Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Academic Universe

By Keith McDowell

Located in the shadow of the historic Alamo and permeated by the multicultural significance of those who fought and died there for their independence, the River Walk in San Antonio is both a place to enjoy the allure of a beautiful city and its excellent cuisine and a place to ponder questions best left to such settings. During the past week, as a guest of The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), I had just such an opportunity while serving as a member of their External Review Committee (ERC), an operation designed to review periodically the performance of UTSA centers and institutes.

Composed of a very talented and personable group of individuals, ERC held serious discussions about the place and role of centers and institutes in the microcosm of UTSA and, more broadly, the slowly changing universe of academe in general. As always in such discussions, two important questions emerged that are in need of an answer. First, exactly what is the nature of the modern academic universe? And, second, is that universe optimally structured and managed in order to carry out the assigned mission?

Let’s begin with the mission of universities. There are three components: teaching, research, and service. Viewed traditionally as siloed or stove-piped activities, each of these three components over time have grown more complex and heavily integrated to the point that a Venn diagram of their overlap looks similar to the image shown above. Indeed, the service component is now typically referred to as “engagement” rather than service.

Based on this model of three overlapping components that encompass the mission, it is possible to define the nature of the modern academic universe through a prescriptive listing of specific “buzzwords” or phrases associated with each segment of the Venn diagram. For example, the following list would make up that part of the academic universe assigned purely to the teaching function.

Teaching Segment

·      Active/Passive/Discovery/Group/Individual learning styles
·      Technology in the classroom
·      Online education
·      Student as customer
·      Education versus training
·      Experiential learning

Although partial and not complete, this list displays the flavor of the current status of teaching in the academic universe. Similar partial lists for the other segments are as follows:

Teaching-Research Segment

·      Research experience for students as a stimulus and vehicle for learning
·      Student as lab employee

Research Segment

·      Search for new knowledge – basic research
·      Tenure and promotion – peer review
·      Grantsmanship and funding
·      Convergence and transdisciplinary teaming approach replacing individual PI
·      Complexity
·      Grand challenges
·      Research development
·      Research compliance

Research-Engagement Segment

·      Consultant
·      Sabbatical leave
·      Industry partnerships and sponsored research
·      Proof of concept
·      Intellectual property and patents
·      Translational R&D

Engagement Segment

·      Professional service
·      Extension service – traditional for land-grant universities
·      Technology commercialization
·      Startup companies and university incubators
·      Innovation centers and communities
·      Public-private partnerships
·      Entrepreneurs
·      Business plan competitions

Engagement-Teaching Segment

·      Internships
·      Semester abroad
·      Community service
·      Student as innovator and entrepreneur

At the center of all this segmented and detailed activity is the modern research university where the teaching, research, and engagement components of the mission merge to form a holistic enterprise that serves the greater good of our nation. And therein lies our second question: are universities optimally structured and managed in order to carry out this holistic mission? Are centers and institutes the answer?

Quite frankly, I don’t believe anyone knows the answer as to what would constitute the optimal organizational chart. And just about everything has been tried when it comes to parsing discipline lines versus project lines. It’s the age-old conundrum of project management set in the context of the academic universe.

Should we break down the “hegemony of discipline lines” as described by James Duderstadt or should we institute “matrix management” as practiced at our national laboratories? Certainly President Michael Crow is performing an interesting experiment at Arizona State University as he recasts and restructures the traditional departments at that university with an eye toward educating students and engaging the greater Phoenix community in a user-driven research environment tailored to put technology commercialization on steroids. Should UTSA and other emergent research universities adopt such a model?

I think not! But it is imperative that we all address the evolution of the academic universe and understand that we must adapt and change as globalization takes hold and civilization becomes a highly networked and interconnected system. The traditional university of our forebears is not a sustainable enterprise in the Twenty-first Century. Transdisciplinary and translational research and education embedded in a fully formed and adaptive innovation ecosystem are the key to our future.

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