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Welcome to the "Future of the Academy" Discussion Forum

Note: This forum is no longer active. The postings below are part of the discuission that led up to the Pari Center meeting on "The Future of the Academy" held in Pari, Italy 2000.

Original Forum



Original Email

David Peat

Need for a Free Academy

Martin Kemp

Can anything be done?

Chris Isham

Creativity and communication

Fred Abraham

Responding to the Archetype

Antony Judge

Go for it!

Marc Lyucks

Need for Concrete Proposals

Alan Watkins

The Crisis in Australia

David Wiltshire

Getting to the heart of deep problems in education

Carol Hegedus

Alternative Programs get hijacked

Lee Smolin

Role of Internet

Fred Abraham

Efficiency at the cost of creativity

Tariq Bhatti

What do we mean by creativity and how can we dialogue

Steve Rosen

This crisis is part of a bigger problem

Michal Heller

Changing Paradigms

Beverly Rubik

Attempts a summary

Fred Abraham

Discussion Forum continues

From: (Martin Kemp)

Dear David, The problems are obvious in relation to institutional rigidities, not least in Oxford, where the ossified structures of faculties and the inability of the University to reward successful innovation in the arts-humanities is obstructing my attempt to re-define visual studies in a cross-disciplinary manner. The University has provided some modest support for the establishing of a Centre of Visual Studies, but only with two short-term posts.

However successful we may be as a research unit - attracting fee-paying students, financing programs etc - it will not result in any budgetary benefits or long-term stability, unless I can find full-scale endowment from benefactors for permanent posts. I think other Universities may be interested in rewarding innovation more directly.

It seems to me that it is far easier to re-configure disciplines in the sciences, where the new subject areas can seek the big funding, than the humanities, where there is (in Oxford at least) no funding which responds to re-configuration. I find that the scientists (to use a crude generalization) understand far more readily what I am trying to do in creating a new discipline of visual studies than the humanities people. My articles in 'Nature' have met with an open-minded response which exceeds anything I have encountered in the humanities domain. But maybe this is just a case that the grass is greener...

In any event, some kind a 'free academy' is needed, where institutionalized definition of territories does not obstruct the creative re-working of set patterns of thought.

From: (Chris Isham, Theoretical Physics Group Imperial College)

Your suggestion is very interesting: it is certainly the case that 'academic life' as it used to be does seem to be under threat these days. But to what extent this can usefully be discussed at an international level I am not sure since so much depends on the whimsies of the local funding authorities. I think the main question to be asked when considering such a meeting is what one thinks the outcome would be in the form of genuine *action*---it is no good just beating our breasts and saying nostalgically that the good all days have gone! . I daresay that most of us would agree on the general issues anyway. The key question is what, if anything, can be done about it.

From: (Fred Abraham, psychologist, Vermont)

I would be very interested in such a meeting, especially if the timing were strategic to take advantage of my other travel plans which are not yet fully gelled.

A philosophical issue: when you mentioned this issue, before you mentioned the creative loci as being outside the academy, with which I agree (obviously an over-generalization, but good enough for a working basis). So the issue for the present discussion might be to discuss the extent to which communication (a society or internet set of venues--discussion group and web site) outside the academic boundaries might serve creativity and the academic community versus the extent that you might wish to revolutionize academia itself to better nurture creativity.

I might add that here I am a member of the Society for Values in Higher Education, a very interesting group that is also interested in this topic, and maybe such a meeting could be a joint regional venture with them. I'd have to think about it more to figure if this is a good idea, but they do have a lot of creative people in the group.

From: Antony Judge Director, Communications and Research Union of International Associations, Belgium

Well I am sensitive to the fact that this is an old and fundamental archetype -- echoes of Camelot, etc.

I have responded to this archetype in various ways over the years:

Transnational network of research and service communities: an organizational hybrid

University of Earth: Meta-organization for post-crisis action

Sustaining a Pattern of Alternative Community Initiatives: Based on their differences from the conventional economic rationale ( which argues for a University of Earth in another mode and has been tentatively taken up by some Aboriginal friends in Australia.

