Higher Education in the Information Age

President's Panel: Agenda for Action and Experimentation

Mark Wrighton


Mark Wrighton: First I'd like the opportunity to spar with anyone on the value of research universities in the future. I think we have a bright future, I think there's a compelling reason for our existence, and I think the track record speaks for itself. I'd also say I love technology. I like it personally, and I came to this meeting hoping to meet some interesting people, and that's been very fulfilling. And I also had the expectation I'd learn something, and to a degree I have. One thing I've learned is that you can forget everything you've been taught and some would argue you're still educated. And I'm not sure that's entirely true, but I'll accept it because my memory, though excellent, is short.

I want to make a few comments in four areas. I'm going to give what I think are the assumptions at least as I see them, some of the issues that follow from the assumptions, the opportunities that I see for Washington University and potentially for others, and then close with a few words related to Wrighton's philosophy on how we might approach some of these areas.

First the assumptions. Technology is pervasive, technology is expensive, and arguably-and I think we can disagree on this to some extent-technology is needed. New students are better prepared and will be increasingly so, especially with respect to their adept use of technology. Change will occur, change will be rapid and will require-considering the relative sluggish development of new resources within the university-the changes will require reallocation of what we have. Fourth in assumptions: consensus is needed in order to make progress in any of the complex organizations that work. And interestingly, the Governor of Utah pointed out that bureaucracy, regulation, tradition, and turf are four barriers that they thought about as they were trying to cooperate, and I would note that in a way those same four barriers exist within our institutions, and perhaps greatest of all are tradition and turf. Speaking as an administrator, of course, I don't think of bureaucracy as the problem.

Issues. The role of faculty within our institutions apparently will change. I had been listening to others talk about this, and the traditional partnership our faculty have in our institutions and separately with private organizations like the publishers is the tradition. I think now we're going to have to wonder whether the faculty and the university together comprise a partnership to approach information providers like the publishers and others. I think we also have raised the issue related to faculty time and effort. These are not elastic commodities, and I think anyone who's been involved in the development of the use of technology in education, education in particular, we have all dramatically underestimated the degree to which our faculty would have to be deployed in order to make innovative progress.

Third issue: experiments in this area are extremely costly, and I think as an experimentalist myself from science, I think we all can accept the notion that not all of these experiments are going to be successful, and I think the critical thing for us to be able to do is to learn enough from each experiment to see them as a worthwhile investment.

After the implementation of the successful experiments, I think the critical issue is how do we deal with the obsolescence of the technology that we employ, and we have to plan for renewal. One comment with which I disagreed by Professor Taylor, though I was refreshed by many of his comments, is this issue of obsolescence of tenured faculty and perhaps the approach to abolish tenure is the one that we should follow. I myself do not believe that. I think this tradition is an important one for universities, and the basic problem as I see it is not tenure, but the combination of tenure and no mandatory retirement. And I think the appropriate response is a more professional and regular evaluation of all of the people we have working with us.

Finally, and perhaps the most critical issue that is raised in connection with innovative approaches to the use of technology is: how in fact do we redeploy resources? It implies that we need to get together and decide that we're going to quit doing some things in order to make progress on another, especially if we assume that the resource base is not growing rapidly.

Opportunities. I in fact see opportunities in the technological arena in libraries first. I think this is the heart of the information marketplace with respect to a university, and what we need is to provide a setting in which the members of our communities can contribute and take advantage of these information resources. Opportunities, baseline, I think are fairly obvious and were commented upon here: communications, especially electronic mail; text processing; and access to Internet. These are all what I would call now basic services that need to be provided. There's a high degree of expectation in the entire community, especially the incoming students. These are not unlike telephone services, and those of you who are involved in residential life situations know that now every room is equipped with at least a telephone, and most every institution is moving to a more sophisticated set of communications tools within the rooms.

I myself see great opportunities in this distance education area. I'm not convinced of what to do. I'm not sure who our market would be at Washington University. Would it be our alumni, numbering 100,000? Would it be companies? Would it be the public at large that seems to have some high expectation of us, especially universities that are surrounded by urban areas, like the University of Pennsylvania and many others? So distance education I think is one which I would look to as a great opportunity. I think the Governor's presentation was interesting. I'm not sure I see a way for us to participate in that particular initiative, but I do think distance education is something that will engage us.

Another area which I think is a real opportunity for every institution of higher learning is this issue of so-called asynchronous education. That's one thing that seems to me to be appropriate in this era. It allows us to do more with our existing facilities and capabilities, and I think the notion that there are some areas of learning where different styles-I think the technology makes these things possible and will provide a more effective experience for our students, whether they be ones in residence or at home for the summer or alumni.

Finally, in terms of opportunities, I was impressed in a way with the declaration of the so-called intranet services concept that was developed within I guess Silicon Graphics. I think as a learning institution we have a responsibility to kind of set a standard in our communities for providing a setting where technology is used, and I believe that there are some significant service opportunities for our entire community which would engage not only our students, but all of those who work in the institution.

Finally a few words of philosophy. I was taught by one of my former bosses, now a dean at Rice University, Jim Kinsey, speaking about the role of advanced instrumentation and technology in our research, as individuals ourselves not charged with developing the instrumentation and technology we both agreed that it's best to be on the hind-front of technology-to begin taking advantage of it when it's appropriate and cost effective. I do think that we need to focus on this issue of the balance of thought about the present versus the future. We're going to be making some very important decisions on behalf of those who follow, we're making important investments, and we need to try to make the most of them. There's a need to balance idealism and pragmatism. And I was struck when the Governor was talking about the inability to move rapidly in certain areas which are painfully obvious, while at the same time you have to fund the prisons and build the roads and all the other things. As perhaps Judy Rodin and the other presidents would know, we have many constituencies who fundamentally want both time and money and space and everything else that these great institutions offer, and I think we have to balance the resources and make the prudent investments as we see them.

Finally, I'm an optimist, and someone in this conference indicated that the greatest problem was perhaps overcoming inertia, dead wood, or what have you. In fact I see the greatest problem of people in positions like mine is that we are fundamentally limited by money. We're not limited by ideas. My biggest problem, frankly, is being unable to respond to an incredibly large number of interesting things to do, which I know in absolute terms would improve the quality of the experience at Washington University. I felt the same at MIT when I was there, and I know that others in my role share that frustration. And it's a very difficult problem. Can't keep everyone happy all of the time. But I think this conference has been worthwhile in helping to shape some of my own thought about our future. Thank you.

Farrington: Thank you especially for pointing out that it's seldom the number of good ideas that's the problem. It's the fuel to fuel them. I should say, just in case it hangs in the air, not all experiments in the new technologies are expensive. The most bold, perhaps, the most leading edge are expensive. Some of them are remarkably inexpensive. But regardless, probably the most expensive aspect of any experiment is time-not always technology, but the time of the people doing the experiment. And that would argue that in the area of education and the area of these experiments, we would do best to learn from each other-not only what works but for goodness sakes what didn't work, so it doesn't have to not work 40 times. And it can just work once or twice or maybe three times, and then it can work 30 times. And that is a major step forward in efficiency. It works, by the way, in research. Any researcher knows what's going on with all of his or her competition all over the world and is unlikely to make mistakes too frequently or he's out or she's out of the business. But in teaching it doesn't always work that way. We have this delightful ability to make mistakes over and over and over again, each pretending we have to invent the world new.



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Last modified: 21 January 1998