Information Overload & the Invention of the Modern Research University

On Sunday, June 10, 2012, Helen Dragas, rector of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, announced that President Teresa Sullivan and the board had “mutually agreed” that Sullivan would resign. Citing a “rapidly changing” higher education environment, Dragas insisted that the university had to change, and fast. In the ensuing weeks, Dragas alluded to unspecified “philosophical differences” as the grounds for Sullivan’s ouster and enumerated a litany of challenges facing U.Va., including the long-term decline in public funding, rising tuition costs, and—crucially—the changing role of technology.

I say “crucially” because, as a later Freedom of Information request was to reveal, these “philosophical differences” were actually anxieties about the potentially disruptive effects of digital technologies on the university. In a series of e-mails, Dragas exchanged articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with fellow board members and well-placed alumni, all touting the revolutionary potential of MOOCs (massive open online courses). New digital technologies posed an existential threat to the university. If the University of Virginia did not immediately adapt to the emerging online learning environment, then it would become irrelevant. Just as digital technologies had disrupted and remade the book, music, newspaper, and magazine businesses, so too would they remake the university.

But it was not just a cabal of University of Virginia trustees who insisted so breathlessly that the university had to reinvent itself in the image of new digital technologies. The president of Stanford University, John Hennessy, has also declared that “a tsunami is coming” that will wipe away any institution that does not adapt to the new digital reality, and former Princeton University president William G. Bowen has predicted that such technologies will transform higher education by controlling costs and increasing productivity, all while preserving quality and other “core university” values. A revolution is upon us: broad access to new digital technologies, argues media scholar Cathy Davidson, has “flattened” how knowledge is disseminated and has made it less a proprietary good of a “credentialed elite” and more the result of an increasingly democratic, collaborative endeavor. Changes in digital technologies are not merely tinkering with the tools for distributing knowledge. The very authority structure of the university is at stake, disciplinary distinctions, the way scholars are credentialized, how research-based knowledge is carried out—all these may become obsolete.

[Continue reading the introduction to Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University in PDF form.]

chad wellmon

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