I hope this is a useful response.

From a conceptual point of view, a recent paper of mine on:

And when the bombing stops? -- a challenge to mathematicians

has links to other papers you might find relevant.

I appreciate your initiative. However I think an interesting question is why a number of existing bodies, including WAAS, have failed to perform this function. It would be a mistake to create something anew without appreciating why past exercises have their considerable difficulties. The Club of Budapest is an example.

My only further thought is that it is probable that this "academy" should be on the web, rather than exploring, yet again the challenges of face-to-face encounter between people who often have undeclared needs that undermine the dynamics of what is supposed to be on the table!

Any face-to-face encounters should emerge from e-encounters, or else it would be necessary to find ways of dealing with waffle, wafflers, and those who prefer formal, informal or other kinds of encounters. I have detailed these challenges ad nauseam at

From Marc Lyucks

Excellent idea. I go for it.

From: (Dr. Alan Watkins)

I would think that the success of such a meeting would depend on discussing some formal proposals to set up some sort of ideal academic structure to meet what you feel is the deficiency currently existing. A discussion on whether such a structure should exist or not is in my view a bit pointless.

So if you had some concrete proposals, ie vision for academy, aims objectives, site, remit, shape of organisation, funding. You could look at existing models such as the Institute of the Future in the US and see how your proposal would finesse with existing structures such as the Scientific & Medical Network in the UK, The Arts Council etc.

So I would think you, as the driving force here, would need to get some preliminary proposals going circulate them mature them and then organise a conference with a specific remit.

From: (David Wiltshire, University of Adelaide)

The topic you raise is certainly one of interest, as the issue has definitely reached a crisis point here in Australia, particularly with respect to areas of "pure" research (arts and science), even sciences with direct technological applications such as physics. Our universities are being cut drastically as a result of government policy since 1996 (a 6% direct cut to operating grants was followed by a 12% unfunded pay rise which meant further job losses).

The cuts are administered in an uneven way, as in many cases departments in professionally based disciplines (engineering, medicine, dentistry etc) are able to claw back service teaching to bolster their own student numbers in an attempt to maintain their own funding. (Physics and maths have never had vast numbers of students choosing them as a major, but have always relied on large service teaching loads for their bread and butter.) The results is that "pure" disciplines lose out in the "EFTSU" formulae, and must shed staff, whereas those in engineering etc have many more students to teach with the same number of staff, so that the stress from their work overload has in some cases become a health issue.

To give some examples of the effect of loss of service teaching: the mathematics department at Monash University which had a staff of 62+ academics in 1991 now has a staff of 27, while the physics departments at Queensland university and Tasmania have undergone similar proportionate reductions over the space of a few years, and physics departments in "lesser" provincial universities have disappeared entirely, typically to be merged with engineering departments. Colleagues of my generation (35-40) are increasingly leaving academia for jobs such as defense, computing and investment finance when our contracts come to an end without being renewed.

The biggest problem with all of this is that the culture of university administrators is no longer supportive of academics in our trials and tribulations. Many VCs model themselves as "CEOs"; our VC recently took a A$100K pay increase, while at the same time my own department faces a A$340K budget deficit this year (25% of its budget). The administration attempts to charge for space and to shift the cost of basic functions, such as printing exam papers, back to departments already in the red, while expanding the number of people employed in administration. The problems here have reached a level approaching a meltdown. I recently visited Europe for a month, speaking to colleagues in four countries. Those in the west all faced similar problems to some extent, but my impression was that the problem has reached its most extreme form here in Australia. Of course, those in Russia face a more severe crisis embedded in the economic crisis of their country. Our problem in Australia is that the economy is in very good shape, but academia is under attack by a disinterested government.

