Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: A University for the 21st Century

"A University for the 21st Century" is a thoughtful and thorough book, detailed and well considered, although it let's itself down by making a fascinating topic seem somewhat dull.

I had high hopes for this book. The author, was President of the University of Michigan for 12 years, and has clearly thought and researched deeply on the subject.

In terms of content, the book did not disappoint. While focused very much on the top end research University, Duderstadt had a clear grasp of the big issues. Even technological trends which had not yet taken form when he wrote (like Personal Learning Environments and the importance of online social networks) he seems to have been able to smell coming in the wind. His writing is detailed and thorough - the author is an Engineer by training, and it shows. The work feels like a textbook. The issues are dissected with considerable clarity - his chapter on resources and funding is a particularly clear primer on this currently hot topic.

I found the picture he presented of a high end US university interesting. From a European perspective it's easy to miss the fact that many US institutions own and operate substantial teaching hospitals, which are often themselves as large as the University itself, and are very significant health care providers. On the other side, they also operate football and basketball teams which attach huge followings and media attention. For Irish readers, imagine if University College Cork (my local) owned and operated the Cork University Hospital (currently, the connection is nominal, the hospital is state run despite the name) while also managing the Cork Senior Hurling and Football teams. The diversity and complexity of the task is daunting.

For a book written a decade ago, it's aged well. Even the technology chapter, which you might expect to be weak given the time it was written, clearly maps the same kinds of longer term trends I've written about here. Other trends, like the idea of Open Content, he certainly grasped as a general implication of the internet, even if he did not predict them in any detail (who could).

Duderstadt, alas let's himself down in the writing. Perhaps my limited attention span has simply atrophied beyond use, but the book to me reads too much like a textbook. In his forward, the author expressed the hope that the book would interest a mass audience. It will not. There are fairly well established ways of making non fiction compelling and accessible (use of narrative, personal anecdote and so forth), and Duderstadt employs none of them. Something about his writing gave me a compelling urge to get up and make tea a paragraph in. There is never a good reason to start a paragraph with 'Furthermore', as he often does. It's a pity, as it made it harder work than it needed to be, and will have greatly narrowed his readership and influence.

If your library has it, I'd recommend taking a look at it, but it will be a book to lean forward and study with coffee, rather than lean back to read with a Christmas drink. If your interest is casual, you might skip it, but if you are involved in the management of higher education at any level, the book is mandatory and will repay careful study.

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