The University is Dead! Long Live the University!

James L. Morrison
Editor, The Technology Source

 For Discussion Purposes Only

This draft is based on a presentation found at and is posted here for discussion at the September 24, 2002 webcast.

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

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

The Evolution of American Higher Education

Colleges and universities have undergone dramatic change in the past. For example, in this country, the earliest colleges were established in order to have an educated ministry. These colleges gradually became much more secularized. In particular, after the middle of the 19th century, with the pressure of an industrializing society plus the passage of the 1864 Morrill Act establishing federal funding for agricultural and mechanical colleges, America’s institutions of higher education began to develop curricula designed not only to prepare young people to be good citizens, but also to also prepare them for careers. In the early 1900s, many colleges added graduate programs, following the German university tradition, while continuing their undergraduate education function of preparing relatively privileged youth to enter the adult world (following the English tradition). In the mid-twentieth century, with the passage of the GI Bill, colleges and universities became more concerned with broader access to higher education. Simultaneously, U.S. universities became infused with a research mission under the influence of federal funding in response to the Cold War’s arms race.

By the second half of the Twentieth Century, the American higher education system was essentially organized to socialize young people into the adult culture largely on residential campuses. Institutions had graduate programs to prepare professionals, conduct research, and perform public service through continuing education courses. Under this system, colleges and universities also 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: 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; regions, states, or sections of states for comprehensive institutions; and world-wide for research institutions (for students who could travel to them).

In all cases, however, 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 presenting content and assessing how well that content was learned as their primary teaching responsibilities. Curriculums were built on the logical progression of introductory content courses to more specialized or advanced content courses, and were offered in specific time frames (semesters, quarters, trimesters) within which students were usually only able to matriculate at specific times during the year—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.  

Today’s Change Drivers 

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


Four demographic changes are affecting higher education today. First, the ethnic identification mix of the general population is changing both in the US and in the world, although the changes vary by geographical area. For example, in the US, between 1970 and 2000, New York City’s population shifted from 2/3 white to 1/3. In 1970, 5% of U.S. residents were born elsewhere; in 2000, this figure increased to 11%. In several states white children are no longer the majority in the elementary grades. This change is reflected worldwide, in that the proportion of the population that is white is decreasing and is projected to continue to decrease. Before the end of this century, demographers generally expect Euro-descended Americans to make up less than half of the U.S. population.

Second, the demand for access to some form of postsecondary education is increasing dramatically. Not only are the numbers of secondary school graduates increasing, but an increasing proportion of high school graduating classes are also applying for college. The size of the high school graduating class will grow by more than 20% between 1996 and 2005, and an ever-greater proportion of the high school graduating class is enrolling in college (67% today; 56% in 1980). With a record 15.3 million students expected to enter colleges and universities this year, America’s population of postsecondary students will continue its seven-year increase. U.S. Education Department figures reflect a 2% increase over last year, and they project that enrollment will grow by an additional 16% over the next decade, mainly because of an increase in the college-age population.

Third, the age-structure within the US and within industrialized countries is changing. In the US, by 2010, 43% of adults will be age 50 or older. By 2010, 50% of all college students will be adults. By 2004, 100 million Americans will take part in adult education programs (for 1995, this figure was 76 million). The "graying" of the population is also reflected in the graying of the workforce, a workforce that needs continuing education to remain viable.

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

Globalization and the Economy

Globalization is characterized by the international movement of capital, labor, products, technology, and information in increasingly expanding amounts. The global economy is driven by regional free trade, multinational corporations, and information technology. In 1970 there were close to 7,000 multinational corporations; by 1990 the number swelled to 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.

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 one third of US economic growth. In five years most new U.S. jobs will occur in computer related fields (and 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 expanding rapidly. The Gartner Group estimates that this sector will approach 8 trillion dollars by 2005. Consequently, some 95% of all workers need to use some type of information technology in their jobs.

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

To summarize, in the US and in the mature industrial democracies around the world, there is increasing 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 for retraining workers in mid-career, we can confidently assume that the existing bricks and mortar campuses will not be sufficient 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 enable 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

Information Technology  

Information technology (IT) is the major driver affecting our lives today and will continue to do so in the future. Moore's Law, formulated over 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 1.5GHz 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 shrunk to around 0.25 microns. But chips with transistors that size came out in 1997. And IBM has developed a gigabyte hard drive that is the size of two quarters pasted together (large enough to contain 1,000 books). In August 2002, Seagate announced that it had exceeded IBM, squeezing 50 terabits to a square inch, and indicating that it will eventually offer a 1 terabyte (2-3 million books) drive for $300.00.

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. In the future we can anticipate that computers will be as easy to use and as ubiquitous as telephones are today. These machines, equipped with decision algorithms and expert systems will enable schools to greatly enrich the educational experience through simulations using virtual reality and through such tools as peer-to-peer groupware to facilitate project-based team-learning.