While Australia faces some peculiar local problems because of its being tied to an ex-colonial resources-based economy, on which it has been able to rely without investing in innovation, the fact that other western countries face similar problems in academia is indicative of a historical trend. I would speculate that some of the factors contributing to this are:

* Globalization had led to a situation where the economic structures are global, in the hands of multinationals and the like, whereas political organisation is still based on increasingly irrelevant and ineffective nation states. In such a climate multinationals can effectively avoid regulation, moving production to places where labour is cheap and by creative accounting taking their profits in tax havens. Throughout the past century academia has been paid for by governments, as a part of nation building. With so many companies avoiding tax, there is a pressure to reduce government spending, and nation-building no longer has a high priority, at least in countries like Australia.

* The baby-boomer age demographic and the accompanied expansion of the university sector in the 1960s mean that universities today have an inverted and graying age structure, and less vigour overall in taking their fight to governments. Young academics are few, on contracts and insecure positions, and trying to balance family and increasing work loads, due to ever more bean-counting. Thus the academy is increasingly lacking those with the energy to fight for its future.

* Increasing specialisation has been detrimental to the political structure and organisation of the academy as a whole, which is a conglomerate of many distinct cultures with little inter-communication. University administrators themselves have become a "professional class" with the result all too many of them have insufficient understanding of the ways in which universities differ from commercial organisations, among them the basic premise that it is the merit and originality of scholarship and ideas that count, rather than the quantity of production.

* Society has become lulled by the success of modern technology. In the popular imagination, technology is lots of black boxes, and it is so ubiquitous that there is no longer a realisation that independent scientific thought has to be nurtured both to maintain that supply of technology and to confront the problems of the future that globalisation and present technology have created. Society has a thirst for knowledge, judging by the success of popular science books, but no understanding of how that knowledge is produced. The growth of knowledge cannot be left to industry, whose priorities are focussed on short-term commercial criteria.

From: (Carol Hegedus, The Fetzer Institute)

This is an idea that is very provocative and timely...several names come to mind of the kind of people who you might invite. Hal Puthoff, Arthur Zajonc are the first ones. You probably know them both. But it also feels very important to invite some scholars with academic affiliations...maybe even university deans and presidents. But would they come? I think this theme is about getting to the heart of some of the real, deep problems within the whole basis of education today. Parker Palmer would be an incredible contributor if you could get him to join in. Do you know him? He's been a senior advisor to Fetzer for many years and is well known in academic circles as a brilliant and provocative, deep thinking, free spirit ..his most recent work has been about developing the inner life of teachers since they teach who they are even more than what they know.

Good luck with getting this together...

From: (Lee Smolin, physicist, Pennsylvania State University)

Hi, of course there is a problem but I'm not sure if there is any big fix, and it is also important to avoid finger pointing and name calling and to try to do something that is both constructive and of the highest quality, in terms of both the research and the teaching sides of it. I know of few attempts to reform the academy that has not run into one of these problems, at least in the states. There have been lots of "alternative programs" of various kinds, but these usually are either hijacked for the purposes of feeding someone's ego (if they did not start out that way from the beginning) or they become a haven for people who do not do good or careful work. Even places that start off at a very high level, often have a period when they are very hot and many good things happen, followed by a long period of decay, usually due to being hijacked. An example of this was Black Mountain College, which for a short period had on its faculty great artists, dancers, poets and musicians and even a few not so bad scientists.

Essentially the only exception to this in my experience in the US has been Hampshire College, where I was an undergraduate.

So I'm interested, but cautious.

From: (Fred Abraham, psychologist, Vermont)

I agree that gathering is a vast improvement over internet, although the internet serves an important function. Internet communities accelerate the passions, good and bad. I have had many great friendships pass more readily via e-mail. I think it not the quality of the encounters, but the quantity becomes self-limiting.

From: (Tariq Bhatti)

Nice to learn that you are active in issues of interest to humanity. Issues that few give any thought to but are nevertheless important. Personally I would not have the means to participate in such a meeting but I think it certainly worthwhile. I am not too familiar with the current University environment but it is an issue in the workplace. Increasingly the emphasis is on production and efficiency. This can be at the expense of creativity and development. Technical development is still a priority but there is little room for development of ideas, scenarios and plans for the long term. Consumerism has become the dominant theme underlying much of what is done.

