odd aspects of many current discussions of American university futures involves a certain all-or-nothing quality—either everything is going to change, as the existing model is fully outmoded—or nothing much should. What’s often missing, though there are exceptions, is an understanding that our most likely near future, and possibly even long-term future, will involve a variety of combinations, and not a single option either old or new. The result will involve change, but above all toward greater complexity. Large public universities will succeed, I think, increasingly on the basis of their ability to manage complexity and legitimize a number of different pathways for students and faculty alike.

Take, for example, the issue of time to graduation. Concerns about costs have generated renewed pressures to hold colleges and universities to a four-year graduation model. It is true that we need to be aware of the desirability of making sure that some students can move through quickly, in order to minimize expenses including the cost of not having paid employment. But there are also students who neither want nor need this kind of schedule. They have jobs, sometimes directly relevant to their field of study. Their personal economies and prospects will be best served by a longer trajectory. A solid public university, in my view, needs to accommodate, even encourage, this kind of diversity of options—while accepting the need, ultimately, to account for the graduation rates that result from different specific patterns.

The big issue, in terms of coming complexities, obviously involves teaching modes. We have technology advocates who imply a future of online offerings, with little attention to anything else. We have some faculty at the other extreme who shudder at the very thought of shifting their classroom styles. The actual evidence, at least for the moment, must encourage a more diverse approach overall.

For we clearly have student audiences who want online deliveries, in whole or in part, because of their convenience and flexible timing—and universities must increasingly figure out how to serve these audiences while maintaining quality standards. We also—and this is the part the disruptive folks tend to ignore—have lots of talented students, and their families, who want an essentially conventional classroom and college experience, in some cases explicitly rejecting even a hint of online delivery. These students, also, must and should be served.

Some institutional specializations have emerged around these complexities, and more will develop in future. There will be entirely online operations, and there will be entirely conventional settings. And a few conventional trappings—the lecture repeated year after year, rather than being captured in favor of more participatory classrooms—probably should go by the way of the dodo; the proponents of radical change make a few good points relevant to all but the most hidebound institutions.

But to me the real excitement, again at the public university level, involves developing the multifaceted approach, the capacity to serve different types of student needs with a common commitment to quality and a common opportunity to inform teaching in all the relevant modes  with the excitement generated by university research. All-or-nothing formulas, in this rendering, are misleading, and universities should be taking the lead in helping relevant publics understand the desirability of a new level of complexity.