Once upon a time, we thought that to indulge in serious thought, scholars needed to be protected from the hurly-burly of commerce and politics. That’s why an awful lot of American campuses were built out in the middle of nowhere (eg. Dartmouth, Princeton, U Illinois, U Indiana, U Virginia, U Washington), and why many of the medieval universities of Europe have walls – both were strategies to keep out the riff-raff.
Nowadays, of course, we think exactly the opposite. Urban universities and colleges are hip and cool. They’re in the middle of booming cities, interacting with businesses, and collaborating to fix social problems. And though one might think this development is just a bunch of Richard Florida-esque hipsterdom (Cities! Knowledge! Vague connection between the two!), in fact, it has to do with a much larger and more fundamental change in the nature of universities themselves. As far as universities’ goals and self-image is concerned, there’s a new Sheriff in town. And its name is “permeability”.
As far as teaching and learning goes, some types of permeability are actually already ingrained into North American universities in ways that European universities are only starting to catch on to. You can be permeable in terms of credits – making institutions welcoming to students who already have collected credit elsewhere. You can be permeable in terms of time – allowing students to start and stop their programs regardless of age or the length of time it takes to complete a set of credits (this may sound mundane to people in the Anglosphere – in most of the rest of the world, however, this kind of stud is either in its infancy or might as well be science fiction).
The most dynamic institutions in the world are the ones where it’s hardest to define where an institution ends and where other organizations begin. The schools with the most frenetic pace of scientific innovation aren’t the ones fussing about patents and licensing, they’re the ones with the open-ended innovation agreements with business, where issues of IP rights don’t get in the way of the main goal, which is to develop productive, ongoing relationships. The schools with the most interesting students aren’t necessarily the ones with the traditional credit-based paths to completion, but rather the ones who ensure a mix of academic and applied experiences, like through Waterloo’s co-op program. The most interesting undergraduate research projects aren’t the ones assigned by professors, but rather are the applied-research projects that come from local businesses, and are proliferating in place like Ryerson and Canada’s Polytechnics.
Permeability is less about what institutions do than it is a state of mind. It is about openness, not just to the outside world, but also to new ways of achieving things. It is about thinking of universities as being embedded in a vast variety of networks, rather than being a hub with various spokes (it can be a hub for some things – just not all of them). And it’s about empowering students and professors to develop and explore their own networks, rather than assume these will be organized by the institution itself.
We’ve essentially come full-circle here. It’s the isolated universities who wanted to function as “cities upon a hill” who look out-of-touch these days. The most dynamic ones, far from shutting themselves off, are doing their best to turn themselves inside out, and open up as many of their functions as possible to contact and integration with commerce and society.
Permeable Universities are the model for the 21st Century. Working out how to help them emerge is the main task of higher education policy for the coming decade.