Signals of Change

All around us, there are a number of signals that higher education is headed for a major transformation. Consider the following:

4    Internet use doubles every 90 days, going up at the rate of about 140 persons a second and almost 72 million a year.

4    The number of e-mails sent on an average day was 10 billion in 2000; 35 billion are expected in 2005.

4    Cable and phone companies are consolidating to provide interactive multimedia programming.

4    Educational courses and programs are being produced by corporations.

4    The UK Higher Ed Funding Counsel estimates the global online learning market to be 71 billion dollars.

4    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.

4    The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimates that the e-learning market in the US will grow to $46 billion in five years. And the International Data Corporation projects that the US e-learning market will grow from 10% of the total training market in 1999 to more than 35% by 2004.

4    Virtual consortia (e.g., eU, Universitas 21, uNext) of prominent international universities are marketing educational degree programs around the world.

4    Army online (, started last year and projects 85,000 online students by 2005.

4    The Pew funded program at Rochester has sponsored demonstration projects at VPI and other institutions to demonstrate how colleges and universities can use Web-enabled courses to handle more students more efficiently, and at less cost, without loss of quality.

4    Cisco's classroom programs cost as much as $1,800 per worker, while Web-based classes are approximately $120 per worker.

4    Corporate universities grew from 400 in 1990 to 2,000 in 2000. The number of students in these institutions is increasing 30% per year. By 2003, corporations will conduct 96% of training online. By 2010, corporate training universities may outnumber traditional colleges and universities

4    IBM saved $200 million by moving 20% of its training to e-learning and has converted its side e-learning business into a stand-alone business

4    The dean of the University of Chicago School of Business says, "Corporate training and distance learning will ‘wipe out’ many of the 700 MBA programs that issue 100,000 MBAs each year."

4    The Western Governors University, a virtual university sponsored by 10 western states, requires competency-based degrees.

4    At the University College of the Caribou students pay by the month until they have completed their courses.

4    At Rio Salado College new classes begin every two weeks.

4    The percentage of colleges and universities offering distance education courses in 2001 was 72%; only 48% offered them in 1999. Thirty-four percent provide an online degree program in contrast to only 15% providing such programs in 1998.

4    In 2000, 49% of colleges provided Internet connections in classrooms; in 2002, the percentage is 64%.

4    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. Some colleges (West Virginia Wesleyan, MIT) require all applicants to submit their applications online.

4    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.

4    Five percent of all postsecondary institutions require students to have a computer.

4    This past spring, Stanford University graduated the first 25 students from its global online engineering program.

4    The next year will see whether Universitas 21—a high-profile international consortium of 17 universities from Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America—can sell online degrees worldwide. Created in 1997, the consortium plans to offer its first product, a master's degree, throughout Asia in early 2003.

Finally, the nature of students is changing in that on the whole, they are far more comfortable with using computers, telecommunications, and multimedia than their elders. The upcoming Generation Z may be computer literate before they hit grade school. Currently, over 50% of the school districts in the US rely on student assistance for networking and for helping teachers to use IT tools. In a recent article in On the Horizon, Prensky (2002) 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 kindergartener expressed his feelings at lunchtime by saying "," whereas a high school student was reported as saying "Every time I go to school I have to power down."

The Paradigm Shift

What do these signals portend for how higher education will look in the next decade? I think that we will see both institutional shifts and faculty mindset shifts. Specifically, in the coming decades, most educators will no longer view knowledge transfer to be primarily accomplished via the classroom or lecture hall, but as ubiquitous, unlimited by time, place, or media. Similarly, no longer will colleges and universities 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 will 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 inter-campus consortia today, such collaborations will be commonplace in 10 years. More and more institutions will partner with vendors and with other institutions to enrich their online curricular offerings. Many colleges and universities will be completely virtual, while residential campuses will offer predominantly hybrid courses—which will meet face-to-face, supplemented by online work. Practically no institution will be without substantial online instructional capability. Moreover, these institutions will predominately use competency-based exams for awarding degrees, and will guarantee that individuals who pass these exams are indeed competent to perform at the level implied by their 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, will become continuous (e.g., once every month).

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

At the same time that IT is transforming the world of teachers and students, it is also changing the context of scholarship. Specifically, the movement spearheaded by MIT in 2002 to put faculty scholarship online, in conjunction with the efforts of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPAR), plus the free online scholarship movement, will establish the acceptability of peer-reviewed online scholarship in terms of merit, tenure, and promotion considerations.

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.

The hidebound, authoritarian, hierarchical, self-reverential university is dying. But progressive educators and innovative reformers can still revivify the institution, using rapidly maturing information technologies and building upon the timeless values of scholarship, collegiality, open dialogue and intellectual integrity to create a post-industrial university that will be capable of reaching both new heights of academic excellence and new breadths of community access and social utility. And that would be a death-bed conversion worth cheering.

"Long life to the new university!"