From: (Steve Rosen)

I *am* interested in the issue you are raising and would like to be kept informed of future developments in your deliberations on it. It would be helpful though, if the issue could be defined in somewhat more specific terms. Yes, the academy has been a stultifying influence on creative scholarship and thinking. But just what do we mean by "creativity" in this context? And HOW, in what specific ways, has the academy exerted a dampening influence on this? Is there evidence that the effect has actually been *increasing*? How can any dialogue that we may undertake -- electronic and/or in-person -- have an impact on the long-accumulating inertia of an institution like the academy? What sort of dialogue would be best? Perhaps it would be fruitful to explore how creativity-inhibiting institutional processes operate within US, in the very way that we conduct our dialogue. Such an approach to dialogue would be related to the kind of initiative taken by Bohm.

From: (Michal Heller)

As far as THE FUTURE OF THE ACADEMY is concerned my opinion is very close to that of Isham and Smolin. "I am interested but cautious." Leibniz was very unhappy with the universities of his time and he invented the idea of academy of sciences, but academies never replaced time honoured universities. It seems that the crisis of higher education is only a part of a bigger problem.

From: (Beverly Rubik)

Thanks for sending me your piece on the future of the academy and various responses from colleagues.

There are many factors challenging the status quo of the academy these days. Here are a few of my thoughts.

One is the fall of books. The internet, television, and movies have changed the focus of society from the written word of books to images and multi-media. Young people don't read much, and prefer an entertainment mode of education. I believe the present youth culture is now universal, so this situation may be world wide.

Another is the changing paradigm in society with respect to science and medicine that has hardly affected academia. People are marching with their feet and pocketbooks to alternative medicine practitioners, but these modalities challenge the academy, as well as the paradigm of conventional science and conventional medicine. The academy has not marched forward to keep pace with changing economic flows and society's needs and interests.

Another is the rapidly changing knowledge base, and with it, an increasing interest in distance learning. New educational opportunities are popping up all over for motivated adults to continue learning, especially about maverick topics that the academy has not yet incorporated. Perhaps a better mode for education is life-long, without an emphasis on traditional degrees, but on certification of having completed certain programs on certain dates with certain mentors. In relation to this, our knowledge base is changing fast, and a college degree obtained 20 years ago does not relate much to a field as it is currently practiced.

Another, which may be peculiar to the US, is the alignment of the academy with big business interests. This is especially true of the life sciences, where the many ways of looking at life (entomology, embryology, zoology, cellular biology, etc.) have all but disappeared, and molecular biology has become the one and only way of observing life.

I am an adjunct professor at several unconventional universities, and what I see emerging is a new educational model that includes real life experience such as field work, an internship, and "courses" based on, for example, participating in a professional conference, as well as special week-long intensive seminars developed by faculty members such as myself. A growing delocalized network of scholars interested in specific areas has developed because of cheap communications. We have already virtual universities without walls.

I would welcome an opportunity to discuss these and other issues with other scholars, because I have a deep interest in education as well as the changing worldviews in science and medicine. Thanks for starting this dialogue.

From: (fred abraham)

If I catch the drift of your nice summary, might is be that the program for our discussion is:
1. The academy is a stable institution, but not very creative
2. The peripheral small institutions (discussion groups, societies) that exist outside the academy are creative, but not stable or sufficiently effective
3. Each should be improved, and
4. Implicitly, as both are modified, their modification and mutual coupling might utilize the stability of the former and bring in the creativity of the latter.

If that might be the program, then even at this early stage, some suggestions as to some substantive modifications might be in order, to progress beyond the merely programmatic.

(changing tenure, bureaucracy of promotion, disciplinary boundaries, etc?, nature of funding, freedom for self-organization at personal and institutional levels (defining how and what and with whom intellectual curiosity and creativity will be pursued; that is throwing out traditional course boundaries, teacher/student boundaries, etc).

Continued on page 2

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