Repositioning the Polytechnic University

More “poly” or more “technic”?

July 15, 2015

There was a bit of attention in IHE recently to the idea of a “Polytechnic University” as an element in rethinking institutional strategic position – and not all of it was positive. The transformation of Purdue University’s College of Technology was one development highlighted. The new polytechnic focus includes a wide range of elements, including more integrated and competency-based learning, a student experience with stronger connections between their majors and humanities courses and a new degree program in Transdisciplinary Studies in Technology.

Meanwhile, the University of Akron was also part of the story, based on a speech by its President suggesting the university could develop a stronger strategic position as “Ohio’s polytechnic university” (but without a change in name). The value of this potential strategic position for the university did not go unchallenged: concerns were expressed about this particular strategy as diminishing some parts of the institution and as being difficult to communicate as a step forward for the university, as well as more generic doubts about the university’s need to achieve a stronger strategic position at all.

Re the last concern: the challenge to develop an institution’s distinctive excellence for a successful strategic position has been discussed in this space before. For those of us in public systems of higher education, we need to serve as a magnet for attention and respect beyond our region or state while also maintaining our focus on the particular higher education needs of our home base. Part of that distinctive excellence could come from stellar research – whether applied or more fundamental – in specific areas, but for the whole institution to flourish we need to think as well about a strategic position in which all programs can participate and benefit.

As to the benefits and costs of developing a strategic position as a polytechnic university (or as a part of the university upholding and extending values from the polytechnic tradition), I’m sure there are lots of other local issues about context and process that factor into the situations at Akron and Purdue. But it’s important to the discussion for us to look forward to the way institutions across all the sectors in higher education are evolving to address new opportunities and constraints, rather than just looking backward at the past. Polytechnic Universities can also evolve to enrich and deepen their mission as a special kind of university ‒ not a diminished one ‒ without leaving behind the distinctive values of the polytechnic tradition at its best.

Let’s take a quick historical look at what those distinctive values have been, and then explore how extending those values into a new distinctive excellence for polytechnic universities could support them as globally exemplary strategic assets for their regions and sectors.

Looking Backward: The Rise of Polytechnic Universities
The term polytechnic (in English at least) arose in the 19th century as a description for an institution of learning that aggregated or integrated training in several trades or technical domains. As a minimum, bringing together various trade schools provided the critical mass for a sustainable institutional infrastructure; at its best, the integration of various trades built interconnections from which new trades and technologies could emerge. As the economy evolved to enable a broader range of technology-related knowledge and professional careers, most polytechnics (and other technology-oriented institutions of learning) evolved to prepare students for work requiring a broader and deeper knowledge base. 

In addition to the traditional base of practical and craft knowledge, students learned more conceptual and scientific knowledge – and ways to apply it as professionals. For example, Polytechnics Canada provides on its website a characterization of polytechnic education that highlights a combination of critical thinking with theoretical understanding and practical competence. 

The term Polytechnic University began to emerge into wider use later, to indicate the addition of scholarly knowledge to this mix, with institutions including advanced degrees and faculty research with a focus on the Scholarship of Application for their domain. But there was – and is – considerable ambiguity around the label. Some polytechnic universities eventually dropped the “polytechnic” modifier altogether as they moved beyond – or away from? – their historical roots, while others retained the term but also evolved in different ways, e.g., toward becoming a “top-tier technological research university”. And we had a couple of cases in my home region where the opposite happened: the “university” label was added either in front of or behind an existing title so that the college or institute label could also be retained. 

So a technical institute can prepare students with the more practical knowledge developed through experiential learning, but seldom emphasizes multiple kinds of knowledge or ways of knowing. A university can develop a full breadth of knowledge, but often regards craft knowledge as a stepping stone to the more valued knowledge with a conceptual and theoretical base. In principle, a polytechnic university ‒ that does not value or privilege one of these ways of knowing over others ‒ could be uniquely positioned to more fully support learners in developing, integrating and valuing different ways of knowing and learning in their own practice (as students and as practitioners). In institutions that choose this emphasis as part of distinguishing themselves strategically, these different forms of knowledge are all valued and there is at least some integration across ways of knowing. 

More “Poly” or More “Technic”?
This reading of historical developments highlights one of the choices in becoming a polytechnic university, whether in startup mode ‒ as a new institution or a new campus ‒ or in stretching mode from an existing strategic position. Some may choose to go more technic with a stronger focus on STEM disciplines – a possibility that was a major concern amongst stakeholders at Akron; others may choose to go more poly with a stronger focus on different ways of knowing, learning and doing linked by an “interconnected set of values, traditions, and learning practices”. (And some, of course, may just go for “more” ‒ disciplines or degrees ‒ without considering what may be lessened in the process…) 

Going this more poly route appears to be what was intended at Akron, as it addresses the leadership’s commitment for the new direction to apply “as much to dance choreography as it does to polymer science and engineering”. It allows a Polytechnic University to build on the heritage of valuing different ways of knowing with additional depth of both scholarship and integration. Here is my own ‘work-in-progress’ conception of what this might mean: 

  • A polytechnic university education develops, integrates and values 
  • a full range of knowledge and ways of knowing 
  • within a subject domain and about ourselves, 
  • incorporating craft, professional and conceptual knowledge. 

The important element in this conception is the idea of integrating and valuing a wide range of ways of knowing. Note that there is no mention here of ‘applied’ knowledge – any of these types of knowledge can be applied to practical challenges. And as noted in Kurt Lewin's epigrammatic paradox, it can also be true that “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory”. 

Looking Forward: A Special Kind of University (Not a Diminished One)
Forward-looking conceptions of a Polytechnic University along these lines will have roots in the polytechnic tradition and wings to go beyond it. It could help us to define an achievable and valuable strategic position of distinctive excellence for our institution, identifying where we are – and will be – especially good at achieving particular outcomes for our stakeholders (as well as why and how). That could be our best route forward in providing exemplary service to our community members and in justifying high quality support and resources for our institution. 

Achieving a position of strategic excellence in this way requires more than a statement of distinctive values. Success will require an institutional commitment to living these values in our own practices for teaching and learning, scholarship and service. For external stakeholders, we will want to be able to continue high quality achievement across the range of expected learning outcomes for higher education while demonstrating exemplary achievement on particular outcomes aligned with our strategy (especially in emerging areas where we can establish a leadership position). 

Internally, a polytechnic university committed to developing, integrating and valuing different forms of knowledge ‒ craft knowledge, the professional wisdom of practitioner communities and evidence from research ‒ can immerse students in these values: our institutional culture around knowledge and its mobilization will have at least as much impact as the details of our curriculum and programming. We need to ask ourselves how our practice as teachers and scholars exemplifies for students the ways of engaging with knowledge that they will want to – and need to – employ in their own professional careers (and in their roles as community members and global citizens). 

More on this in a follow-on post… 

(I’ve focused here on the way polytechnic universities are evolving in North America. I hope readers will comment on how similar ideas can be applied – or not – elsewhere, to other sectors with Universities of Technology or other variants on the theme.) 

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada (where a number of colleagues have collaborated on elaborating these ideas). Tom is a former Associate Vice-President at the University of Waterloo, and has been a project leader and visiting scholar for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the California State University Office of the Chancellor and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.


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