The University is Dead! Long Live the University!
An Interview with The Technology Source's James L. Morrison

This interview followed James Morrison's presentation at the 2002 World Future Society conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[This article was originally published as Mack, T. (2003, Spring). An interview with a futurist. Futures Research Quarterly, 19 (1), 61 – 69.]

FRQ: Your presentation at the 2002 annual World Future Society conference had a catchy title: "The University is Dead! Long Live the University!" What do you mean by that?  

James L. Morrison [JLM]: In speech 101, I was taught to begin a presentation with an attention-getter, and this one fit quite nicely—in terms of both getting the attention of the audience and suggesting that colleges and universities are in a major transition period that will fundamen­tally affect the way they conduct their business. The title is a takeoff on the words used by town criers in historic England who, upon the death of the reigning monarch and the forthcoming crowning of a new monarch, would go through the streets proclaiming, "The King is Dead! Long Live the King!" (or "Queen," as circumstances required). 

Although change in social institutions is seldom rapid, I do believe that we are currently undergo­ing substantial changes in the way colleges and universities will be organized and will function in the future. These changes are being driven by the combined forces of demographics, globalization, economic restructuring, and information technology—forces that will, over the coming decade, lead us to adopt new conceptions of educational markets, organizational structures, how we teach, and what we teach. 

FRQ: I am reminded of the science fiction story where a group of engineers from the nineteenth century are brought to the latter part of the twentieth century and are overwhelmed by the changes they see. When a group of teachers from the nineteenth century are brought to a twentieth-century classroom, they are quite comfortable; not much has changed in the way class­rooms are organized or in the methods of instruction. Education does not seem to change much. 

JLM: Yet in many respects, colleges and universities have undergone ­dramatic change in the past. For example, in this country, the earliest colleges were established to produce an educated ministry.  These colleges gradually became much more secularized. In fact, by the mid-nineteenth century—with the pressure of an industrializing society and with the passage of the 1864 Morrill Act, which established federal funding for agricultural and mechanical colleges—America's colleges began to develop curricula designed not only to help young people become good citizens, but also to prepare them for careers. In the early 1900s, many colleges added graduate programs (in the German university tradition), while continuing their undergraduate education function of preparing relatively privileged youth to enter the adult world (in the English tradition). In the mid-twentieth century, with the passage of the GI Bill, colleges and universities became more concerned with access to higher education. Simultaneously, they became infused with a research mission under the influence of federal funding in response to the cold war's arms race.  

FRQ: To talk about change, you must specify from what to what. How would you characterize contemporary higher education? 

JLM: American higher education in the latter part of the twentieth century was organized essentially to socialize young people into the adult culture and was carried out largely on "brick-and-mortar" campuses. Universities had graduate programs to prepare profession­als, conduct research, and perform public service through continuing education courses. Through this system, colleges and universities allowed profes­sors to consult with other organizations during a part of their work week. All of these functions varied in extent by type of institution (e.g., research universities, comprehensive colleges and universities, and two-year colleges, both public and independent). Each type of institution had a defined marketing area, ranging from local communities for two-year colleges; states, sections of states, and regions of the country for comprehensive institutions; and the world for international research institutions.  

In all cases, with the exception of the apprenticeship aspects of doctoral education (e.g., graduate assistantships, rounds, cases, moot court, and labs), the lecture mode of instruction was predominant. Moreover, most faculty members considered their primary teaching responsibilities to be presenting content and assessing how well that content was learned. Curricula were built on the logical progression of introductory content courses to more specialized or advanced content courses; the curricula were offered in specific time frames (semesters, quarters, trimesters) within which students were usually only able to matricu­late at specific times—in many cases, only once per year. Degrees were based on the number of credit hours earned (seat time). Professors' research products were refereed and sanc­tioned via professional associations and commercial publishers, primarily through print journals and books. Although some colleges and universities participated in consortia, most institutions operated independently.  

FRQ: Why do you think that this system will change? 

JLM: My thesis is that the forces of demography, globalization, economic restructuring, and information technology are affecting the organization and function of higher education described above; the results will be at least as dramatic as the changes already experienced by our early colleges through the latter portion of the twentieth century. 

