Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Mission

What are Universities for? Humans are tool using primates. What kind of tool is a University, and what sets it apart from the other tools in the box.

There seems to be two answers to this. One is Utilitarian, what we use Universities for, and the other Idealistic, their self defined mission. To the utilitarian, we chiefly use universities to educate us and test our mettle so we can compete with the all the other tool using primates for jobs, spouses and so forth. At a larger scale, we also use them as general purpose knowledge factories, coming up with useful tools for our future and insights into our past.  I've written from this viewpoint extensively before and am somewhat partial to it, so I won't repeat myself.

The Ideal, as I understand it, is that Universites create and spread learning. 'Where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn" as goes the motto of my alma mater. By research they learn things no one knows yet. By teaching, they help students learn things they don't know yet. It's a passionate, messianic mission, to be a flamethrower of knowledge, setting the world ablaze.

The two answers don't really align all that well, (and both leave out other things, for the sake of clarity) but neither answer is wrong. This isn't arithmetic. The real world is messy. We can hold misaligned, conflicting ideas in our head and put them all to good use.

I was recently doing some thinking on behalf of a training company. Their mission is very different to the Universities, and very clear. They must make money. If the owner felt his capital and talents would be more profitable making biscuits instead of training, then to the kitchen he would go. Profit, in the near and longer term, is the measure of success. It's lovely, sure, that everyone enjoys the work and learns things, but that is secondary. The profit makes creating and protecting something of commercial value central. You need great teaching materials, and you need to protect their copyright. You need good trainers, and you need to deliver learning in a way you can bill for. The learning is a little candle, an arc welder. Hot and bright, perhaps, but kept somewhat hidden, except for paying customers.

True Universities are not for profit. Because the language of business leaks over, their leaders often forget that. Business Minded Managers, trotting out outdated MBA speak and talking about the balance sheet rise to the top, which spawns Reactionary Idealists in the ranks, who forget the mundane, utilitarian purpose on which to which their light of learning must shine, and frown on incursions of the practical. The language and ideas of business can be a powerful tool to make Universities work better, but the bottom line is different.

One of the really great things about the open educational resources movement (OER) is that is makes sense only when you remember The Mission, and sounds insane when you think you are a business. It's like a litmus test. Do you make all your teaching material available to the general public? If you are a for profit training company, no way. If your mission is to spread learning as much as possible, then, yes, obviously. How could you not. If it isn't good enough to share, it isn't good enough to teach with. Do you publish your research in expensive journals read by the few, or make it free for all to read? If your mission is to spread learning, it's a no brainer. It has to reach the widest audience. Are you wary of putting your teaching up on Youtube? So you should be, if you are in it for profit. You would only put up a sample of the good stuff, for marketing. Not for profit? Put every last minute of it online. St. Paul would have used a creative commons licence for his letters if he had one to hand, and so should you.

Universities need to keep the lights on and pay the wages, but that's a means to an end, not the end in itself. If they could make the light of learning blaze the brighter without those things, they should. A University balance sheet belongs closer to bankruptcy than any private business could bear. Training companies turn knowledge into cash. Universities turn cash into knowledge. Both should maximise the conversation ratio, using all means at their disposal, and neither should finish the year holding much stock.

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