Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.
It has not been a pleasant year for the country, and higher education has not been spared. Stanford has weathered the downturn in the global economy better than most, but it is not immune to the major challenges in academia that have been percolating beneath the surface. This is the year the old rulebook is thrown out.
Ranking after ranking indicates that the American higher education system remains second to none. Yet no time in recent memory has the mission of the university been put under so much strain.
Money is one problem. While states have dramatically increased funding for higher education over the last few decades, their budgets have not matched the growth of institutions. Private universities like Stanford rely on money from their endowments and income from government-sponsored research projects - money that has become scarcer even before the current recession (stimulus funding excepted).
Money, though, is only the first issue. Entire disciplines are facing a cathartic moment, most notably economics. After years of developing that social science with precise mathematical laws of the market, economists are faced with a world that few believed was even possible but three years ago. How much of the literature needs to be reworked, or worse, thrown out entirely?
These two failures come at a time when the fundamental unit of the academy - tenure - is under fire from administrators and state legislatures. At a basic level, tenure provides the security underpinning academic freedom. Yet fewer faculty members are making it to the tenure-track - damaging innovation and risking future advances in all fields.
These are merely a few of the front-burner issues that are currently plaguing higher education in the United States. It is not a comfortable time to be a college student. Yet for all of these problems, there has never been a better time to be studying at a university.
Edison claimed necessity breeds innovation. What we are witnessing right now is a period of renewal in higher education - a time that will cement paradigm-shifting changes for decades to come. Students today have more power to alter the course of higher education than at any time in recent memory.
There are several major changes that I see forthcoming. On a fundamental level, multidisciplinary approaches to questions will be standard for more and more academic research. Fields across the university are merging in a consilience of the traditional disciplines. Systems biology uses complex systems theories with biological sciences to better understand the inner workings of organisms. Many other fields such as public health, environmental studies, area studies and sub-fields like neuroeconomics are constructing the same types of bridges.
While the tools in many of these new multidisciplinary areas are crude, their refinement will lead to a vibrant era of original research. Complex issues like global warming, energy independence, refugees and stem cells will all see large strides as existing knowledge is connected.
At the same time, we are seeing more work devoted to constructing the societal context of different fields. Engineering does not happen in a vacuum (metaphorically - some research literally does). Rather, it is affected by policies created in Washington, from birthing a new grant system at the Department of Energy to expanding opportunities at the National Institutes of Health. A Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, even heads a federal department.
New technologies will further research in the humanities as well. Historical research will rely on sophisticated techniques such as GIS mapping (applying data to geographic locations) to follow the movement of people and goods. Tools like Facebook and Wiggio will be studied by digital humanities readers to analyze how humans adapt to new modes of interaction. There is much fertile ground for growth in this area.
The stormy clouds of today will lead to the brilliant dawn of a new age of enlightenment. That may be an over-the-top exaggeration - of course there will be pitfalls, failures and friction in the process. That is where we students come in.
There are traditional ways of teaching classes. Do not be afraid to question the conventional wisdom. Ask questions that cross-disciplines. We are not beholden to the paradigms of yesterday. From graduate seminars all the way to that first section of IHUM, ask questions that cut across the walls placed in academia. Demand and propel the current changes.
Eric Hoffer, a social psychologist awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, wrote a book called The Ordeal of Change. Hoffer states, "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists." Now more than ever, we need to open ourselves to new ideas. A renewal is underway in academia. Be part of the adventure.
Posted on September 21, 2009