How Universities Think: The Hidden Work of a Complex Institution

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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
Stream: Knowledge Systems and Methodologies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Susanne Lohmann

Professor, Political Science
Public Policy
Human Complex Systems, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Los Angeles, CA, USA

Susanne Lohmann is professor of political science and public policy; director of the Center for Governance; and founding faculty member of the Interdepartmental Degree Program on Human Complex Systems at UCLA. Professor Lohmann received her Ph.D. in economics and political economy from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991. She was John M. Olin Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in 1986-89; Alfred P. Sloan Fellow in 1989-90, also at Carnegie Mellon University; James and Doris McNamara Fellow at Stanford University in 1991-92; John M. Olin Fellow at the University of Southern California in 1996; Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1998-99; and Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2000-01. Professor Lohmann has published in leading political science and economics journals on collective action and central banking. Her current research interests include the political economy of universities and higher education. She is currently completing a book titled "How Universities Think: The Hidden Work of a Complex Institution." Professor Lohmann teaches courses on “Ethics and Governance,” “Diversity, Disagreement, and Democracy,” “Global Environment and World Politics,” and “Why Europe? Why the West?”

Ref: U10P0141