A Quick Project Update

We have a lot of new incoming resources that we are reading and will be adding to our Bibliographic Database in the weeks ahead. To that end, we are working on a update to our Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) that should improve its functionality and aesthetics.

We are also thinking about how best to make our OPAC operational offline in anticipation of its eventual integration into a standalone Founders’ Quadrangle Notebook application.

Open Syllabus Explorer & Dynamic Resource Clustering in Libraries of the Future

Today we’d like to call your attention to Open Syllabus Explorer, a database compilation and searchable visualization of readings assigned in 6,059,459 syllabi drawn from leading college and universities around the world.

This dataset is the perfect starting point in seeding the libraries of our University of the Future. I say libraries, because the real value of any collection lies in its ready accessibility. On far too many campuses, key volumes are buried in one or two monumental repository structures that are on the opposite side of the campus (or on a different campus entirely) from where researchers are actually working. This makes it decidedly less likely that they will be consulted with an optimal frequency.

Instead, it strikes us as more sensible to cluster “working collection” titles in quasi-departmental libraries co-located with time shared office, study, and seminar space. Titles with high relevance to more than one of these sub-libraries ought to be duplicated in each cluster.

We can then take low access titles and organize them in “shelf blocks” within a low use research collection in one or two main library/archive buildings. As topics become “hot” these shelving units can be “hot swapped” into the “working collection”.

For example, our Working Design Collection would have a core set of titles used globally for survey courses in architecture and interior design at leading universities, while the main library’s Research Design Collection might hold several shelves of obscure titles on classroom, lab, and lecture hall layout and fixtures. However, if a graduate seminar was addressing this topic, those shelving units would be transferred to the departmental library for ready access while dynamic signage in the main library would redirect other researchers to their temporary location. These local mini working libraries could be staffed by expert subject matter librarians and/or students in their respective fields to provide more nuanced reference assistance than what one might find in a general main library.

This division would reduce foot traffic in the archival stacks making it easier to re-architect those spaces as general quiet reading areas where one might lounge and read when not seeking new materials. While the working collections could be structured as more social and collaborative spaces.

An Alma Alma Mater

As back to school season swings into full gear those of us who have long since completed our terminal degrees find our inboxes decorated with alumni association emails touting impending homecoming weekends and alumni events. Almost invariably these missives focus on opportunities to meet up at bars or attend sporting events, preceded or followed by an urge to “give back” by writing a fat check to one’s alma mater.

Some enlightened schools make a weak attempt to recruit their alumni to offer mentoring to current students or to encourage them to hire the next generation of their graduates. If one is particularly fortunate one’s alma mater might actually offer one or two academically oriented speakers at an event before asking for donations over hors d’oeuvres and of course DRINKS. But sadly, Alumni culture always seems to circle back to SPORTS, DRINKS , and DONATIONS.

The truth of the matter is that the big schools are just playing the numbers to maximize donations. One is lucky to find perhaps 14% of the student body dedicated to the love of learning for its intrinsic value.

Only this tiny core have a true sense of “my research” that makes them look beyond the mandates of the syllabus for ways to integrate different treads of knowledge and to bring that learning to bear in creative ways outside the lecture hall.

There is but a scant 14% imbued with The Academic Sublime — that sense of awe and wonder over the Ideal of the University as a force sustaining Civilization through the ages. This is the chill that goes up one’s spine setting foot on campus as one is overtaken by an awareness of the boundless potential of the Future. It is the Academic Sublime that gives rise to a soul sustaining optimism despite the sorry state of today’s Universities with their all too often watered down academics, party cultures, toxic political correctness, and ceaseless assaults on academic freedom.

Beyond the 14% there is a wide band of mediocre to good students who aren’t necessarily averse to learning, as long as it doesn’t clash with their politics or get in the way of their social lives. There is also a significant number who see college as a speed bump in the way of taking a position with friends or family, or who quite honestly just want to party.

Since, in aggregate, they don’t care about academics, but do represent the biggest slice of the donor pie, it makes sense to focus on offering them bread and circuses in the form of sports teams and alumni bar nights and booze cruises.

What this doesn’t do is provide the lost 14% with a way to continue to participate in the Intellectual Life of their Alma Mater. Only a tiny fraction of them will have found a birth as faculty at some other institution of higher education; and while the rest can participate in professional societies, those tend to be overly specialized and highly compartmentalized disciplinary silos devoid of the kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization that makes the Campus such a special kind of space.

They represent a huge untapped resource for our Universities of the Future! They are the very individuals whom we would have recruited as students had we been founded in time for their college years and who would now be our alumni had we been fortunate enough to have instructed them. They are largely alienated from their actual alma maters, many have funds they would be loath to donate to those schools, and all have rich bodies of experience, expertise, and intellectual insights that are seen as being utterly irrelevant by the universities they attended.

