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David Staley believes the university's future has yet to be determined.

While punditry about higher education suggests otherwise, said Staley, director of the Humanities Institute and an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, the academy has the power to imagine a different future from the headline-grabbing innovations of online learning, upskilling and mega-university models.

“Ours is a particularly fertile moment to imagine something new,” he said to a packed room Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington.

Staley and others were discussing what the “college of the future” might look like. Johann Neem, chair of the history department at Western Washington University, said a key piece of that imagining is to separate the academy from the university.

“Instead of the universities getting rid of professors, what if we got rid of the university?” Neem said.

People have an innate curiosity and desire to learn and build a community, he said, which is why they go to yoga studios and join book groups. What if the academy set up shop in a similar fashion?

“We're afraid that, unless there’s a credential with a degree, nobody’s going to want to learn from me,” said Neem, author of the recently published book What's the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (Johns Hopkins University Press). “We insult people when we pretend that the only way they’re going to develop their intellect is because we force them to.”

To create something new, higher education will inevitably have to change. One piece is the departmentalization of college campuses, which Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of digital humanities and an English professor at Michigan State University, said is one reason university structures today are quite rigid.

Instead, Fitzpatrick said universities should be looking for ways to convene groups who are interested in particular issues, an approach that doesn’t align with departments.

Chad Wellmon, professor of German studies at the University of Virginia, said a “college corporate body” should give faculty members the responsibility of creating curricula, rather than pushing strategies like student-centered learning.

Staley said students seem to want an ability to design majors around an idea rather than a specific department. For example, one of his students said he is interested in happiness, which doesn’t have its own department but has been examined by philosophers, psychologists, writers and more.

And, while “breaking down silos is great,” he said faculty members then go back to their departments, where they are promoted and seek tenure.

Technology inevitably will be a factor in the future of higher education, but the panelists cautioned attendees against using it in the wrong way.

“I get super, super nervous when developers of technology like extended reality start talking about technology as an easy path to empathy,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can step into somebody else’s shoes in [virtual reality], but you’ve still got your own feet.”

While people often point to literature and reading as a way to build empathy, Fitzpatrick said that ability actually is developed in the discussion of reading, where people wade through what the words meant and how they each read it differently. She added that “shortcuts” to building community don't exist.

And the absence of such communities is a problem now, the panelists said. The future, Neem said, should center on how to build communities around shared pursuits of knowledge, and then upward from there.

Wellmon shared a similar vision, adding that "the academy is in a precarious position" right now, so protecting it -- through writing, teaching and researching -- is his focus.

“I’m no longer in the business of defending the university,” Wellmon said. “I'm here to defend and argue for the academy.”

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