/ Can Universities Dream of Electric Sheepskin?: Systemic Transformations in Higher Education Organizational Models
Planxere sorores
Naides et sectos fratri posuere capillos,
Planxerunt dryads; plangentibus adsonat Echo.
Iamque rogum quassasque faces feretrumque parabant:
Nusquam corpus erat; croceum pro corpore florem
Inveniunt foliis medium cingentibus albis.[*]
Ovid, Metamorphosis III, 503–508

In his lively and engaging history of the Western university, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, William Clark traces the tension between traditional, rational, and charismatic authority in the evolving concept of institutions of higher education. Not surprisingly, the universities studied (more accurately university systems, categorized by national origins) tend to be highly conservative. The earlier, traditional university would hire a professor “who would reproduce not a group in the first instance, but a system” (17). Charismatic authority, on the other hand, was often embodied by individuals, which in a traditional university would be construed as challenging and disruptive. One arc of Clark’s narrative history is to show how, “as vested in clothing, books, furniture, titles, and so on, charisma at the traditional university served to uphold authority by sanctifying traditions and differentiating academics as a group from other groups in society. The traditional university resisted the charismatic individual for the sake of a charismatic collective. And when an Ockham or a Descartes appeared on the scene, the effects mirrored those of successful prophets or revolutionaries. The strength of the modern university consists in its ability to rationalize and routinize such prophecy and revolution, to make equilibrium dynamic” (18).

University systems can be categorized on a spectrum of strikingly non-adaptive (succumbing to an entrenched bureaucracy that inhibits change) to the more flexible systems that can absorb and reconstitute potentially threatening ideas and individuals that in the end support rather than skew the institution’s mission and purpose. Of interest here is the theme of an external agent — charismatic authority often embodied by individuals who in some instances arrive from outside the university and whose ideas are construed as challenging and disruptive to the traditional university — posing a serious challenge to the institution. The institution, in turn, is capable of a minor metamorphosis that would allow it to remain recognizable if somewhat changed, its traditions and routines largely intact.

In light of this theme, it is instructive to briefly explore two books about the modern research university that appeared less than ten years apart, but were noticeably different in tone, approach, and the background experience of the authors. Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992) is a thoughtful, philosophical work of an eminent scholar who engages in dialogue with John Henry Newman’s famous lecture series, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (1852). Pelikan’s book of discourse revisits some of the core values, characteristics, and responsibilities that Newman articulated as essential for a university, from which Pelikan builds a case for the evident persistence of those responsibilities in a contemporary context and their continued importance for benefiting students, society, and the life of the mind.

The second book is James Duderstadt’s A University for the 21st Century. Rather than address the idea of the university, Duderstadt undertakes a rigorous yet personal reflection of the university more as an institution. Less philosophical, more grounded in statistics and the internal organizational functions of a late-20th-century research institution, Duderstadt’s book details impressively the many facets of issues that a university administration must confront in order to remain successful.

While easily differentiated in style and focus, these studies share a common theme: the university, broadly defined in each, is besieged (Pelikan) or seriously challenged (Duderstadt) by external phenomena. This assault conduces to a university in crisis (one of confidence in Pelikan’s telling) or a university as an academic, cultural, and social institution that may be redefined into an unrecognizable form if these external forces are not acknowledged and responded to in a deliberative fashion (Duderstadt).

The decade before Pelikan’s book was published saw an inordinate number of books and articles that often angrily, stridently, and emotively questioned the efficacy and purpose of research universities. Charles Sykes’ Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education; Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education; Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus; and perhaps the best known, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, are all referred to by Pelikan as examples of this intellectual assault. Pelikan’s nuanced and deeply felt re-examination of Newman’s treatise serves as an elegant counter to these attacks.

Duderstadt similarly lays out an argument that can be visualized as institutions buffeted by powerful, changing winds: winds of policy, demographics, and rapidly emerging phenomena, such as digital technology, that lie beyond institutional control. Duderstadt cites the decrease in federal spending for loans and grants; the changing attitudes toward a university as a place and the increasing enrollment for online university courses; a more ethnically diverse population; the swift increase of digital resources as compared with more traditional university library resources; the unprecedented complexity of our challenges, such as global climate change; and perceived inadequacies in the social contract that has structured government-university research partnerships for decades. These shifts and changes in turn affect traditional internal practices, leading to more costly research, a greater diversity of new faculty hires, increasing interdisciplinarity, and more vocal questioning of the role of teaching and research at these institutions. Duderstadt makes numerous general suggestions on how to address these market forces; salient among them is the fundamental need for universities to develop a greater capacity to change.

