The future of the university is as difficult to imagine as it is to imagine the future of a globe experiencing the convergence of severe problems. The university, by name, is a whole, a mapping on to the cosmos of all relevant knowledge, but the university as it has evolved is a machine generating fragmentation and specialization and is in large part responsible for or complicit in the current lethal state of the world.
The evolution of the university in the US in my lifetime is tragic. The old university was designed to be a community of scholars, not a hothouse for startups. I once visited the Institute for Advanced Study (note,not plural) at Princeton. The mathematicians ate lunch at one table, the historians at another, a serious decline from the goal.
The IAS Bluebook says:
“The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the few institutions in the world where the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the ultimate raison d’être. Speculative research, the kind that is fundamental to the advancement of human understanding of the world of nature and of humanity, is not a product that can be made to order. Rather, like artistic creativity, it benefits from a special environment.”
The world surrounding the university in the near future will be in turmoil. As people come to anticipate climate disruptions the social disruptions will precede the events they anticipate. The universities will need to be communities that protect students and faculty, perhaps to house and feed them, while helping to manage the whole of society. You can imagine the demands of these tasks while living up to “Speculative research, the kind that is fundamental to the advancement of human understanding of the world of nature and of humanity.” The university was meant to be a community of scholars interacting with each other. The modern university is a series of independent departments acting more like start-ups with very little interchange across the quad or in neighboring buildings except disdain or indifference.
The intellectual demands on the university will expand to meet the challenges of managing the globe. As the Greek “economy” meant estate management holistically, the estate now is the globe and the task is the reintegration of humanity with nature, matching resources with quality of life for all humans. New understandings of humans, based on deepening understandings from anthropology, history, biology, humanities will need to be integrated with and influencing increasing understanding of politics, organizations, the meaning of property, and technology and, challenging, understanding the East West interface, along the silk road, in the Pacific, in the Middle East, and in conferences.
Universities are often very attractive places, integrating architecture and landscape, supporting a feeling of well-being. Universities could be models of how to organize human communities of co-located living and working, blending humans and nature in aesthetics and economy. As society breaks down such models may be the main offering.
The world requires that we be able to rethink what it is to be human, what it is to be a society, how to organize agriculture, health, education, and quality of life.