University Design Mindset: An Essential Skill for University Leaders by David J. Staley, Ph.D.

There is a newly emerging field I would like to christen “university design:” an approach, a methodology for thinking about the future of higher education.

First, some definitions. One definition for the word design means “to give form.”  Thus, when we are talking about industrial design, that means to give form to objects. Graphic design means giving form to visual communication.  Architecture and interior design are the practices of giving form to space and enclosure. To practice “university design,” then, would mean giving conceptual form to the university. All designers give form to some kind of material, and in this case the “material” in question is the organizational form of the university itself.

There is, of course, much discourse right now in many countries about university reform; or perhaps we might call it “re-form.”  To bring change to the university means to give new form, and thus we might speak of re-forming the university into some new shape or configuration.  I am proposing that we think of reforming the university as a new discipline or a new design practice.  

To be clear, I am not talking about designing the physical form of the university. Many universities, of course, develop strategic plans, and as part of that process will hire an architecture firm to design the physical buildings, their arrangement across campus, where green space will be permitted to grow, what the interior of buildings will look like.  I am not dismissing that practice at all, only to suggest that is not the kind of design I mean when I refer to “university design,” which I define as giving form to the configuration of knowledge, how knowledge is to be arranged, or enacted, or experienced. University design involves visualizing the epistemological organization of the university, and ultimately, imagining novel institutional forms different forms from those we have today.

Design for Polymath University (I)
Design for Polymath University (II)
Design for Polymath University (III)
Design for Polymath University (IV)
Design for Microcolleges
Design for “University as Festival”
Design for “University as Community Third Place”

The philosopher of higher education Ronald Barnett asserts that our ideas about new forms for the university or reforming the university are hopelessly impoverished, that we have a very small conception of what the future of the university can be.  We might say that we have failed to imagine novel forms of the university.  All universities tend toward the same form—the “entrepreneurial university,” in his estimation– and Barnett advocates an expansive imagination about what universities can be.  In my sense, the theory and practice of university design means imagining many novel forms of the university. 

The professor of international higher education Simon Marginson, has coined the very useful term “university making.”

University makingand space making have become creative activities in their own right, practiced by multi-performing university leaders who draw on a portfolio of qualities and roles, from business entrepreneur to scientific boffin to patron of the arts. Sometimes they are artists themselves of a kind. Most are timid. Some are bold. A few make changes that reverberate through the university world.

Marginson is describing the activities of only a few university presidents or vice chancellors, presidents such as Michael Crow at Arizona State, for example.  But I believe that, given the strategic challenges facing colleges and universities today, a university design mindset will become a required skill for all university leaders.    

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