Future of the University: One Thing I Believe Should Change in Higher Education

There is no doubt that new technologies and increasing participation in open-source data sharing will continue to redefine Higher Education, how we serve our communities, and the expectations of faculty and student work. I was reading articles across the websites of The Chronicle of Higher Education, The EvoLLLution, NPR and The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal at several topics that I think could use improvement as time ever continues forward. The change is this: increased mindfulness.

On the EvoLLLution’s webpage, I found an opinion piece from 2012 written by Andrés Fortino The Purpose of Higher Education: To Create Prepared MindsAs a society, Fortino argues, we must “consider that the primary mission of higher education is to create prepared minds.” That we will prosper if we support education and training minds to work on solutions for our problems (we produce 1 engineer to the ~10 engineers that China or India produces each year); in order to keep up with other countries, we must focus on high quality learning and training and must prepare our students to be thinkers in the future.

These are great ideas. We can’t expect to work with/compete against the brightest minds in the world if we aren’t also training some of the brightest minds in the world. Our colleges and universities need to be graduating critical thinkers and I emphasize “thinkers” because in a world of such fast-changing technologies and conditions, our people must be able to assess their experiences, think critically about how to apply these new ideas or technologies, and then produce a better product–whatever that product may be whether it’s intellectual, instructional, commercial, etc. Mindfulness is imperative to accomplishing this; I believe people need time to think and reflect in order to make good decisions and act based on all of the information they have available.

Technology and innovation is bringing with it more automation; more robots that are doing the jobs that were traditionally held by people. From NPR’s Fresh AirAttention White-Collar Workers: The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobsthe bit is about Martin Ford’s book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. The Fresh Air bit discusses Ford’s research on robots in the workforce: innovations in manufacturing, (but that’s not all), automated farming, automation in the fast food industry, computer-written stories, computers & creative works… and Ford claims that robots are poised to “replace humans as teachers, journalists, lawyers and other in the service sector.”

Similarly, I’ve been hearing bits from the Marketplace.org podcast Robot-Proof Jobs.  Check out this excerpt from the webpage:

“Globalization and trade have transformed the American economy. But increasingly, the competition for jobs comes from inside our own borders, with automation, robots and artificial intelligence rapidly moving into the workforce. What can we expect and what can we do about it?”

Then it prompts you to help in the search for these kinds of jobs. After offering an option to “Take the Quiz” or “Hear the Podcast” (which I’ve been listening to on NPR for the last several weeks), it offers this information:

The McKinsey Global Institute analyzed the work activities of more than 800 occupations in the U.S. to determine what percentage of a job could be automated using current technology. It turns out, a small fraction of jobs are either entirely automatable or entirely robot-proof.

“0% Automatable

  • Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians
  • Animal Scientists
  • Animal Trainers
  • Astronomers
  • Athletes and Sports Competitors
  • Clergy
  • Dancers
  • Directors, Religious Activities and Education
  • Historians
  • Mathematical Technicians
  • Models
  • Music Directors and Composers
  • Religious Workers, All Other
  • Roof Bolters, Mining

100% Automatable

  • Aircraft Cargo Handling Supervisors
  • Dredge Operators
  • Foundry Mold and Coremakers
  • Graders and Sorters, Agricultural Products
  • Logging Equipment Operators
  • Machine Feeders and Offbearers
  • Medical Appliance Technicians
  • Motion Picture Projectionists
  • Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians
  • Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders
  • Plasterers and Stucco Masons
  • Slaughterers and Meat Packers”

Interesting, huh? It’s interesting to see “jobs that require empathy, creativity or physical dexterity” the podcast explains, are the ones that are safest from automation.

So what does this have to do with higher education?

For these thoughts, I direct attention towards an article I found on the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:

Transforming for success as a business concept for adapting and evolving for a more aggressive strategy as a snail changing into a cheetah shape to become more competitive.

Image Source: The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal

This Richard DeMillo piece The Accelerating Pace of Change in Higher Education (February 2017) where he argues several points about the rapid changes and innovations that are happening in Higher Ed, but the one I want to stress is this: “Embedding Renewal from Within: A dozen or more top institutions have begun to commit internal investment resources towards systematizing the kind of innovation that will further accelerate the pace of change.” Out of this concept are 3 key issues DeMillo emphasizes: 1) think about the state of the university 10+ years from now and develop new methods to achieve innovation; 2) realistically consider the challenges and barriers students have to higher education–without students, the university does not work; 3) look around at the research other institutions have done about the future of academia and invest in “experiments, pilots, prototypes, and partnerships that will redefine higher education ten and twenty years from now.”

I don’t know that anyone would disagree with the statement that globalization and innovation are rapidly changing the face of many industries, including academia. We must respond to this. It is imperative to the continued function, understanding, and practice of education, research, and the ability to compete globally. For me, I think the answer to this comes through mindfulness. We must choose to make conscious decisions about the activities we undertake, the ways we spend our time both at the office and at home, all the while being sensitive to recent literature, research, and the general tone and atmosphere of higher education in general. These conversations should be had at all levels: from the individual research lab/program/classroom to the office of the provost/president. Students must come to college to work as well as to socialize. There is A LOT to be learn outside of the classroom, but in the end it will come down to the ways we choose to spend our time and energies, the relationships we foster, and the visions we hold onto as we dream of a brighter future. All of these things can be accomplished with mindfulness. Without that, we are like a runaway train without clear direction.

And that is what I would change about higher education for the future: I would emphasize the act of mindfulness.



  • nicolelarnold says:

    I am very impressed by this post. First I want to note that producing “thinkers” has been a challenge for my department related to undergraduate students. There are a few consecutive generations of cohorts that have collectively wanted to be spoon-fed information. They push back when professors and/or graduate teaching assistants do not fill in all the gaps for them. However, those involved in working with food, even those at the entry level, have to think critically. Think of this scenario – A restaurant employee must make decisions relating to cross contamination of pathogens on a regular basis. You can’t see pathogens, so this becomes a little difficult. Can the lettuce be chopped up on this cutting board after raw poultry was sitting there? No. But can raw poultry sit on a cutting board after lettuce has been chopped up on it? Yes. Employees are continuously having to think about what they can or cannot touch after performing a task and doing so in a fast paced environment. There are so many things that can go wrong in the food industry, but what an individual decides to do after something has gone wrong can literally be the difference of someone living or dying.

    The topic of automation within foodservice (i.e. a robot cooking a burger rather than a human) has come up frequently but continues to be shot down because a robot cannot make risk management decisions like a human can. This is always an interesting debate.

    I also appreciate that you brought up the topic of mindfulness. I attended a lecture at Virginia Tech’s CIDER Conference this year having to do with mindfulness. Before then, I really didn’t understand how powerful it is. I have been trying to practice with choosing a certain task and then following through with it. In this day in age, we can be distracted so easily. And even when we are present physically, we’re often not present mentally.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Yes, I think it’s wild the infinite possibilities that wait for us in the future. …the mindfulness issue is so important to me because I feel like regardless of what might come, as long as we can think critically, we can make it through anything.

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