“Unruly Paradox”

Many words are used to describe the changing context for higher education in the 21st century – ‘change’ being one but more recently ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’, ‘global’ and ‘learning revolution’ are code for what is or should be happening in higher education.  But the use of ‘unruly paradox’ to describe the university was new to me until recently.

It was actually more than a decade ago when Ben Johnson (then Chair of the Board of Trustees for Emory University) coined the term “unruly paradox” in making reference to “the unrelenting swell and heave of change” which is a constant in the university.  ben_johnson520In 2000, Johnson articulated that “a great university is a thing of unruly paradox.  It is a place of tranquil reflection and a testing place and indeed a battleground of outrageous ideas”  He continued that a university “requires stability, yet is a catalyst for change. It teaches respect for boundaries, yet encourages pushing those boundaries. It is a place of self-conscious egalitarianism, yet a place of studied rank. It trains for the sacred, as well as the secular. It gleans from the past, to prepare for the future…”

How do we prepare for the future?  What will the universities look like in 10 years? How have they changed in the past 5 years?  As an ‘unruly paradox’, the university must manage the tensions of history, boundaries, and stability and the pushing of limits, outrageous ideas and being a catalyst for change.

Higher education more broadly defined must also accept the responsibility for change and adaptation. The pace of change is astonishing and doesn’t appear to be slowing down?  For example, when the class of 2014 entered in 2010, the iPad had been only recently introduced and four years later (for their commencement) there are four generations of iPads plus the iPad Air. The impact of technology and social media is significant not only in the “classroom” but throughout the university.

In addition to technology, there are many other factors that could be discussed here.  A critical factor I wish to highlight here revolves around access: access to higher education especially defining the student/learner, discussion of delivery modes and locations for learning as well as access to education, research, knowledge through open educational resources and open access publishing.

Other factors are brought to light by Drew Faust, President of Harvard University. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about the future and financing of higher education, she identified three major forces facing higher education: digital revolution especially its impact on learning and teaching, global context and expectations, and the breaking down of traditional disciplines boundaries. She briefly discussed MOOCs and other digital learning modalities as helping us understand more about learning and processing of information and that they must inform our teaching. Embracing a global perspective has become even more important and defining the global context and expectations more challenging. Yes, disciplines are evolving and transcending boundaries (albeit somewhat slowly at times) and moving toward the interfaces between and among disciplines and into interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs.

Change is challenge and a condition of an ‘unruly paradox’. Ultimately, change will impact the organizational structure as well as the functionality of higher education. Change is also an opportunity. One of our opportunities in preparing for the future is to embrace innovation and creativity within higher education and prepare not only ourselves but especially the students/learners to develop the “habits of mind to adapt to change”.  These habits will last a lifetime.