How to kill the university

22 November 2020
22 Nov 2020
West Lafayette, IN
8 mins

Humans are culture creation machines. We stumble on some idea or thought, share it with other humans, and if the idea sticks and spreads faster than we forget about it, it becomes embedded in the way we do things together in the future. These are your inside jokes, your traditions and your cults. Many such ideas disappear as soon as they come, like fashion trends and popular culture. Some great ones stick around for a while and influence history, like Jazz or the Enlightenment. The few most powerful ones, like religion and democracy, embed themselves into the DNA of civilization, and they become institutions, inseparable from the species that conceived of it in the first place. Institutions are much harder to replace than other kinds of culture, because they go beyond simply being a part of life, and take root as an infrastructural piece of the way we navigate the world. They are fabric, more than threads. These institutions are pieces of culture immortalized. There’s nothing inherently inevitable about them – they are immortalized into humanity by virtue of their staying power in the way we live, and by how effectively they spread themselves amongst our communities.

One important invention of civilization is the university – a place with cultural and economic implications so complex I couldn’t possibly do it justice in one blog post. The university is an invention – there’s nothing fundamentally inevitable about it. The university is also an object of culture – universities play different roles in society and economy and life in different parts of the world, and at different points in history. The university is arbitrary in this way, but it’s also fundamental to the way the world works. The four-year research university has weaved itself deep into the fabric of society, from immigration and visa policies to the way science gets done to the coming-of-age culture in most developed countries. If it’s not an institution of civilization today, it’s rapidly becoming one.

But fundamental as it is, the university is still a human invention, and I still think it can be replaced. We can invent other ideas that compete in the same gene pool of culture and the same market for value, that might out-compete it to become a more dominant way we learn and build careers and find relationships. What would that new idea look like?

What would it take to kill the university?

Many smarter minds that I have tried to tackle this question from a problem of pure economic value proposition. When we study the university as a product – something that students pay to reap benefits of education, network, career development, and personal growth – it makes sense to try to invent ideas that compete in providing those values. So we invented better ways to learn, in the modern trade schools and bootcamps. We are inventing better ways to find a network, in cohort-based education products and professional communities. I think we’re still early in the rise of companies offering many other services in the university “package”, but it’s a matter of time.

No matter how competitive the newcomers to the scene, though, I think approaching the university as a bundled package of value propositions like this is only a part of the innovation. The best feature of the four-year research university isn’t career or education or personal development per se, but the ultimate community: a lifelong identity tied to a physical place, with thousands of other people, harboring hundreds of distinct self-sustaining tribes mired in decades and centuries of tradition and stories and identities. The university survives as a core community infrastructure of society, not just a company offering a product.

To kill the university, someone new must beat them at this game. Someone needs to invent a better way to build and grow this super-community of communities.

The super-community

Universities are some of the richest, most complex communities I’ve studied, due to their place in most people’s lives. Universities claim four years, nearly full-time, of the most formative and socially instrumental period of most of our lives, and generations overlap each other going back decades, often centuries. This makes it something akin to a primordial soup of communities and identities that will last the lifetime of students. All of the best ingredients for forming lasting, powerful communities are present in university campuses: a physical place, people willing to build new relationships, a shared common goal, sufficient diversity, an influx of new community members every year, and numerous activities for people to do together and build a collective identity. I could hardly imagine a more promising hotbed from which communities can spontaneously arise.

But a good university isn’t just one deep and lasting community. It’s a super-community, hosting the births of many more infinitely diverse communities every year interlinked by a higher level common identity of the university campus. This aspect of the university community, the ability to birth and grow new independent communities over time, is the best feature of universities.

I’ve written before about how communities can scale by growing a hierarchy of smaller “cells” of sub-communities. Many large communities are structured this way to become sustainable (imagine any regional chapter-based organization, as an easy example). The university, though, is one step above this. Because the kinds of communities created within universities are so culturally and topically diverse, many sub-communities brewed within universities grow to become great communities in their own right, creating impact in the world independently of the larger university community.

Included in this category of sub-communities are labs and academic groups, but also less formal kinds of communities like clubs, and the smaller networks of people that might exist within them. These sub-communities can be centered around any number of topics and purpose, from fraternities to career-oriented student organizations. The best of these sub-communities sustain themselves through generations of members who help each other navigate the life outside of the university, building each other’s careers and providing the community with a sense of direction and purpose. Because universities often claim the prime years of students’ lives, these communities tend to have outsized impact to their members compared to other communities they’ll join in the future. The communities you join and build during the university years will carry for years and decades.

Even for those students less involved in communities and clubs in college, university communities end up shaping where they go next for work and life, and often determine the way they make sense of the world politically, philosophically, academically, and financially.

Good universities are factories for such communities. Beyond a career prospect or a well-rounded education or even a personal network, universities nurture these communities and provide them with fresh classes of potential new members every year, in a nearly guaranteed, self-sustaining cycle. No other piece of our culture meets the same challenge at the same scale. In this way, universities are a critical piece of the community infrastructure of the modern world.

Reinventing the community engine

Many years ago, at the start of my career, at a panel on entrepreneurship, I asked one of the investors gathered on stage:

Most of the productive innovation ecosystems I’ve encountered are built around universities. Do you think this is inevitable?

To my surprise, they answered, “yes.” They told me it was obvious that great startup ecosystems only form with universities at the hub of the flywheel of capital and network. I took their answer with reluctance at the time, but asking myself the same question now, it’s startlingly obvious. Universities don’t just produce research and new knowledge. Universities also produce communities and networks of optimistic and ambitious people that fuel entrepreneurial communities. These people, pulled up by their predecessors and their alumni, found new ventures. And when the best of them succeed, they’ll pull the successors in their communities to fill their shoes. And the flywheel keeps turning. Universities are community engines, attracting students from around the state or the world and producing networks and communities of people vectored towards similar purpose.

Productive engines as they are, universities are flawed. They’re expensive, inefficient bureaucracies that are often inequitable. I have confidence universities can be disrupted, and new, stronger ideas will take their place in society in due time – the imperfections are too fatal in the long term to brush away. There is no shortage of interesting companies and experimental policies trying to find alternatives to universities as a product. But whatever takes the place of universities will also have to fill the role they currently play to the communities that grow around and beyond it, into the rest of the world. And fortunately to those who manage to reinvent this community engine, with a strong and growing community by your side, building great products become much less risky.

Of the many ways universities tie into the fabric of our modern life, I think the most complex, and the most under-appreciated today, is that universities are astonishingly prolific, self-sustaining community factories. The reinvention of the university is inevitable, but a long road stretches ahead, and the job will not be complete until we build ourselves a better community engine.

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