FRQ: How will demographic change affect higher education?  

JLM: Four demographic changes are having a major impact on higher education. First, the ethnic identification mix of the general population is changing across most regions of the US, albeit at different rates. For example, between 1970 and 2000, New York City's population shifted from 2/3 to 1/3 white. In 1970, 5% of US residents were born in other countries; in 2000, this figure increased to 11%. Before the end of this century, demographers generally expect Euro-descended Americans to make up less than half of the American population. Such changes mean that faculty members and students must be able to function effectively in a more diverse environment and that curricula may need to be expanded to represent a broader range of histories and customs.  

Second, the demand for access to some form of post-secondary education is increasing profoundly. An ever-greater proportion of high school graduates are enrolling in college (67% today, 56% in 1980). The size of the average high school graduating class will grow by more than 20% between 1996 and 2005, and the United States Education Department estimates that college and university enroll­ment will grow by an additional 16% over the next decade, mainly because of an increase in the college-age population. The demand for increased access outstrips the current capacity of higher education to provide this access. 

The nature of students entering colleges and universities is also changing in that, on the whole, they are far more comfortable with using computers, telecommunications, and multimedia than their elders. Members of the upcoming Generation Z may be computer literate before they hit grade school. Currently, more than 50% of the school districts in the US rely on student assistance for networking and for helping teachers use information technology (IT) tools. In a recent article in On the Horizon, Marc Prensky characterized the current breed of young students as "Digital Natives" who are accustomed to hypertext, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, and instant messaging. They have little patience for lectures, or "tell-test" instruction. They also speak a different language: For example, one hungry kindergartner ex­pressed his feelings at lunchtime by saying "," while a high school student was reported as saying "Every time I go to school I have to power down." Such students, more technologically sophisticated than their teachers, expect user-friendly, high-tech services to be available at their time and place of choice and in their medium of choice. 

Third, the age-structure within the US and within industrialized countries is changing. In the US, 43% of adults will be age 50 or older by 2010, and 50% of all college students will be adults. By 2004, 100 million Americans will take part in adult education programs (as opposed to 76 million in 1995). The "graying" of the population has also resulted in the graying of the workforce, a workforce that needs continuing education to remain viable. This change puts traditional colleges and universities on notice that educational programs need to be available at convenient times and places for working adults, or else these adults will go to nontraditional, virtual universities. 

Fourth, within this decade, more than 20% of college and university faculty members will retire, thereby allowing new talent into the ranks of the professorate—talent that is comfort­able using informa­tion technology tools in their work. 

FRQ: How will globalization affect American higher education? 

JLM: Globalization is characterized by the international movement of capital, labor, products, technology, and information in increasingly expanding amounts. The global economy is fueled by regional free trade, multinational corporations, and information technology. In 1970, there were only 7,000 multinational corporations; but by 1990, the number swelled to an incredible 30,000. Today, there are more than 63,000. Many of these corporations are big, and they are getting bigger. Of the world's 100 largest economies, 51 are corporations. Exxon Mobil, the world's largest corporation, has more capital than over 180 nations combined. 

Information technology industries play a major role in the global economy. In the US, 60% of the GNP is related to IT industries. Since 1995, IT has accounted for more than 1/3 of US economic growth. In five years, most new US jobs will occur in computer-related fields (80% of these jobs do not even exist yet); half of those workers will be employed in industries that produce or are intensive users of information technology.  

In this environment, business-to-business e-commerce is also growing at a dramatic rate. The Gartner Group estimates that this sector will approach $8 trillion by 2005. Consequently, some 95% of all workers will need to use some type of information technology in their jobs.  

In response to global economic and emerging free trade initia­tives, business organizations are downsizing and restructuring to meet an increasingly competitive global economy; workers need frequent retraining if their employers are to stay in business and if they are to keep their jobs. The American Society for Training and Developmen­t estimates that 75% of the current workforce will need to be retrained just to keep up.  

