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Background: The Future of the Academy

The Questions
What is the future of "The Academy" in these changing times? Universities were once seen as the transmitters of culture; as places of learning and independent thought. Are they fulfilling this role today? If not, who or what will fill the gap? There are an increasing number of independent scholars, informal organizations and networks of conversations. What will be their role in the future? Universities once acted as flywheels to damp out the more eccentric oscillations of society. Are such flywheels needed today? And if so who will provide them? What will be the role of the Internet in this ever-changing situation? Is it time for a reality check?

These questions emerged out of a recent exchange of emails. The exchange was sparked off by a meeting of scientists and artists held in London during March, 1999. One issue to emerge during the first day was the feeling of the scientists that universities have ceased to fulfill their roles in society. There has been a profound change in their goals and nature since they have fallen into the grip of administrators and funding agencies. Artists, for their part, spoke of the pressures of the commercial art market and of making work within a society whose values are in turmoil.

The old idea of the university, in its wider sense, was as a transmitter of culture. Universities were traditionally places where people not only taught and carried out research but also felt free to question what was going on in the world around them and to offer their critical assessments. By operating in this way, the official "academy" acted as a flywheel to damp out the more eccentric oscillations of society.

This description does not really apply today. It has gone the way of the Ivory Tower. Formal teaching institutions have sifted in the way they are administered, in the nature of their budgets, their mission, and their relationship to society. Universities wish to appear "relevant". The goal of their administrators is to generate funds by making the widest appeals to students. Universities have therefore moved into the business of marketing knowledge, which means making it an ever more attractive commodity.

Set against this are the many small groups, informal institutions, organizations and networks of independent scholars that are springing up. Indeed it sometimes seems as if the most exciting work is now going on outside the universities. Independent groups are now beginning to have side conversations and it seems as if a sort of non-accredited academy is growing up in parallel to more traditional universities.

In the past, the formal academy and its scholars were the arbiters who accredited knowledge. Today the professions are progressively becoming disfranchised. In the minds of the general public, the words and actions of teachers, doctors, therapists, politicians and priests can no longer taken as untainted and truly independent. Take for example, the current debates about genetically modified food, global warming and so on. There is an informal perception that the advice and findings of scientists and academics cannot be fully trusted. With so many vested interests around, knowledge has become tarnished by its association with corporations, institutions, governments and powerful interest groups. The academy is no longer considered as being truly independent; neither can its scholars be relied upon to be critically independent and untarnished by social and professional pressures.

In such a social flux it is legitimate to ask what is to be the standard of knowledge? It is certainly true that young people don't know where to go. But if the universities no longer exercise a license for knowledge and independent critique what or who is going to fill the vacuum? Will it be the smaller non- accredited groups and will the unofficial academy take on this role? And if the universities once performed a valuable function in society what sort of function will they perform in the future? What will fill in the gap they have left? Add to all this the advance in information technologies and we wonder what role are networks and the Internet going to have within the future of society?

Society certainly seems to need some sort of continuity, for it fears going into chaos. Who will provide this continuity in the future? We are not suggesting that this situation of itself is necessarily bad or good. Just that things are not only different but that they are changing quickly. We need to ask what all this means for society. We need to sit down and share our understandings. Many of the structures that underlying our society are disappearing, and so we need to ask what the future holds and what will be the role of the formal and informal "academy" in this? Will formal institutions continue to exercise an important role or does the future lie with small groups and informal organizations? Those who have been watching the way things have been changing need to come together and carry out a reality check.

Initially this debate can be conducted via the Internet, with the view of having a small meeting within the next twelve months. The idea is not to have people voice their complaints about their own institutions or a specific lack of funding. Rather it is to develop a shared understanding of what is going on. Likewise the goal is not so much to generate policy, but to have a conversation of meeting of minds. Nevertheless it is possible that recommendations may arise from the discussions.


Discussions during a meeting of artists and scientists in London in March 1999, raised questions concerning the current role of universities today and the "Future of the Academy". These discussions prompted me to circulate the following email to a few colleagues:

Dear Colleagues, As some of you may know a small group of us - scientists and artists - met in London in early March for three days of informal discussions. One issue that emerged was that of the role of the universities, and other institutions, in our contemporary society.

Traditionally the universities provided a haven, an island that fostered teaching and research and placed a high value on scholarship, creativity and excellence. Increasingly this does not appear to be the case today and for some academics the issue appears to have reached a crisis point.

In discussing this with one of my friends and colleagues, Dr Arthur Cordell, suggested that the time may have come to organize a small meeting around the theme: THE FUTURE OF THE ACADEMY.

I'd be very interested to have your reactions, comments and suggestions about such a theme and such a meeting. David Peat

Below you can find the initial replies to my first letter. I encourage you to read these messages and then continue the dialogue

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