03/27/2013 11:13 am ET Updated May 27, 2013

Future Nostalgia in the Rush to Re-imagine the University

In the January 2013 issue of Science, Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin, contributed a brief, but poignant editorial on the potential for dramatic transformation in higher education. Libraries and traditional classrooms will disappear, he argues, as will faculty departments and tenure. Teaching will be consolidated as the best faculty transmit their wisdom worldwide through online distance learning. Given how few foresaw the collapse of the defense industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he entitled his article, "They Never Saw it Coming."

Actually, in academe many have. Cassandras are plentiful. There is quite a barrage of doomsday forecasts these days, fueled by the wake-up call of educational technology and the outcry over mounting student debt. While it took a century before we named the Industrial Revolution, we now like to declare revolutions before they've occurred. And I confess to have once contributed to this speculation, long before this was fashionable.

Back in 1997, when little education was conducted over the Internet, I coauthored (with David Boyd, in the International Journal of Value-Based Management) a fable on the "McDonaldization of Higher Education." Our fictional protagonist, Professor Van Winkle, wakes up after several decades of sleep to find that his university has merged into one of only five universities remaining in the world. He meets an instructor on his old campus, and the two debate the merits of this merger mania.

With the advent of online capability, schools joined forces, and only the most revered brand names were ultimately left standing. Their price wars forced a focus on student volume -- and each surviving institution grew into global McDonald's-like mega-universities. Publicly funded universities became irrelevant and disappeared as tuition rates plummeted. English became the lingua franca of this now worldwide commodity.

In this brave new world, these five mega-universities each operated out of a multinational corporate headquarters, where course designers merged the highest production values of education, entertainment, and technology -- grounded in sophisticated learning theory, and financed by major investments in quality courseware that standardized instruction across the globe. Former colleges and universities reverted to educational hubs that provided optional social amenities and teaching support. Like fries are to hamburgers, these campuses had become a voluntary supplement for students seeking more from their college experience.

But the opportunity for higher learning had now become universal -- affordable, accessible, and free of any barriers to entry.

Scholarship disengaged from teaching -- so that significant research dollars could be concentrated on those with the greatest potential for producing breakthroughs in their fields. Other faculty morphed into on-campus instructional support, or, when promoted, course developers at the corporate level of the organization. Instead of publishing research articles few would read, on topics few understood, they could now produce course content and learning and assessment tools that impacted millions.

Since that article, I have become far less confident in my prophetic ability, and far more impressed with the resilience of the modern university. I ask myself whether universities will be able to adapt and evolve, sustain their identities and status, and creatively find ways to ensure their survival. Or will there be a dramatic transformation of the modern college and university?

We seem to be at a crossroads, where costs cannot align with the public's ability and willingness to pay. Something has to give. Perhaps there will be a new organizational model that uncovers that killer combination of reputation, educational quality, and price. Perhaps this will then force changes in which only some institutions are able to compete and continue, and then only under very new conditions. Many other industries race towards consolidated, mega-enterprises through massive economies of scale that ultimately dominate their markets. Higher education, in contrast, has persisted through an uncoordinated maze of schools, in modes of instruction that have barely changed over centuries, each striving to ensure its own reason to exist.

But this industry might now be due for its turn. Higher education too might succumb to standardization and consolidation, so that expenses can be better managed -- and so students in all countries and communities, at all ages, and regardless of their economic circumstances, can take full advantage of a critical factor in their future success. Perhaps we can then debate -- as the quaint local college campus disappears -- whether we are better or worse off.