This is the final post of a series that explored what prominent thinkers can teach us about today’s public multiversity, the modern university with its many colleges, departments, and other administrative units that play multiple functions and roles in our society.
In this series of posts, we have reviewed what some prominent thinkers have taught us about today multiversity: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas presented us a new paradigm for higher education; the reform movements of Renaissance humanism and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations showed us how institutions can renew themselves; the problems of the adoption of the natural sciences of Bacon and Descartes as a model for the multiversity; the paths that Locke and Mill provided us to reorganize general education programs; and the role that experience played in the education of civic citizens, as advocated by Rousseau and Dewey. Just as we presently wrestle with the questions about the purpose and place of the multiversity, so did these thinkers. What then can we ultimately claim to have learn from them that is applicable today?
First, it is clear that the mission of today’s multiversity is at best overly ambitious and ambiguous and at worst a reflection of management and marketing speak. By being all things to all people, the multiversity does nothing well. The multiversity – its students, faculty, and administrators – need to reflect upon what their specific institutional mission should be and then devote their resources to implementing it. The multiversity’s mission obviously will be dependent upon the peculiar history of the institution, the availability of resources, and the public needs that are demanded within a particular community. But these conditions only set the parameters, not the limitations, of the multiversity’s mission. Students, faculty, and administrators need to think not only what is probable but what can be possible.
Second, the multiversity needs to be open to both internal and external resources to revitalize its purpose and place in society while remaining true to its mission. This unfortunately is done today in the mind-numbing task called assessment: the creation of paperwork to justify one’s position of employment. Part of the problem of assessment is that nobody knows what they are assessing, especially as most of its theories, concepts, and practices come from the fields of business, which has a strictly utilitarian account of education, or education, which is not known in the United States for its effectiveness or efficiency. What we find in the Renaissance and Reformations are models that provide an account of assessment that is concerned with content as well as its execution, presenting us an alternative than the ones we currently find today.
Third, the dominance of the natural sciences as the model for the multiversity in learning, teaching, scholarship, service, and administrative rule is problematic because they require a standardization of expectations and practices that is not fitting for these human activities to be done well. Prudential judgement rather than thoughtless bureaucratic decisions should be the mode of thinking at the multiversity. Judgment should inform students, faculty, and administrators when standardized expectations and practices should be put in place and when they should not.
Fourth, the multiversity needs to organize knowledge so that students can see the relevance and connections among disciplines and faculty are encouraged to learn and collaborate with one another. The current organization of knowledge in the general education program is a disaster for students who have to form the connections among disciplines by themselves, an impossible task asked of them. The same also applies to scholarship, where faculty from different disciplines literally cannot communicate with one another. Finally, administrative units need to be assembled in such a way where they are not separate, isolated elements but part of a community of common consultation. Instead, the multiversity’s administrative units are organized like American medicine with groups of specialists attending to specific illness but no physician making the connections and therefore gaining a comprehensive view of the patient.
Finally, the multiversity needs to articulate its purpose and place to society. The multiversity needs to demonstrate how it contributes to the public good and is not just a place that churns out employees for the marketplace. This is not to deny the importance of the economic dimension and impact that the multiversity has on society, but it must be more than an agent of economic change if it wants to distinguish itself from community colleges, vocational schools, or businesses. Civic engagement, democratic citizenship, and the cultivation of leaders also is required for societies to sustain themselves. The multiversity is uniquely suited for these tasks and consequently should explain to the public how they contribute to them.
Of course, there are more lessons that can be learned from the thinkers that we have reviewed as well as from those whom we have neglected. However, I hope that this series has prompted us to start to think about the purpose and place of the multiversity today in our communities. The series is meant neither to be definitive nor conclusive but rather to initiate and to encourage a conversation about higher education in America: its strengths, its limitations, and its future possibilities.
Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. More information about him can be found at http://svsu.academia.edu/LeeTrepanier.