To summarize, in the US and in mature industrial democracies around the world, there is growing demand for access to higher education from increasing numbers of secondary school graduates. When we combine this increased demand for higher education from youth with the increasing need to retrain mid-career workers in the global workforce, we can assume that existing bricks-and-mortar campuses will not be able to meet the demand.

The bottom line: In order to meet the increased demands for access, colleges and universities need to increase their use of information technology tools via online learning, which will allow them to teach more students without building more classrooms. Moreover, in order for professors to prepare their students for success in the global economy, they need to ensure that their students can:

  • access, analyze, process, and communicate informa­tion;
  • use information technology tools;
  • work with people from different cultural back­grounds; and
  • engage in continuous, independent learning.

FRQ: How will information technology affect higher education? 

JLM: IT is a major force that affects all aspects of our lives today and will continue to do so in the future. Moore's Law, formulated more than 20 years ago by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states in effect that the power of computer technology doubles approximately every 18 months while the price of technology declines at the same rate. Intel has transistors with elements as narrow as three atoms wide. Chips with these elements can contain approximately 400 million transistors and run at 10 GHz on less than one volt of power. (Current Pentium 4 chips run at 1.5 GHz and contain 42 million transistors.) Although the rule has held steady, researchers have speculated about when the laws of physics might stop it. Early in the last decade, Moore himself said the industry probably would hit a wall when transistors shrink to around 0.25 microns. But chips with transistors that size came out in 1997, and since then the industry has continued to reduce transistor size. And IBM has developed a gigabyte hard drive (large enough to contain 1,000 books) that is the size of two quarters pasted together. 

When we combine smaller, more powerful, and less expensive (and therefore more accessible) computers with the power of the Internet to quickly connect people around the world via audio, video, and text, we have the means to transform our culture. And that, of course, is what is happening now. We can expect that computers in the future will be as user-friendly and as broadly available as telephones are today. These machines, equipped with decision algorithms and expert systems, will enable schools to greatly enrich the educational experience through virtual reality simulations and through peer-to-peer groupware to facilitate project-based learning.  

FRQ: I understand that one element of your approach to anticipating the future is identifying signals of change and then speculating what these signals portend. What signals of change do you see that portend a different organization and structure in higher education?  

JLM: There are a number of signals that higher education is headed for a major transformation. Consider the following: 

  • Internet use doubles every 90 days, going up at the rate of about 140 persons a second and almost 72 million a year.
  • The average number of e-mails sent per day was 10 billion in 2000; 35 billion are expected in 2005.
  • Cable and phone companies are consolidating to provide interactive multi­media pro­gram­ming.
  • Educational courses and programs are being produced by corpora­tions.
  • The UK Higher Education Funding Counsel estimates the global on­line market to be $71 billion.
  • A recent study by Merrill Lynch found that the higher educa­tion market outside the United States is worth $111 billion a year and has as many as 32 million potential students. More than half the market, in terms of both students and money, is in China.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that the US e-learning market will grow to $46 billion in five years; the International Data Corporation projects that it will grow from 10% of the total training market in 1999 to more than 35% by 2004.
  • Virtual consortia (e.g., eU, Universitas 21, uN­ext) of prominent international universities are marketing educational degree programs around the world.
  • Army online ( started last year and expects to serve 85,000 online students by 2005.
  • A Pew-funded pro­gram at the University of Rochester has sponsored projects at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and other institutions to illustrate how colleges and universi­ties can use Web-enabled courses to handle more students more efficiently, and at a lower cost, without loss of quality.
  • Cisco's classroom programs cost as much as $1,800 per worker, while Web-based classes cost approximately $120 per worker.
  • The number of corporate universities grew from 400 in 1990 to 2,000 in 2000. The num­ber of students in these institutions is increas­ing by 30% per year. By 2003, corpora­tions will conduct 96% of training online. By 2010, corporate train­ing universities may outnumber traditional colleges and universities.
  • IBM saved $200 million by moving 20% of its training to e-learning; the company has converted its side e-learning business into a stand-alone business.
  • The dean of the University of Chicago School of Business has predicted that corporate training and distance learning pro­grams will supplant many traditional MBA programs.
  • The Western Governors University, a virtual university spon­sored by 10 western states, awards competency-based degrees.
  • At the University Col­lege of the Caribou (British Columbia), stu­dents pay by the month until they have complet­ed their courses.
  • At Rio Salado College (Arizona), new classes begin every two weeks.
  • Seventy-two percent of colleges and universities offered distance educa­tion courses in 2001; only 48% offered them in 1999. Thirty-four percent provided an online degree program in 2001, compared to only 15% in 1998.
  • In 2000, 49% of colleges provided Internet con­nections in classrooms; in 2002, that figure had risen to 64%.
  • In 2001, online enrollment applications were available at 77% of colleges, up from 68% in 1998, accord­ing to a National Association for College Admission Counseling survey. West Virginia Wesleyan and MIT require all applicants to submit their applications online.
  • The Library of Congress and its partner libraries are launching a pilot project to bring librarians' expertise to the Internet by forming a global reference desk that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Five percent of all higher educational insti­tutions require students to have a computer.
  • The next year will show whether Universitas 21—a high-profile inter­national consortium of 17 universities in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America—can sell online degrees world­wide. Created in 1997, the consortium planned to offer its first product, a master's degree, through­out Asia in early 2003.

