Monday, July 12, 2010

The Social University

Prisons are the Universities of Crime, critics say. And yet there are no formal classes, Gotti never taught advanced Racketeering in Marion Penitentiary, and I don't imagine Bernie Madoff lecturing in Hedge Fund Management at Butner. So how are prisons so effective at turning first time crooks into hardened criminals, and what does it tell us about Universities?

Universities and Prisons are both social institutions, where peer to peer interaction with your fellow inmates, and the overall environment exert a far stronger affect than often distant, formal interactions with the staff.

Universities spend most of their time, money and staff focusing on the teaching experience, but a disproportionate amount of the influence a University has on it's inmates happens outside of lecture hours. New undergraduates are pitched into a vast pool of people and must sink or swim. Like baby turtles stumbling towards the sea, they must find their way quickly, and relationships formed at the outset can last decades. I'm still good friends with a person I happened to be standing beside in the registration queue almost 20 years ago. Like many of my peers, I met my spouse in University.

Three or four years of University, following a schedule that is busy, but not crushing, students form deep, sustainable relationships with people who will be their spouses, colleagues and friends for decades. In the 21st century, this matters more, not less. In the old days, people would work in one job for decades, and have time to form equally deep linkages and networks. Those days are gone. People work short contracts of a year or two, they move houses and countries. Three or four years as an undergraduate may be the longest static spell in people lives until their own children start school.

The building of these social networks is of conventional tertiary education's 'killer apps'. The capacity to draw large groups of young people together for extended periods of time is something competitors cannot do. High intensity programmes, compressing a four year degree into two frantic years are certainly possible. They'll be cheaper, and perhaps even better academically, but no one attending them is going to have time to talk to each other, let along make friends with them, get drunk with them, or fall in love with them. Online programmes can't compete at all in building this kind of social capital. Even in the Facebook age, humans are still monkeys in jeans. We need to be able to make eye contact, shake hands, slap backs. We cannot love those we cannot smell.

Just like prisons, peer pressure in Universities reinforces and amplifies behavior patterns far more effectively than the staff can. People with at least moderate academic inclinations enter the system and slush around in it for a while. Those who cannot sustain it are removed from the pile, they flunk out, cut away and shunned from the social group they were only halfway through building. For every one that falls away, another dozen take note and align a bit better with the expected patterns of behaviour for proto doctors, engineers or whatever. The final product is both distilled by losses and aligned by peer pressure.

Conventional Universities ignore all this at their peril. Student groups often get the tail end of the budget and attention. There are bright points, most Universities fete their sports teams, but that's only a tiny fraction of the student body. Little thought is given on how to structure the organisation to promote building this social capital. It happens largely by accident, taken for granted. The student social experience should get equal billing with the academic experience. It's one thing the competition can't do better, faster or cheaper.

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