Evolution of Complexity in Universities

If you haven't spent much time on campus since graduation, you might not realize this: Universities are dynamic institutions, constantly changing with societal, scholarly, and economic pressures.
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If you haven't spent much time on campus since graduation, you might not realize this: Universities are dynamic institutions, constantly changing with societal, scholarly, and economic pressures.

Those of us who spend our lives in academia know that some restructuring is done with intent, while other change occurs as a means of surviving. Universities regularly rearrange their administrative furniture and often discipline names change to keep a particular field sounding new and relevant. It all adds up to a complicated, even Byzantine structure.

At some level, these university evolutions resemble the evolution of organisms. Natural selection takes over, putting pressure on extant systems, which results in complexity. The complexity was not part of a design, but rather resulted from random adaptations to protect organisms -- or universities -- from various threats. These random adaptations are analogous to what engineers refer to as "kluging," or the process of taking a simple, well-designed product and altering it repeatedly to address new needs as they appear. After repeated iterations, the result is a very complex machine that could have been far simpler if the engineers had thrown out the old product and started over.

Universities are incessantly involved in kluging as they respond to new economic, demographic, political and technological pressures. Today our institutions of higher learning are in many ways more fragile than ever. If animosity toward intellectuals, limited state funding, competition from for-profit colleges, decreasing federal research dollars, crumbling infrastructure, and rising tuition weren't enough, it's now possible to deliver any information, anytime, via smartphone. Actual education can be delivered to any portion of the globe via the internet.

Is it time to give up on kluging and redesign our universities? As is true for biological systems, it's not that easy. We cannot raze universities and start all over. Every state in our union has public and private colleges as well as one to two research universities, all of which occupy acres of land and have buildings galore. Our methods of discovery and delivery of knowledge are steeped in tradition: the "sage on the stage" has been common to the lecture hall for decades.

Instead, we're in full kluging mode. "Online learning" is expanding with the development of MOOCs. The flipped classroom has resulted in new ways of teaching and the redesign of existing classrooms and the construction of new facilities that accommodate such needs. Instructional designers are becoming commonplace in many colleges. Universities have video studios to produce online modules that can be viewed at any time. Asynchronous learning is occurring with social media. And professors are exchanging ideas with students at all times of the day.

The result is a complex administrative structure, much more indirect than what could be created with the new needs in mind. While it's not possible to truly start over with a university, it is possible to meet the needs of a constantly changing society through smart restructuring -- not more kluging, but truly evolving. Existing colleges, programs, departments and centers may not like the process, but in the end the result can yield excellence.

How can this be done? Some recommendations:

•First, do some alpha and beta testing, preferably during quiet times of the school year. New interdisciplinary challenge areas can be taught by faculty from various disciplines during the summer or between terms. These could be done as traditional classes (summer) or perhaps as 2 -week all day workshops. Such classes could appeal to both traditional and non-traditional students.

•Reorganize budgeting models so that shared revenue from teaching and research is encouraged between disciplines and university units. This would help eliminate turf battles.

•Space should not be holy -- that is, "owned" by only one unit. Open laboratories could be shared among colleges and departments. With lightweight computing capacity, office spaces can also be shared by various interdisciplinary teams. Classrooms should be redesigned to allow for both lecture and interactive styles of teaching.

•Find new ways of funding interdisciplinary challenges. Universities could establish "banks" to loan funds for innovation. These funds might be obtained from reserves that won't be needed for a few years. Social impact bonds could be funded externally and internally to allow for societal challenge areas such as water, energy, climate change, infectious diseases and a host of other global problems. Corporations seem ready to fund the research on the grand challenges that all universities currently conduct.

•Reward innovation, excellence and efficiency.

These changes could mean public universities don't depend as much on tuition dollars to make up for shortfalls in state government funding. We need to move away from that model, or public universities will lose even more credibility with an already skeptical public.

Complexity is inevitable with evolution, whether it involves biological organisms or educational institutions. We cannot start from scratch, but we can use design principles that will lead to less byzantine processes.

One thing every University could do right away: Consider adapting what former Harvard Business School professor John Kotter has called a "dual operating system," and create a parallel academic enterprise in the summer months that would pay faculty and give credit to students willing to experiment with new modes of teaching, learning, research, and service, and letting that activity organically change the institution. So, refuse to kluge; it's time to redesign!

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