We can give them a home, we can help them network and found new ventures, we can tap their knowledge, we can give them the community to take their art, science, and commerce to the next level, we can adopt them and become their Alma Alma Mater!

N.B. We will explore exactly what this concept means and how it might be formalized as a League of Extraordinary Scholars embracing both disaffected alumni and potentially unlettered independent scholars and entrepreneurs in future posts.

Dry Or Wet? — Should We Allow Alcohol On Campus?

One of the hardest decisions we will have to make is deciding what to do about alcohol consumption.

One’s initial libertarian inclination would be to follow the crowd and only opine on the undesirability of violent drunkenness, trusting our future student bodies to do the right thing. But we are also realists and recognize that college age students have an undeniable historically bad track record when it comes to making bad choices about liquor.

Some are perhaps genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism, others use drinking as a excuse to absolve themselves of responsibility for the consequences of bad decisions. In Greek Culture, drinking is all too often ingrained in rituals of individual submission to peer pressure. One drinks to prove one’s worth through the rite of getting loaded and enduring an awful hangover in the morning. In the most egregious cases students have lost their lives to actual alcohol poisoning.

It would be nice to imagine that our students will only imbibe of a sip of Sherry after a poetry reading, but the reality on most campuses is an unhealthy level of binge drinking both in the dorms and off campus bars that encourage predatory sexual dynamics by offering “Ladies Nights” to lure coeds into a hookup culture where young men ply them with drink, impairing their judgment, and trading sexual favors for free booze and the momentary emotional high of feeling desired by alpha males.

Worse still, we all know what happens afterwards, risky sex, unclear consent, spewing vomit, and the “walk of shame” home the morning after. The consequences for our young men and women are equally bad, as born out by date rape statistics in countless cases both with and without merit, in a culture that devalues women on campus, short circuits the formation of healthy dating relationships, and puts both sexes at high risk of making disastrous life altering choices.

The drinking culture also puts the non-drinker at a social networking disadvantage which can have future impacts on lifelong earnings. This suggests that it wouldn’t be sufficient to ban alcohol on campus, particularly if we contemplate a setting in which a string of bars could set up shop just outside the campus gate.

Only by providing a more desirable programmed nightlife with frequent events, better networking and dating opportunities, a superior ambiance, and high quality non-alcoholic beverages of superior flavor and lower cost than the swill of your average off campus strip can we make a dry lifestyle the preferred choice for our academic communities. In short, we want to create an environment in which getting plastered won’t be cool and in which the traditional sleazy off-campus bar scene catering to lecherous drunkards won’t be economically viable.

Labor Day — The Organizational Imperative

On this Labor Day, we can’t help but notice a certain irony in the state of campus labor relations. A significant percentage of university students entering careers in academia have only been able to do so due to the fruits of their parents’ Union Bargaining. It was Unions that enabled their families to start “college funds” for them while they were still in diapers .If it were not for the union scale wages earned by their middle class families, no amount of state and federal aid would have been enough to make higher education economically feasible.

But during their gradate study, and subsequently upon graduation, they find themselves locked into quasi indentured servitude as “teaching assistants”, itinerant “instructors”, and “adjunct” faculty, locked out of the Tenure Track benefits won by past generations of Unionized Professors. We have thus allowed our campus labor relations to degenerate into a two tier system with the benefits of unionization restricted to an ever shrinking and aging slice of the labor pool.

Even worse, the precarious position most young academics find themselves in leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by tenured faculty and career blackmail by unethical students using their power of feedback though platforms like Rate My Professors to punish anyone daring to demand a high level of intellectual rigor in their courses. The deal becomes, “an easy A in exchange for a shot at having one’s teaching contract renewed” with the implicit threat of student boycotts of hard classes.

In a wider culture that values paper credentials over substantive learning, this creates a very rational but ultimately toxic dynamic in which the tenuously engaged academic lives in fear that an honest grade would trigger a bad student review that could end his or her career.

With such lopsided bargaining power, it is particularly risky for grad students to start down the road to unionization and sadly those campuses where the benefits of collective bargaining are most desperately needed are no doubt the hardest to unionize.

This is not to say that Tenure for a much wider swath of academia is the answer, since one can point to countless examples of abuse in that system. When faculty unions use their power to insulate poorly performing professors from accountability and drive up salary costs to the point that insufficient funds are left to employ the next generation of the professorate, they become indirectly complicit in grinding grad student instructors and adjunct faculty into poverty.

The current status quo could hardly be more dysfunctional making it a clear imperative for upcoming future faculty to organize and for founders of Universities of the Future to reach out to Union leaders to develop win-win scenarios that can restore balance to the bargaining table.