In my September blog, I argued that humanity has reached the point where knowledge is so abundant and easily accessible that we are able to solve some of the greatest puzzles from previous generations. In this blog, I want to push further and suggest that the time has come for us to reexamine the connections between knowledge creation, appropriation, and dissemination. Perhaps this could shape our thinking for the role of academic institutions and our own institutional future.
Let me first set the stage with a little bit of history.
The Idea of a University
Throughout my career as an academic, I have often needed to explain to my friends not in academia the seemingly strange ideas behind tenure and academic freedom. In these conversations, I regularly share examples where, without the construct of universities, many ideas would not have had a chance of surviving.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum. The ceremony coincided with the 800-year founding commemoration of the University of Salamanca in Spain—the place where Christopher Columbus discussed the viability of his “voyage to India” with university geographers. The Magna Charta outlines the values traced back to the creation of universities, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the concomitant responsibility to society. For centuries, society’s most powerful—governments, wealthy organizations or individuals, and religious institutions—financially and politically supported universities, which led to the creation of countless inventions and solutions to the issues plaguing humankind. While the sponsorship from these powerful institutions made intellectual and scholastic progress possible, oftentimes it was these very same sponsors who suppressed academics and their ideas—because truth can be inconvenient and could challenge their authority or power.
Magna Charta therefore renewed the original idea of what universities are supposed to do and be protected from in order to maintain the sanctity of academic freedom. Magna Charta member universities pledge to stay true to that spirit, as this tension is hardly a thing of the past. Many university leaders I met at the Magna Charta event live in countries where the basic notions of academic and intellectual freedom are still challenged or even repressed, and it was through their eyes I realized that the privilege bestowed on faculty emanates from the foundational ideas of what a university stands for.
But how do we interpret these privileges and traditions in the modern era? How might we challenge some of the academic traditions from within? I touched on this in my earlier blog when I wrote about institutional isomorphism.
The Role of Academic Institutions—Research, Teaching, and Student Engagement
Another foundational idea embedded in the formation of universities is that the instructors who disseminate knowledge to students should be scholars themselves who actively engaged in knowledge creation and appropriation. This connection of knowledge creation and dissemination is not unique to the western ideas of a university; it has been found in almost every culture for thousands of years.
In a world of competing priorities and shrinking public resources, it is easy to lose sight of the university’s higher calling and the crucial role faculty play in it. Most public institutions in the U.S. proclaim a dual mission: advancing research for the public good and supporting student access, success, and social mobility. That is easier said than done, however, as faculty are pulled in many directions—making their time the scarcest resource on college campuses. A pragmatic question then is: How do we sustain the crucial connection between knowledge creation and dissemination in a world of scarce resources and heightened job demands?
In truth, the dual mission idea has its own pitfalls. It is well-known that far too many research universities accomplish this through a tiered system where research faculty focus on scholarship while (often contingent) teaching faculty focus on teaching; student engagement is left to professional staff. My preference, however, is to frame research and teaching as different sides of the same coin. I believe the best instructors are often active researchers and caring advisers. The passion and energy of inquiry can and should be brought into the classroom, as it is that passion which inspires students.
When Research and Teaching Are Sides of the Same Coin
While I spent most of my career at research-intensive universities, I was fortunate to experience at these same institutions a deep culture of high-quality teaching as well as high expectations for scholarly excellence. I know it can be done, and I appreciate the joy in doing so.
One of the approaches I embraced over the years was to incorporate teaching—not only for graduate but also undergraduate students—as part of my own process of inquiry. I learned that this approach works particularly well when you have highly motivated, smart undergraduate students. The term “undergraduate research” may conjure up images of students doing mindless chores, busy work in a professor’s lab, or literature surveys, but this need not be the case. Most of Baruch’s undergraduate students—who when they choose to pursue graduate studies often end up in the country’s premier graduate programs—are perfectly capable of high-intensity intellectual discovery when guided properly. The result is an absolute win-win: students are inspired by the excitement of knowledge discovery, while the faculty member has the ability to pursue their intellectual interest with the support they seek.
When I conducted my own systems engineering research, I regularly took undergraduates along on my field work, giving them the opportunity to participate in collecting data, observing processes and operations, and interviewing actors in the system. This connected them to real-world concerns that helped them make sense of what they learned in the classroom. I still remember the excitement in their eyes when it all started to “click.” Time and again, the students not only came up with keen observations and points of view I would have likely missed but also inspired a new and completely different set of research questions.
Later, I also had opportunities to implement these ideas at scale for thousands of students, which led me to believe that we should go beyond the notion of undergraduate research and other forms of experiential learning as merely cocurricular programs or activities, as is often the case. They should be an integral part of our knowledge creation, appropriation, and dissemination process.
Leveraging Different Branches of Human Knowledge
Since the landscape for knowledge acquisition has changed so dramatically, and branches of knowledge are vastly demystified and have become easily accessible, the paradigm of over-specialization that we have adopted for a good part of the past century should change, too. To start, we could enhance the static, often one-way knowledge dissemination by introducing a more dynamic, experiential approach of knowledge appropriation—learning to apply the right kind of knowledge to solve a problem of interest. As we do so, it will become immediately apparent that myriad tools can help us tackle our problem of interest—be it data science methodologies, narrative analysis in qualitative research, or principles of ethical behaviors—and offer different frameworks to organize our thinking and help us derive comprehensive insights and solutions. This process, in turn, provides a means for us to teach our students to leverage different branches of knowledge to understand and problem-solve the world around us, using what they have learned.
Most faculty members already use hands-on projects or research papers to enrich their pedagogy. Why not take it up a notch by challenging our students to cross-reference another subject area they are also studying and find elements that can be complementary, interconnected, and mutually reaffirming? Even better, what if faculty collaborate with colleagues to jointly design course materials or class projects to connect and thereby create their own platform for collaborative discovery?
Ultimately, this leads to knowledge creation and will directly impact faculty’s scholarly work. Why not share the ideas you are formulating for your next scholarly inquiry and invite your students to critique and ask questions? You’ll be surprised how insightful your students can be—once they are unleashed from a timid state of not knowing if they know enough—and how this can clarify your own thinking. Not only are you turning them into your intellectual partners, you are giving them the gift of seeing all facets of knowledge—even when ideas are still unstructured and messy. They will learn to challenge established concepts and, by doing so, add to the richness of our understanding.
Research, Teaching, and Academic Excellence
I am blessed with a successful academic career as a researcher, scholar, and teacher. And, yes, I believe a top-notch institution must be built on academic excellence with faculty who are actively engaged in pushing the frontier of knowledge. But I also believe in new ways of conceiving scholarship and teaching.
I like to think that a key role for a professor is to help students internalize what they learn. My students loved my “Thanksgiving-table test”—if you truly understand a complex concept, you should be able to explain it to your family at your Thanksgiving table as a captivating story. Just as an intrinsic understanding of a subject allows a scholar to think outside the box, be truly creative, and add to the knowledge base, I want my students to have the gift of that intuitive understanding—sometimes for the rest of their lives—and be able to unleash their own creativity and insights and add to humanity’s knowledge.
Perhaps our academic forebears figured out long ago that in teaching and research we are simply experiencing different facets of learning and that they are naturally complementary and mutually reinforcing—they are one and the same.