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How to Build a Better University

It’s time to move beyond the Utility U/Utopian U divide.

January 11, 2022

In 2015, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah contrasted two conceptions of higher education, Utility U, which focuses on career preparation and return on investment, and Utopian U, which seeks to prepare students for a life well lived. The latter centers on ideas, ideals, values and the intellectual life, and its goal is to promote human development and build a student’s soul.

No doubt about which side Appiah favored.

Around the same time, Gary Gutting, a fellow philosopher, wrote that the conflict between Utility U and Utopian U was a struggle between capitalist and noncapitalist values. In a capitalist society in which a college degree has become a job requirement, it’s not surprising that college should be regarded as a commodity, students treated as consumers to be coddled and entertained, and education viewed as be instrumental and transactional rather than critical, transformative and developmental.

Spoiler alert: Utility U triumphed over Utopian U.

But what if Appiah and Gutting are wrong to pit Utility U and Utopian U against one another?

Shouldn’t we aspire toward a higher education that combines the utopian and the utilitarian?

Punctuating the history of higher educating are repeated attempts to create educational utopias—institutions with radically innovative organizational structures, curricula and pedagogies, often accompanied by pathbreaking architectural designs.

These utopian experiments tend to resemble one another, eliminating departments, rejecting letter grades and disdaining an overspecialized curriculum, while aspiring to create closer student-faculty interactions.

The proposed University of Austin is only the most recent example of this utopian impulse, following in the recent footsteps of Minerva and Canada’s Quest University, but also of older utopian experiments at Black Mountain, Evergreen State, Eugene Lang, Goddard, Green Mountain, Hampshire, New College of Florida and Prescott.

At no time was the utopian impulse in higher education stronger than during the 1960s, when some 300 new “experimental” campuses were created, not just in the United States at UC Santa Cruz and SUNY’s College of Old Westbury, but worldwide, at Nanterre in France; Bielefeld, Bochum and Konstanz in West Germany; East Anglia, Essex, Keele and Sussex in Britain; and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In a few instances, these new campuses introduced truly fresh and enduring approaches to the curriculum—like women’s studies at Old Westbury and the “new” social history at Warwick. But over all, the story of educational utopias is the story of utopias in general: a rather depressing tale of misplaced hopes, broken promises and dashed dreams.

As a recent essay collection, Utopian Universities: A Global History of the New Campuses of the 1960s, edited by Miles Taylor and Jill Pellew, makes clear, radical visions of higher education ran aground repeatedly on the same shoals. These include students who craved a more traditional (and less demanding) college experience, faculty who prioritized research over teaching and mentoring, and legislatures that wanted scale and cost efficiency.

It’s a textbook example of the time-worn principle of regression toward the mean, driven by the twin forces of conformism and professionalism.

But there are other reasons why these utopian visions tend to fade, well described by Cambridge University’s Stefan Collini.

  • Too often, these experiments reflect academics’ visions of an ideal college education rather than addressing students’ real needs, interests and desires.
    It’s not surprising that leading academics, who often attended highly selective liberal arts colleges and elite research universities, try to recapitulate the aspects of those experiences that meant the most to them—their intellectual intensity and student-mentor intimacy—while jettisoning those elements they scorned, like Greek life and intercollegiate athletics.
  • For all their utopian aspirations, these institutions tend to buy into a series of assumptions that dominate elite American higher education.
    As Collini points out, many of these institutions were quick to dismiss any forms of education that reeked of the practical or the applied. Even more than traditional institutions, they gave precedence to the arts and humanities, often downplaying not just career-aligned fields, but science and mathematics. Not only did these educational utopians quickly adopt the accoutrements of traditional colleges and universities—crests, seals, mottoes and elaborate graduation ceremonies—but they stressed their institutions’ selectivity.

In other words, these educational utopias, much like the political and economic utopias described by Plato, Thomas More, Samuel Butler and Edward Bellamy, insert elements of the existing society (like slavery in More’s Utopia) into their seemingly radical alternatives.

If higher education is to thrive, it needs inspiring utopian visions and real-world alternatives to business as usual. After all, any of us who aren’t oblivious are well aware of our current system’s shortfalls. Not just the stratification of resources, the low completion rates, the protracted time to degree, the uncertain learning and employment outcomes, and the inexcusably high levels of student debt, but, even worse, the number of students who are disengaged and whose academic experience consists largely of alcohol- and drug-fueled socializing, hours of video game play, and hours devoted to paid work, interrupted periodically by cram sessions and all-nighters.

Alongside today’s neoliberal, instrumental and technocratic universities, we need institutions dedicated to empowerment, transformation and equitable outcomes. But that doesn’t require reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch.

There are ways, I insist, to do this cost-efficiently.

  1. Empower faculty to create cohort programs or learning communities within larger institutions. An existing honors college, typically organized around a great books curriculum, isn’t enough—and not just because these programs are exclusionary by design and generally narrow academically. While providing a model of how to combine sweeping interdisciplinary courses tackling big and enduring questions with rich extracurriculars, honors colleges fail to meet the full range of student interests, for example, in the arts, computer science, health care, public policy, scientific research or technology, among other fields.
  2. Scale experiential learning opportunities. Given the high costs of bad hiring decisions, today’s employers seek applicants with a record of practical work experience. As Ryan Craig has argued persuasively, it is increasingly possible to integrate work-related learning into many degree paths. In addition to tapping the emerging online marketplaces for work-related project opportunities (which can be incorporated into existing classes), a growing number of institutions are partnering with major employers (like North Florida’s collaboration with Optimum Healthcare) or using firms like Riipen to identify projects to match with undergraduates.
  3. Supplement the discipline-specific, course-centric curriculum with other kinds of learning experiences. There’s no particular reason why the lecture and the seminar should dominate the curriculum. A wide range of other educational models exist—including practicums, clinical courses, field-based learning, scaled undergraduate research, studio classes and maker opportunities—that many students find to be richer, more powerful and more engaging learning experiences.
  4. Create certificate programs to prepare students for the ongoing economic transformation. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Craig lists a range of skills in high demand that colleges and universities could teach, including Pardot, Marketo and Google Adwords for marketing; ZenDesk Plus for customer service; NetSuite and Financial Force for finance; Workday for HR; Salesforce for customer relationship management; and Epic for health-care administration—not to mention Access or Excel.

The word “utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place,” and it’s all too easy to dismiss utopian thinking as impractical and unrealistic and unviable. But we need utopian visions as sources of inspiration and spurs to innovation.

Without utopias to challenge convention, society is doomed to complacency and stagnation.

For three decades, the fall of Eastern European Communism undercut utopian thinking in politics, stifling efforts to create a more just and equitable society with costs that we are only now beginning to reckon with.

Within higher education, it took the threats posed by the for-profit universities, the MOOCs and the certificate-providing boot camps, as well as declining undergraduate enrollment, to awaken more traditional campuses to begin to address their deficiencies, but often in ways that did little to radically improve the actual academic experience.

We have it within our power to bridge the gap between Utility U and Utopia U. Let’s not allow inertia, inaction or a misguided belief that utopia is impractical, unworkable and unattainable from taking the realistic steps that can, in fact, bring educational utopia closer.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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