Blog Post

DH and "The Future of the Research University" -- from the De Lange Conference, Rice Univ

Further thoughts and longer posts to follow, but first a few initial impressions from the De Lange Conference VIII at Rice University:

After a long but inspiring day spent listening to former university presidents and other powers-that-be talking about “The Future of the Research University in a Global Age,” I can say that I feel pretty good about being a digital humanist. The obstacles and opportunities emphasized by speaker after speaker were precisely those that the digital humanities was invented to address (even though DH was never mentioned).

First, a word about the conference itself. (Website: http://delange.rice.edu.) You know a conference has high aspirations for itself when it’s counted with Roman numerals, as if it’s the Super Bowl. Conferences I through VII tackled topics like “Human Impact on the Environment,” “Frontiers of Medicine,” and “Transforming the Metropolis.” This year’s program is no exception. Today’s speakers included university presidents Amy Gutmann (UPenn), James Duderstadt (UMichigan), and Charles Vest (MIT), as well as John Seely Brown, former director of the Xerox PARC research center and HASTAC’s own Cathy Davidson.

Each speaker had very different interests and emphases, but a number of common threads emerged. These tended to revolve around the usual suspects of institutional crisis: rising costs and declining public support, we continue to be told, have created an unsustainable “business model” that threatens traditional liberal arts education by 1) eliminating less utilitarian fields and 2) pricing poor and middle-class students out of elite higher education entirely. Risk-averse institutions and isolated, “independent contractor” faculty have little incentive to change, thus ensuring that universities are slow to adapt to this changing economic environment. And political environment. Although few named specific names, the specters of No Child Left Behind, skeptical state legislatures, individual politicians that target universities polemically, from Rick Santorum to Barack Obama, not to mention the pervasive anti-intellectualism that masquerades as patriotism (which perhaps these university presidents are hearing from industry leaders?) filled the air under the frequently invoked phrase “problem of public perception.” These things are all pretty much bad, everyone seemed to agree.

But one challenge was repeated invoked as an opportunity: the challenge posed by digital communications. The conference’s emphasis on the “global” was interpreted by many to invoke the new information economy, in which the university would serve as a vital node of innovation within a broadly dispersed--indeed, global--field of information production. Brown referred to this, in a brief, even cryptic comment, as a “core-in-a-cloud” model, and Vest described the human result as “brain circulation” (in which ideas and people flow between the US, Europe, and Asia). As HASTAC readers would expect, Davidson emphasized the historical dimension of this shift, arguing for new educational models to adapt to the “4th Information Age.” There were ample calls for curricular development and new courses to take advantage of digital tech (Davidson, Brown, and Zemsky); for interdisciplinarity (Gutmann, especially);  for open-source education (Vest); and for collaborative research and teaching. Indeed, what was most striking to me was the emphasis on teaching. In a seminar focused on the “research university,” there was a powerful but unspoken consensus that its future will be realized in the classroom (as well as in the library and on the web).

I will follow up soon with a more detailed discussion of the presentations given by John Seely Brown and Charles Vest. But I’ll say here:

If this is The Future of the Research University in a Global Age, the digital humanities will have an important role to play.

Follow the De Lange Conference on Twitter at #delange8.

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