How Universities Think: The Hidden Work of a Complex Institution
What is a university for? How should it be run? Who will pay the bill? The university is an information ecology protected by a governance structure and powered by a business model.
The information ecology supports the deep specialization of the university’s faculty and their dialectial engagement with each other and the outside world. Out of the faculty’s scattered sightings of the world, the university cobbles together a coherent, cumulative, and actionable understanding, which it disseminates to its students. The university thereby regulates the collective belief system, including the technical training and self-policing of the professions.
The governance structure protects the deep divisions among the faculty and between the faculty and the outside world. The walls separating the departments of the university prevent the faculty from killing one another (only up to a point, obviously). The walls insulating the university from the outside world discourage external political and economic actors from disturbing the faculty’s circles (ditto). The university defines a free and ordered space for intellectual exchange.
The business model funnels societal resources into the production of public goods, such as pure science and liberal arts learning. Popular research and teaching activities, as well as those perceived as useful or prestigious, support research and teaching activities that meet upon the indifference, or even hostility, of the outside world. The university is a joint production and cross-subsidization scheme.
This paper spells out the idea of a university and traces out its historical evolution. I describe the workings of scientific cognition and student learning; the internal academic and bureaucratic politics of the university; and the university’s external political and market environment. I identify cognitive obstacles to change and pathways to university reform. I conclude with a call for the renewal of the university.
Keywords: Idea of a University, Information Ecology, Governance Structure, Business Model
Professor, Political Science