Each lays claim to a trope central to its argument: external agents or agencies of change challenge the institution, both as an idea and as an instantiated construct, and each claims that the university must absorb, rhetorically respond to, or adapt to the challenges at hand. Failure to do so puts the university at risk, with potentially serious damage to its reputation, purpose, or utility. This rhetorical device is probably most commonly used by those who discuss the idea of the university; even those who most fervently defend higher education appropriate the image of the ivory tower. Concomitant with its mannered groves and quadrangles, a university is in part a metaphysical place, somewhat removed from the diurnal round, occasionally beset by some intrusion from the world outside.

Unfortunately, this conceptualization figuratively turns its back on what may be the most salient aspect of the contemporary transformation of higher education: the change is coming from within the institution, a change so pervasive and encompassing that it is unlikely the university will survive it, certainly not intact, and not through a deliberative process of gaining consensus to respond to the metamorphosis taking place. Further, these fundamental transformations (as challenging and disruptive as they may be) have the potential to redefine higher education in ways that are extraordinarily compelling and vital. Put another way, the honored and traditional methods of response to systemic challenges, and the received organizational models that structure a university and its conduct of research and teaching, may in fact pose the greatest threat to a 21st-century florescence of higher education.

For the sake of concision, this article explores briefly the organizational models embedded within a typical institution of higher education. Universities are comprised of many traditional, formal organizational models. Each is usually construed as distinct, with a recognizable set of expectations and behaviors. Some of these organizational models are defined in contrast with another related category, such as graduate and undergraduate forms of study, senior and junior faculty, the research university and the liberal arts college, and humanities and the sciences. Others are distinguished as long-standing organizations or institutions within higher education, such as the library, the classroom, the department, scholarly communities, and scholarly publications, all of which can be described generally as traditional sources of learning.

All, however, are systemically becoming eroded, less meaningful, and in many instances far less efficacious. Higher education is conceivably undergoing the most significant transition in the last 150 years. There is a body of research on most of the topics noted in this article; a more encompassing research program is requisite to explore more rigorously these changes as interrelated elements — “higher education” is treated as a holophrastic term that entails these elements, with the aggregation of these changes representing an astonishing transformational potential — and to extrapolate recommendations for further research and action. In some ways analogous, the implications of global climate change are only appreciated when the many facets of observed change are aggregated and new predictive models generated.

From a preliminary reading of those related articles and literature, a spectrum of apparent, generalized conditions emerge:

  1. Scholarship and research are becoming more conversational, with less reliance on formal publications, more on e-mail, preprints, and monitored blogs.
  2. Formal publications, as static representations of a research program that often can extend over the lifetime of a scientist or humanist, are seen as an increasingly artificial construct.
  3. Most importantly, there is evidence that the once conjoined functions of delivering valuable content to specific academic fields and serving as a means for credentialing authors for the purpose of promotion and tenure are coming uncoupled: the journal article is seen increasingly as a credentialing mechanism, while the intellectually vital contributions to a field are posted elsewhere.
  4. Networked technology and the Web are seen as more accurately capturing and recording the research process.
  5. The academic culture is thus more and more a mix of literate and oral behaviors.
  6. Formal, traditional boundaries are becoming more permeable, porous, and protean.
  7. The more traditional model of a university or college as providing most of its services and functions physically on, or contiguous to, a campus is challenged. More and more services and programs will be located remotely, many possibly shared, distributed, or aggregated by a number of schools or outsourced agencies.
  8. Digital technology, with its inherent ephemeral and transient characteristics, as well as the unprecedented scale of data and the nearly limitless ability to reconstitute it, has begun to make the conduct of traditional research and scholarship very difficult.
  9. Because these bounded constructs gave rise, and adhered to, set temporal and spatial requirements (e.g., the term of an undergraduate education; the time set aside for graduate degrees; the housing of students; the arrangement of a typical classroom) one can adduce that the temporal/spatial organizational principles of higher education will similarly be threatened and redefined.

The following categories, all fairly common, are presented as potential agenda items to structure the research. However, the response to these topics is not meant to be descriptive, as is most often the research tack, but inferential. The most salient goal of this undertaking, however, pertains to leadership. If these transformational changes are truly occurring, leaders in higher education and its constituent parts—the faculty, the administration, the library, and information technology—will be better served by understanding the pervasive and systemic nature of this emerging environment.

Scholarly publishing

Many studies describe the crisis in scholarly monograph publishing in higher education. The high costs, increasingly limited number of titles, and constraints on selected disciplines for younger scholars’ advancement in the profession are well documented. Recent work also suggests that the scholarly article, especially in science, is less and less relevant to the progress of research and the evolution of our knowledge. The article is more of a token, or totem, of promotion and tenure with less intellectual value or influence than commonly believed.

