No. Instead, they are about creating connections and spaces for thinking and growing — otherwise they truly would be easily replaceable by online streams and Wikipedia articles. In short, I don’t believe universities (in their best form, at least) are easily replicated by technological means of information dissemination. But despite the advantages their physicality and tradition offers, many universities have tended to see themselves as simply the means to fill students up with information, stick an “approved” stamp on them, and send them out into the world:
As institutions of higher learning seek ways to economize by eliminating and devaluing the spaces of learning that have been so central to “the University,” they are coming to resemble exactly what Dan Brown sees in them — exchange sites of information, marketplaces easily replaced by much cheaper flows of information accessed on the internet. As they pack more students into lecture halls and fill the rosters of on-line classrooms, universities save billions of dollars in the short run, but diminish the value of their degrees.
If universities continue like this, the only value they have to add (over cheaper alternatives) is the “approved” stamp of a recognizable brand. But this will only last so long until their cuts cheapen the brand and alternative competitors begin to increase their own brand value.
Most faculty recognize this. Most students do too. Even most university administrators have a sense of this, but feel like there is little they can do in the face of constant budget cuts and crises. Well, what else specifically can those who actually set university policy actually do in the face of economic crisis and state budget cuts?
Perhaps there is not much that can be done except to hold on and evangelize the importance of the university as a public space — and to remember the importance of less-measurable aspects of a university education, like the humanities, when making cuts.
More optimistically, perhaps it doesn’t matter what administrators do. The university has unique attributes — historical and physical — that are not shared by other forms of information sharing. This uniqueness may well make universities as institutions more resilient than we may otherwise expect. I hope so.