FRQ: What do these signals portend for how higher education will look in the next decade?

JLM: I think that we will see both institutional shifts and faculty mindset shifts. Specifically, in the coming decades, most educators will no longer think of knowledge transfer as accom­plished primarily via the classroom or lecture hall, but as ubiquitous—unlimited by time, place, or media. Similarly, colleges and universities will no longer focus on a geographical market area; instead, most research universi­ties will view their markets as bound only by people who do not have Internet access or who are not literate in English (although computer-mediated language translation programs may eventually change this). This perspective will be shared by an increasing number of comprehensive institutions as well as two-year colleges, public and independent.  

Moreover, although there are consortia today, such collaborations will be commonplace in the next decade. More and more institutions will partner with vendors and with other institutions to enrich their online course offerings. Many colleges and universities will be completely virtual, while residential campuses will offer predominantly hybrid courses in which online work will supplement face-to-face class meetings. Practically no institution will be without substantial online instructional capability. In addition, these institu­tions will predominantly use competency-based exams to determine course credit and award degrees.  

In the coming decade, traditional semester/quarter/trimester academic schedules will evolve to incorporate varying lengths of time for learning modules. Enrollments, once set at specific times during the year (and often at only one time per year), will become almost continuous (e.g., once every two weeks). 

Most important of all, as changing demographics and technology alter the higher education context, the mindsets of professors will have to change as well. Specifically, instead of being content providers, faculty members will have to transform themselves into designers of learning experiences for an increasingly diverse student population. Students, meanwhile, seen today as empty vessels into which we must pour content, will increasingly be seen as junior colleagues who acquire and construct knowledge while working through project-based courses. Faculty members will serve on instructional teams consisting of instructional designers, media specialists, and assessment experts. These teams will prepare courses that can be taught online or as hybrids in campus classrooms. Classes will be handled predominantly by junior professors, instructors, or, in universities, by graduate assistants who interact with students as they progress through virtual courses.  

At the same time that information technology is transforming the world of teachers and students, it is also changing the context of scholarship. Specifically, the movement spearheaded by MIT to put faculty scholar­ship online, in conjunction with the efforts of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPAR) and the free online scholarship movement, will establish the acceptability of peer-reviewed online scholarship in terms of merit, tenure, and promotion activities. 

The higher education landscape will look quite different in 2020 than it does today. There will still be many "bricks-and-mortar" residential campuses, particularly for the young, but their classes will be hybridized (i.e., a combination of online and in-class instruction). Lectures will no longer be the predominant mode of instruction; rather, group and individual project-based learning will be the norm. The focus of education will be to produce graduates who can use a variety of information technology tools and techniques to access, evaluate, analyze, and communicate information and who can work effectively in teams with people from different ethnic groups to address a wide range of real-world issues and choices, the tidy answers to which are not in the back of a textbook.

Long life to the new university!

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