The traditional models of scholarly communication appear increasingly less efficacious. In their place, the rise of less formal, more conversational methods of communication—preprints, email, blogs, Web postings—appear to be more influential and conducive to research advancement and community building.

Implications: the traditional concept of building upon ideas as iterated in formal publications, which are a discrete slice or temporal lifting of an ongoing stream of thinking in a research project, is being replaced by a more conversational methodology that may more accurately reflect the research process, rather than the traditional extraction of evidence as embodied in an article or book.

Higher education in this regard may be moving to a more oral culture than one rigorously documented in published written form.


The effects of a deployed cyberinfrastructure will be significantly challenging to many traditional organizational models. In contrast to the permanence of departments and the typical governance of disciplines on campuses, cyberinfrastructure facilitates wide collaboration, often across disciplines. It also fosters communities that can come together for specific projects, then disband as quickly. As importantly, the increasing prevalence of digital environments as “places” for conducting research and new discovery entails new methodologies and intellectual strategies. There is only nascent understanding of these new methods and approaches to teaching and research, and the kinds of questions that can be asked against large datasets in science and engineering. In the humanities, vastly different threads of inquiry may become evident as millions of text and multimedia assets become digitized and federated.

Implications: many, but among the more prominent are the similar challenges and technical needs, and often similarity of research methods, that are commonly shared between the sciences and humanities as very large-scale, complex digital libraries are developed and maintained (data mining, semantic searching, metadata harvesting, scalability, stewardship of data, interoperability of datasets).


There has been a distinct rise in interdisciplinary fields. While many are in the sciences (nanobiology, nanoengineering, bioengineering, bioinformatics), other are evident in the humanities: practical ethics, bioethics, computer scanning of art objects, 3-D reconstructions of historical periods, art conservation and chemistry.

Implications: the traditional model of departments and schools is less relevant to the progress of research in many fields.


Much literature has appeared on the transforming role of libraries in higher education. In general, libraries are becoming less of a place, or if a place, one of high social value. The concept of a building for books is fast receding. Reference books, and physical books in general, are less frequently consulted in the humanities; some engineering and scientific disciplines rely almost exclusive on online information. Libraries are becoming more diffuse, with new skills and training requisite, and new leadership a fundamental need.

Implications: the traditional concept of a library may dissolve altogether to become a virtual omnipresence. Received benchmarks and quantitative measures of collections and services seem increasingly irrelevant.

Undergraduate Research

One of the most important changes in higher education in the last 15 years is the rise of undergraduates conducting original research. These undergraduates work closely with faculty and graduate students, and can co-author published articles. The trend holds for the humanities as well as the sciences: once noted for methodologies that stressed individual interpretation and solitary study, the humanities are increasingly collaborative in nature. This is attributable in part to the complexity of developing and sustaining large, multimedia datasets.

Implications: the nature of undergraduate education is changing rapidly, and with it a less bounded distinction between graduate and undergraduate programs. In the humanities, the organization of graduate programs has been, in part, based on the time traditionally taken to research and compose a dissertation. In some fields the corpus of literature is almost entirely online: literature searches that could take months in the last century can be completed in a mater of minutes today.

Research Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges

With Google and other large-scale digitization projects, it is conceivable that a small liberal arts college will have access to millions of books. The proliferation of cyberinfrastructure environments also suggests that colleges could participate in advanced research conducted against the datasets of these projects. In the past, the distinction between a large research university and the much smaller liberal arts schools was intuitive; the colleges did not have the financial means to build the laboratories and experimental infrastructure required of science, and were also limited in the scope of courses offered and, with few exceptions, could not afford a multimillion-volume library collection.

Implications: the distinctions usually drawn between a research university and a liberal arts college may not obtain in the coming decades, and new models may arise to further blur the differences, or perhaps create new ones.

The Classroom

A body of studies exists on the rapid expansion of the concept of the classroom in the last decade. Students have less formal but almost unlimited access to faculty and tutors through e-mail and other electronic venues. Institutional repositories also extend the classroom, and materials formerly reserved in more limited, less accessible methods can be retrieved and reviewed instantly.

Online and virtual-reality games have become enormously popular, and represent one of the highest levels of corporate research and development investment. This untraditional environment has also become a means by which younger people re-create themselves and also learn social skills and collaborative behaviors.

