Towards a public’s university

The academy must fall for the university to survive

The academy and the university are often confused with one another. We have come to believe that the elitist and exclusionary institutions that confer degrees represent the university. In our overindulgence with the allure of degrees and prestige, we have forgotten the true function of the university: The generation of new knowledge.

Academic institutions all over the world are riddled with useless bureaucracy, corruption, elitism, nepotism and other malaises, the current form of the academy, or the institutional rendition of the university, is squeezing the life out of the idea of the university. Corruption scandals, even out of the ongoing debate about the influence of money and power in the admissions testing and acceptance process, are aplenty. In this day of rising authoritarianism, the institutions are often used as a method of silencing dissenters and creating a uniform social consciousness trained to obey. This is the exact opposite of the idea of the university.

But the idea of the university originated as a medium for the expression and origination of knowledge through a communitarian approach. The very word “university” derives from the latin expression universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which means a community of scholars and teachers. Now, does this community need to have an institutional form, especially one that is elitist and exclusionary? Must the university be bound within the wall of shiny buildings?

The answer is a resounding “No.” A large list of scholars can be produced who never attended a university, even in this day and age. A larger number of scholars attained excellence and created new knowledge in fields that they did not have a degree in.

But in the present, with the expansion of the oligopoly of the academy, the space for a non-institutional scholarship is being limited. The academy has produced the degrees as a signal for expertise. A signal that is dishonest and farcical. But the system has been built around this faulty signal which makes life difficult for those who are excluded.

Getting a publication out in a scholarly journal has become more and more difficult without a shining degree. Your research will probably not even be read or taken seriously if it does not come from an authoritative source, i.e. the academy. Even getting an op-ed published in a regular newspaper becomes difficult.

You would have a hard time finding a job, especially if it is white-collar, without a bachelors degree or more. It would be hard for you to compete with people with degrees from top academies.

This superiority of the degree holders has generated with the advancement of the academy. Until recently, one could become a lawyer anywhere in the United States without a Juris Doctor degree only through apprenticeships for a certain amount of time. Abraham Lincoln never had a law degree. Most other professions can be learned through professional training (e.g. apprenticeships) provided by employers.

So why do we have these academies that erect tall buildings that exclude that don’t have the means to feed fancy tutors or a rich dead uncle? Because, much like many insidious institutions that reign supreme, they have concentrated resources. They have amassed a huge amount of money and power. They have closed the access to books and papers. They have contracted teachers into closed-off classes and they have stolen the market for independent universitas.

The best method for access into the scholarly and professional community is, therefore, to submit to the will of the oligopoly and fight for a spot, however narrowed up by the influences of money and power, in the top universities, a vice that I myself am guilty of. This provides one with access to resources and access to a network, both academic and professional. So yes, the academy, sold as the emblem of meritocracy, is basically a tool for and of systematic elitism.

But the oligopoly of the academies that falsely advertise themselves as universities will not hold. The future of education belongs to the class outside of the classroom. It belongs to massively open online courses and employer certifications. It belongs to independent researchers and open-access journals. It belongs to the open-source and to the creative commons. The age to come is the age of the universal university.

And the professional community agrees. In the real world, the future of the degree seems to be reverting the trend of the present. The value of the degree is eroding. There is a growing concern among employers that the degree-granting academy is leaving the students unprepared for jobs and they are having to train the students from the ground up in order to make their work productive.

Even the research publication problem presented before is now being solved with more and more journals welcoming studies from non-affiliated researchers. The scholarly community is beginning to be more inclusive and accepting, and it will continue to be so with the tools for research becoming more and more accessible due to the advent of new technology. Alternative educational institutions will replace the current elitist version of the academy and the university will be freed to the public.

And this opinion is not mine alone. Predictions about the fall of the academy have been made by many others. David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist has written a WSJ opinion piece on the future of higher ed where he predicts that: “Over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation….” He thinks this collapse will come about because of “students demand value for their money and society demands colleges that work.”.

In the place of all these closed colleges, Gelernter envisions the ascendance of alternative credentials certified by think tanks, newspapers, tech companies, museums, publishers, major libraries, and symphony orchestras. Courses will be delivered online, with “digital guides or mentors who are experts in online education” available for “around the clock” written and phone support.”

The future of education will provide the students with more customizability. They will be able to create courses and degrees that fit their interest the best. They will not be bound to the curriculum. A possibility that Jim Hundrieser, the associate managing principal for institutional strategies at the Association of Governing Boards, recently spoke about the future of higher education at the 99th annual American Council on Education meeting.

The monodirectional lecture-based classroom pedagogy will shift into large seminars. Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, predicted that market forces will advance emergent content delivery methods: “Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially. As high-speed networks become more widely accessible tele-education and hybrid instruction will become more widely employed.”

The professor will become less of a teacher and more of a mentor. Bob Frankston, a computing pioneer and the co-developer and marketer of VisiCalc. “Ideally, people will learn to educate themselves with teachers acting as mentors and guides,” he wrote.

The community of the university will be built on social networks and in-person learning communities will be built through voluntary association. Fred Hapgood, technology author and consultant, and writer for Wired, Discover, and other tech and science publications, said, “The key challenge of the next five years—I say ‘the’ because of the importance of education for the entire global labor force and the importance of reducing its crushing costs—will be developing ways of integrating distance learning with social networking. I am confident this challenge will be met.”

But, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I must admit many academies are now leaving their rigid structures behind and opening up to the idea of the university. Many have instituted distance learning courses that are open for all. Many have instituted methods for certification exams without taking classes. And most allow people to audit classes without having to be registered. They do this, I argue, not out of pure generosity, but also from an urge to stay relevant and productive. If they continue to become more open, cut corruption, exclusion and elitism, they may become more like a university they promise to be.

Until then, we must continue our work to break the academy, both from within and out. When the academic administration takes actions that are corrupt, elitist, nepotist and exclusionary, we must protest. We must walk out, we must demonstrate and we must push for the more open campus. We must demand open courses, we must demand more seminars, we must demand open access and we must demand opportunities. A class outside of the classroom in such a context, be it for a day or be it a whole separate mode of education and research that exists outside of the institutional system, becomes the greatest tool to show the academy that their oligopoly will not hold.

It is our duty, for the sake of the advancement of knowledge, to destroy the ivory tower of the academy and allow for the university to reign free.

Anupam Debashis Roy is an incoming graduate student at Boston University and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School. He is also an editor of Muktiforum. Reach him at

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