Fifteen years ago, Peter Drucker and others began to predict the demise of the physical campus. It was to become yet another relic of an era bypassed by technology.
Yet today it is hard to find anyone who thinks his or her own undergraduate campus will cease to be. It is as if these places will go on forever. Can this be right?
At recent SCUP conference at the University of Illinois, I asked attendees to tell me why their campus will or will not exist in 2040. Only one said their campus would disappear - as it morphed into a “multi-purpose and dynamic innovation/business and research park”.
All the rest said their campus would survive – at least until 2040. The reasons fell into four categories.
Too big to fail – The value of history, brand and tradition is significant; at least in the eyes of those who are alums. There is no doubt in the inertia created by generations of investment and reinvestment. This pattern creates loyalty and a relatively high profile in the competition for attention and funding.
These major institutions are like aircraft carriers, very hard to sink and very hard to turn. Making even the most modest of adjustments takes a very long time and by its nature is disruptive. For example, continuation of existing, but withering programs may contribute to the breadth an institution but it also decreases the funds available for reinvestment. Yet these programs usually have constituencies that argue for retention and fight changing priorities.
Enough demand – “There will always be a demand for the experience it offers.” This is a business argument. The market is taken to be big enough and selective enough to allow continued survival - whether by the location, academic reputation, marketing prestige or campus ambiance. This theory will be tested as the percentage of traditional 18 to 22 year-olds continues to drop over the coming years, even if the cost of that experience is some how stabilized.
Adaptable enough - Some see their undergraduate institution as being nimble enough to respond to a changing environment. Either through leadership or access to resources, many believe survival beyond 2040 will lie in the ability to adapt rather than “…keep things the way they are.”
Unique mission – Those from smaller private schools believe their campus will survive through the uniqueness of their mission - their founding reason for being in the first place. Of the four categories, this alone makes an argument that survival will lie in the realm of values, in the concept that something is being accomplished beyond a business proposition. We can hope that this idealism survives but it is less than certain.
Perhaps all of the attendees were right. Their institutions will survive. Maybe it is only those schools that are not big enough, unique enough, desirable enough and adaptable enough that will not make it to 2040.
Forever is an implicit assumption in every institution’s mission statement. This belief in a survivable future runs so deeply that least one attendee thought the changes now underway were just another pendulum swing. Her campus “will change its priorities to meet the changing needs of students, but the pendulum will swing back to face to face interaction.”
I do not see the future of higher education allowing a return to an exclusively pre-digital information age. I see a ‘both/and’ world. There will be increasing reliance on digital educational formats. And there will be retention of traditional face-to-face interaction, but only when it actually adds value to the student. Sorting out this balance will not take forever.