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Author: Dennis A. Trinkle
Title: The Challenge of the Uni-versity Re-Imagining Our Communities
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2000

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Source: The Challenge of the Uni-versity Re-Imagining Our Communities
Dennis A. Trinkle

vol. 3, no. 3, November 2000
Article Type: Editorial
PDF: Download full PDF [14kb ]

The Challenge of the Uni-versity Re-Imagining Our Communities

Dennis A. Trinkle

Scholarly conferences and professional meetings reveal a lot about university communities—who associates with whom, in what contexts, and around which issues. The attendance rosters and session themes distill the organizational practices and prejudices that drive communities of higher education. They symbolize the social and political boundaries that segment efforts and thought.

This past June the Council on Library and Information Resources, Educause, Emory University, and the Woodruff Foundation brought together a diverse group of university administrators, association directors, library and technology leaders, faculty, and students to discuss the crises facing higher education. This inaugural meeting of the Frye Leadership Institute focused on creating a group of change agents to address the tectonic shifts and challenges being posed by technology and other related forces. The group spent two weeks together, and a novel community was forged by the participants. The creative synergy and open dialogue from widely and deeply varied perspectives opened to the participants rich and holistic visions for refashioning higher education to meet the promises and challenges of the new century.

The great and painful irony is that such a community exists on virtually no American college or university campus. A myriad of professional, departmental, and status barriers divides university communities. Structural boundaries created to address the realities of an earlier age continue to compartmentalize understandings, occlude collaboration, and constrain the recognition of possibilities. The institute symbolized hope, rather than current reality.

Hope matters a great deal, though. The success of the Frye Institute in fostering a new type of community that could conceive novel possibilities for complex and dynamic problems provides an important reminder that colleges and universities are imagined communities. Benedict Anderson, the Berkeley anthropologist who coined the term "imagined communities," developed the concept to encapsulate the process by which national identity is constructed, that is, how individuals come to see themselves as members of a particular country, to understand their role and status within the nation, and to comprehend the ideologies and rules that shape its function. Arnold stressed that nations are constructions of human imagination. They do not exist as actualities outside human social space or history; they are defined by the shared needs, desires, aspirations, practices, and understandings of men and women. The same is true for universities and colleges. Higher education communities have been, and must be, shaped and defined by the imaginings of their members.

The roots of the prevailing conception of the university community can be traced to the nineteenth century, when professionalization occurred in many academic disciplines. Professional faculty with doctoral degrees, a shared role in university governance, and established notions of rank and status assumed their place at the center of the academic solar system. In most fields, these faculty stars distinguished themselves through individual efforts in teaching, research, and publication. To historicize a well-worn phrase and shift the metaphor, the sages stepped onto the stage in the nineteenth century, and the university community was constructed around these heroic performers. Students matriculated to learn their lessons from the masters. Everyone else stood in support.

The imagined community born in the nineteenth-century has been enormously successful. The American higher education system is the envy of the world, and certainly, there is a degree of caricature in the foregoing description. Colleges and universities have consistently redefined their identities and communities since Harvard was founded in 1636. The past two decades, for example, have witnessed a significant shift in educational theory that has made classrooms more collaborative and active settings. Far more sages now stand beside the stage as guides, rather than strutting across it as stars. Nevertheless, on many campuses and in many disciplines teaching, research, and publication are still reviewed as individual efforts undertaken by faculty luminaries. Reward and status systems protect this gravitational orbit.

It is important to remember, however, that the laws of physics have been progressively elaborated and re-conceived over the centuries. The nineteenth-century images of the university were grounded in an age of information scarcity, when an individual scholar could be expected to master and command the matter of his or her discipline. University libraries could expect, and be expected, to collect all the pertinent materials necessary to sustain the work of faculty, and other support divisions stood by to enable the efforts of faculty and students. The presumption of such mastery was always a conceit; human knowledge in a given field has generally outstretched the true capabilities of a single scholar or the collection of a single library.

What was a conceit is now a chimera. We have entered a world characterized by systemic complexity and information hyper-abundance. The forms and venues of publication and status are altering, and a wide-range of specialized technologies and skills are needed to teach, research, or publish in most fields. We have left the nineteenth-century age of the individual and entered the twenty-first century world of the team.

The reality of modern higher education is that teaching, research, and publication can seldom be conducted by singular faculty stars relying on the tertiary assistance of support personnel. For many subjects, successful instruction requires a talented and diverse team of instructional technologists, librarians, students, and faculty members, and each of these participants is involved in the core teaching process and is fulfilling the mission of the university. The distinction between faculty and support personnel is blurred, with each team member sharing his or her expertise relative to the process. This will be more and more the case. Similarly, many research topics exceed the time, resources, and skill sets of individual investigators, and publications increasingly reflect the collaborative process of research and teaching. The metaphors of sage and guide are inadequate for the future of higher education. One now needs to speak of a learning community, research network, or publishing team. It is this new vision that can sustain the tremendous power and success of American higher education in the twenty-first century.

Asking the literal question: What type of university communities are appropriate for the twenty-first century? is the first step. One can anticipate that all of the new visions for higher education will involve a less hierarchical, more collaborative, and more participatory community, where team efforts are recognized, rewarded, valued, and encouraged by new models of status, organization, and governance. Two decades of participatory management theory and practice in American businesses have demonstrated the power and success achieved by participatory learning organizations. College and university communities must now conceive new roles and relationships, new organizational structures and forms of governance, new bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing.

Breaking down the cultural, political, and organizational barriers that hinder broad and local re-imagining will not be easy, nor will it be instantaneous. Shared beliefs can constrain and block vital new visions at crucial junctures. One need merely look at the failures of collective imagination in the Middle East today to grasp at once the power of imagined communities and the challenges inherent in re-imagining. Nevertheless, re-imagining is as essential to higher education at the dawn of the twenty-first century as it is to the Israelis and Palestinians.

No single university vision will be sufficient to meet the diverse needs and aspirations now served by American higher education. There will be many potentially successful new conceptions. What is crucial is that American colleges and universities begin the process of re-imagining their communities. We must transcend our historic boundaries and limitations through the power of collective imagination and striving. Our colleges and universities have long served society as sources of critique, discovery, and fresh ideas. Now they must serve themselves.

Dennis Trinkle is the Executive Director of the American Association for History and Computing and an Assistant Professor and Associate Coordinator of Information Systems and Technology at DePauw University. He is also an inaugural Frye Fellow.