The Future of the University

In a conversation about The University recently, a former colleague said she was certain that academia would change. “Wouldn’t it?” She asked. Perhaps she wasn’t as sure as she said. Not an academic, herself, she observed that every client she has had in academia (she’s a psychotherapist) and friends have complained about academia. She’s said it seems the political nature of the setting, makes it a difficult space to navigate. She was reflecting on my observations of colleagues, and how after a meeting someone accused the most recalcitrant and ineffective of the lot, of being “just as bad” as the professors.

I thought for a minute about my friend and former colleague’s hope, first, an assertion then changed to a question. I said I thought it would implode before it changed, not soon, but that contrary to the idea that universities are spaces of innovation, attitudinally and structurally they are extremely conservative, and attrition seems to happen in the margins – rather, of the people in the margins: those with the least power, those hoping, willing to push the boundaries, those innovating. Far too many of the best academic scientists and practitioners I once knew, people who enjoyed teaching and mentoring but not faculty politics and hierarchy, fled the university for government, and the non-academic private sector.

The thing that must change is the structure itself. The university must do the gargantuan task of upsetting itself, of demystifying many of the processes that in thought and word appear to maintain a high regard for tradition and rigor, but in deed simply limit or marginalize too many folks. The university must accelerate its efforts at inclusion. There are changes now. The pandemic and the global uprising for Black lives, sparked by events in the US last summer, but in response to centuries of oppression and inequality, presented an opportunity for more funding, programs, statements, and task forces. Some are skeptical about whether the change will happen. But the conversation genie and the language that accompanies it are out of the box. Dialogue is certainly a pathway to change. Accessibility, equity, owning up to past wrongs, and reckoning with the fact The University was never intended for many of the people who now populate it and make it better, look towards the right direction. Change must come, it’s a matter of survival.

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