Implications: more work is needed to assess whether the recourse to electronic extensions of the traditional classroom has improved the quality of student work, and also how pedagogy has changed to adjust for this. The physical classroom implies a variety, but nonetheless limited methods of delivering information. What effects has the informal exchange of ideas between teacher and student produced, and can the quality and productivity of this exchange be documented? The classroom also was usually structured, whether explicitly or tacitly, to convey a hierarchy of authority. In a virtual environment, how is this hierarchy maintained, modified, or reduced in importance? Non-traditional learning spaces should also be included in these studies.

The Self

Of traditional importance is the creation, interpretation, and stable continuity of the self. In the present era, the self can be reconstituted and adjusted in unprecedented ways. Prosthetics, genetic engineering, plastic surgery, psychotropic drugs, Internet identities, and virtual environments (e.g., gaming, texting, blogs) all contribute to the increasing plasticity of self-identity.

Implications: higher education, along with imparting knowledge and a rigorous set of tools to assess information and inform decisions, also is called upon to strengthen characteristics and contribute to self-knowledge. With the construct of the self increasingly protean, the implications for education require much more serious investigation.

New Approaches

In the past, faculty and academic professionals created societies, communities, associations, foundations, and councils to support their work and further their intellectual interests. Those organizations could be geographically based, tied specifically to a discipline, or focused intently on the interests and needs of a professional constituency. In light of the encroaching transformations taking place, many of the organizing principles that established these communities are less relevant or, as importantly, the communities themselves cannot adequately represent or address the changes. New professional alliances or organizational models may be needed, given the meager success evident in addressing these issues, in large part because the articulated facets of a systemic metamorphosis are often explored by the group of practitioners most immediately affected by the changes. Librarians have wrestled with the migration from an analogue to a digital environment for two decades; similarly, academic publishers are so far unable to identify a business model that will allow them to migrate to an Internet- and Web-based publishing environment. Scholarly societies, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, and university administrations have been very slow to confront the standard measures for tenure and promotion—printed books and printed journal articles are the traditional benchmark—in an era of mass digitization and multimedia resources, and with the successive generation of scholars having no experience of a world without computers and other, now ubiquitous, digital devices.

It may be more productive to address this encompassing set of changes not through a reductive approach whereby the parts are researched and the results published in a narrowly defined academic journal, but rather as a complex adaptive system that is emergent, unpredictable, and self-organizing into a new model of a university. This is not to claim that these agents of internal transformation are acting consciously to re-imagine the idea of the university; increased complexity can emerge from a highly distributed set of agents, some acting in concert, some unwittingly contributing to new modes of discourse and discovery. The Internet itself facilitates communication and exchange of ideas to a degree that has no precedent, and the changes being effected are in part a consequence of the new medium of intellectual commerce. Recognition of the systemic nature of this phenomenon will require researchers drawn from many areas of expertise and perspective to work in concert to better fathom the implications of this evolving complex, and to provide insight that will inform the most efficacious responses to it.

In this respect new models of research, services, and the methods of generating knowledge are the result of scholars, students, and teachers migrating to a new digital environment and posing questions that can only be resolved in this medium. This environment is being developed in response to complex avenues of inquiry — new ways of seeing and knowing — and should be construed as an alternate campus that has already breached and may supplant the more familiar research university because it allows for greater intellectual productivity and knowledge generation.

None of this should be surprising. The impetus for this sweeping set of extant and potential change? The same cognitive drivers that have kneaded together human communities for millennia in order to explore and better understand our circumstance and condition. The discontinuities already apparent in most of the traditional organizational structures in higher education are consonant with any era of the collective life of the mind re-invigorated and competitively adventurous, keener sounds emanating from the ghostlier demarcations of a virtual ecology in which we willingly, perhaps inexorably, find our selves.

Charles J. Henry, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), came to CLIR in 2007 from Rice University where he was vice provost and university librarian. At Rice he was responsible for library services including the Digital Library Initiative and Digital Media Center, and he is also publisher of the Rice University Press, which was recently reborn as the nation's first all-digital university press. Prior to his work at Rice University he was director of libraries at Vassar College. He is a trustee of the Digital Library Federation and chair of the advisory committee for the Information Resource Center at Jacobs University Bremen. He serves on the advisory board of Stanford University Libraries, is a member of the Board of Directors of Questia Media, Inc., and was a member of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences. He held a Fulbright award for the study of medieval literature in Vienna, Austria as a graduate student, and recently received a Fulbright senior scholar grant for library sciences in China. Mr. Henry has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University. He actually lived for a few years in Butte, Montana, but rarely mentions this.

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Ovid translated:

  • *

    His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped

    Their shining tresses laid them on his corpse

    And all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made

    Lament anew. And these would have upraised

    His funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch

    And made his bier, but as they turned their eyes

    Where he had been, he was not there.

    And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew

    Golden and white, the white about the gold.return to text