“Epistemological Culling” and the Future of Universities by David J. Staley

We welcome David J. Staley, Ph.D. as guest author for this week’s IngenioUs blog.  To hear more of Dr. Staley’s insights about the future of universities, check out this IngenioUs podcast conversation:  https://anchor.fm/chelip/episodes/Imagining-the-University-of-the-Future-with-Dr–David-J–Staley-ejiuu9

This is a cover from Roswell Park’s 1841 book Pantology: Or a Systematic Survey of Human Knowledge

“The present work,” he began in his introduction, “is offered, as a guide book, to those who are seeking to explore the vast expanse of human knowledge.  It aspires to be to Pantology, or knowledge in general, what a map of the world is to Geography.”  If pantology is the systematic classification of all knowledge, it appears to be a word that was in fashion only in the 19th century, if this word frequency analysis is any indication.

The encyclopedia had historically served the container for all human knowledge, although one could argue that one of the defining characteristics of the university is that it has aspired to a pantological condition: to embrace all knowledges.  Indeed, the root of the word “university” includes the idea of universality, with the university encompassing the entire universe of knowledge.  What Park collected within the covers of his nearly 600 page book might serve as a blueprint for the epistemological organization of the university. 

We are going through a moment in higher education that future historians might call “the great epistemic culling.” Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities were cutting programs, majors and tenured faculty—a “Queens’s sacrifice” strategy, in the words of Bryan Alexander—in the hope that this would deal with budget shortfalls.  Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education wondered if a number of majors and programs would be able to survive the pandemic, at the same time noting that many of these programs had already long been threatened. It seems that the programs targeted often come disproportionally from the arts, humanities and qualitative social sciences.  The COVID crisis has simply provided cover for many administrators to carry out unpopular decisions they had already wished to make.  When historians write the history of early twenty-first century higher education, they will note the extent to which many colleges and universities were forced to cull knowledge, rather than cultivate it.

I sympathize with the impulse: many institutions feel as if they’ve no choice but to cut programs, faced with an impossible budgetary situation.  When backed into this corner, and when all other options appear to have been exhausted, they feel there is no other choice but to cut programs, majors and their tenured faculty.  These academic leaders cite a perceived lack of student interest, or the imperative to concentrate on programs that promise job-relevant skills. 

This past summer, the Provost at the University of Tulsa—in announcing program cuts—said that the institution “had tried for too long to be ‘everything to everyone’ and had spread itself too thin, making part of the strategy to determine what kind of institution Tulsa will be.” I am certain that this was a painful decision—one that afflicts many institutions–and that the provost’s observation that Tulsa cannot be everything to everyone was a bitter statement for her to make.  Indeed, there are many leaders of institutions that are finding themselves coming to the same realization: that they are unable to be comprehensive.

If it is true that some institutions can no longer be everything to everyone, then perhaps these institutions should no longer refer to themselves as “universities.”  Call them something else: a polytechnic, for example, or a vocational academy, or a research institute, or just simply a college.   That is, if an institution is incapable of being comprehensive, if it does not aspire to be pantological, then it forfeits its title as a university. 

There would be no shame in this forfeiture.  A polytechnic or an institute is a perfectly honorable aspiration for any institution.  It is just that we should be reserving the title “university” to signal a specific kind of higher education institution.

In the United States, at least, being named a university is a relatively easy process—usually if an institution starts a graduate program of any kind, it may adopt the title University.  In Europe, the requirements are more stringent, and tends to coalesce around the idea is that a university is a comprehensive institution.  Recently, Times Higher Education made the observation that “a new analysis of…data reveals how…several leading universities have sought to become more comprehensive and build their prestige across a broader range of subjects.” It is a simplistic formulation, perhaps, but it seems the equation is that to be defined as world class, a university must aspire to be comprehensive.  And the corollary is that–in reducing comprehensiveness, in engaging in epistemic culling–those institutions cutting programs are no longer “universities.” 

At the same time we are seeing widespread instances of epistemic culling, will we also see a decrease in the number of universities in the United States? I am not referring to a decrease in the total number of institutions, but a reclassification of former universities to a different status? 

It is not clear who would be responsible for deciding whether an institution should be relegated from the ranks of universities—and which ones would be promoted—but it would seem that that could fall upon regional accreditors. In Confucianism, the “rectification of names” meant that words should align with the reality they describe. Perhaps regional accreditors will begin a policy of rectifying the name university.   One result of this rectification of names would be that, in any given state, there may be only one or perhaps two universities remaining.

At the very least, considering the phenomenon of epistemic culling might induce a contemporary conversation on the question Cardinal Newman, Karl Jaspers, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Clark Kerr asked: “what does it mean to be a university?”

David Staley, Ph.D. is associate professor in the departments of History, Design and Educational Studies at the Ohio State University, education strategy consultant with Dutcher, LLC and honorary faculty fellow in innovation with The Center for Higher Ed Leadership and Innovative Practice (CHELIP) at Bay Path University.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher EducationComputers, Visualization and History; History and Future: Using Historical Thinking to Imagine the Future; and Brain, Mind and Internet: A Deep History and Future. From 2011-2012 he served as National Dean for General Education at Harrison College, and from 2003-2008, he was Executive Director of the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC).

In addition to his written works, he has designed and curated both online and physical exhibitions, publishing numerous visual compositions in digital media. He serves as President of Columbus Futurists, host of CreativeMornings Columbus, and host of the podcast Voices of Excellence

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