(Deep breath. Exhale. I’ve got this. It’s a solid talk. They cheered in the practice last night.)

“Please welcome, Dr. Jacob Leachman!” (applause)

(Wow the lights are a LOT brighter. My knees feel like springboards. Opening lines…)

(Ok, advance the slide. Didn’t advance. Advance the slide again. It’s not working. Point the advancer directly at the control table. Ok, barely.)

(Damn. Everything worked during practice. It’s not last night, but it’ll work.)

(Now play the video… long pause. F***! The video crashed the computer. Nope, it’s playing, just f***ed up.)

(Ok, that was enough. They’ll stop me and have me start over. Getting close to the end now. Anytime… Nope.)


Hence my first TED-x talk aptly named, in retrospect, “The Future of Universities is…” For those of you following on-line you can watch the extensively edited version for yourself here:

The premise of the talk is simple — Universities have ran with a model for education that’s now over 150 years old. As technology and society continue to advance, we’re approaching a phase change that’s fundamentally challenging the model. However, there are clues to how this change will evolve already within the university and in an unlikely place: the financial and engagement juggernaut that is collegiate athletics. I’m not talking about the games athletics plays, I’m talking about how they play them — in open collegial competition with peers supported by their communities. When we do, students have awesome, career defining experiences that we all want to watch. Until we academics figure that out, athletics is likely to keep sucking up more university and alumni donations. Check it out.

Many of the students that participated in the competitions and teams I setupwent on to dream jobs as a direct result of their experiences. Many still write me regularly and thank me. The statistics show that compared to my regularly classes, it’s these team-based intensive experiences that lead to follow on discussions. These are indicators of what I’ve learned to know as the “University Experience”.

“The University Experience”

Back when I was an undergraduate engineer, one of my mentors asked me, “Jake, what do you think the University is about?” I told him the degree. He sighed and proceeded to change me forever, “It’s about the University Experience — a fundamental change in how you act and behave that creates an expectation to use your new values and connections to help society.” A fundamental change. A right of passage.  A definitive experience.

But really… Is packing us all together in a dorm or house, ramping up the pressure with a singular goal of a degree/title, with the promise of higher pay and more connections really indicative of phase change?

Let’s break it down with the Gibbs energy — the classic property describing phase change.  Remember, if the change in Gibbs energy (G2-G1) is negative, thermodynamics says phase change will spontaneously occur.

G = U + Pv -TS

U: In the university your objective is simple — get a degree. Get value to add back through work for society. Often I see new freshman come in wanting to help the world in a myriad of ways only to realize the difficulty of getting very good at just one thing. U2 is definitely less than U1 coming in.

P: You don’t have all decade to doddle. It’s a competitive environment for grades. GPA is still the supreme metric. The only thing between you and that A is some old dude in a cardigan. But he’s smart, cantankerous, and had plenty more like you over your lifetime. You don’t know what he’ll ask on the exam. Stress through the roof. Want relief? Graduate.

v: Pack you into the dorm, apartment, house, or classroom. You’ll need eachother to survive. Volume goes way down at V2 as density goes way up.

T: “All you need to do to make money in life is get a degree.” — say too many college recruiters. While true to an extent, you can see this is one of many things that need to happen. Yet this dangling carrot is enough to enlist the masses. The promise of T2 being higher than T1.

S: Nowhere else are you going to experience more diverse views, skill sets, and diverse ways to address problems than Universities. Everyone remembers their college room mates. Especially when they need a job or connection later in life. S2 higher than S1.

Is the University Experience conducive to phase change? Do we really do our time, sweat, and tears to eventually emerge from our scholarly chrysalis, unfurling our diplomas, magically changed into a beautiful graduate? When done right it might be physical law.

What hinders this phase change? Having to keep the competing values of family and job together while you get the degree. Grade inflation such that anyone can drift through — or bell curve grading such that only 20 % succeed. On-line classes where you don’t actually come together to meet. Unbearable debt when you graduate. Sticking to the books and never connecting with your peers. Remember that phase change can still happen despite some of these occurrences (remember that thermodynamics is a statistical process).

Given the current trends, it’s no wonder the Academy is under attack. We’re loosing our definitive role — our ability to positively change society. Not only is this playing out on the individual level, but, as my TED-x talk alluded, at the entire university level. As the pressure continues to mount, the driving forces for universities to evolve will increase. The question is whether this change will be for the better or worse.

“The Future of Universities is…” — revisited

As soon as I finished my talk, one of my good friends pointed out that I didn’t get into the underlying structures and mechanisms for why the athletics model is better. He was right. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough time to get into it. Let’s break it down as the dual value and empathy problem starting with the current v-Meme stack of US Universities:

Tribal: Go _______! Every university that I know of has a magical mascot and fight song. The Greek and Dinner club systems are another hallmark of this v-Meme.

Authoritarian: This is the classic mode of instruction. A “sage on the stage” professor telling the students what to do and how. We’re thankfully, and finally starting to get away from this lecture model. However, every group within the university still needs “somebody in charge” and a chain of command to follow.

Legalistic/Absolutistic: Every discipline has it’s classic texts that provide the best processes and procedures. Pass the exam. Right versus wrong. Universities typically require following the chain of command and state codes.

Performance: This usually comes in the form of a “Capstone design” exercise where students have to demonstrate they can perform on their own for a real client. In science and engineering this happens once in 4 years. In the performing arts this can happen as often as every 4 days or months — no wonder they really perform.

Communitarian: If you do well as a student you get invited into a professional community and resources for your group or organization to steward.

Systemic: If you do really well you gain control over a group and have to steward the diverse elements of the system for it’s continued existence.

Remember that an organization as big and diverse as a University has an incredible value v-Meme stack, and it’s the distribution among these v-Memes that matters. If you had to weight the percentage of time that most of us work on which values, probably 66% of our effort is expended at the Authoritarian-Legalistic/Absolutistic level. This makes sense as the physical system structure is a tree-like hierarchy. The internet has allowed many forward thinking IT companies to move into flatter-system structures at the Performance-Communitarian-Systemic levels. This is troubling because few examples exist of organizations that were able to evolve away from tree-like structures — they usually have to die off and be replaced by new organizations that began with flatter management systems. We’ve known about these issues for a long time but seem unable to adapt. As prescient childhood development sage Maria Montessori wrote of the Academy in her 1948 book:

“The desire to work as little as possible, to pass the exams at all costs, and to obtain the diploma that will serve each person’s individual interests has become the essential motive common to the students. Thus academic institutions have become decadent as the progress of culture has transformed man’s existence. True centers of progress have been established in the laboratories of the scientific researchers. They are closed places, foreign to the common culture. The general decadence of the schools noted in our day does not come from a lessening of the instruction given to the students but from a lack of concordance between the organization of the schools and today’s needs. The material bases of civilization have changed to the point where they announce the beginning of a new civilization. In this critical period of human history, the very life of men needs to adapt afresh. And it is here that the problem of education is to be found.”

So, avoiding the question of how for now, what would a modern university with a performance-communitarian-systemic dominant v-Meme stack look like? A heavy dose of real world experience is the key. In short, you would get up in the morning to work on the fundamentals, by the afternoon you are designing/building/improvising, and in the evening networking with community/constituents/clients. Specific examples applied to my institution/department are here and here.

Real-community/world clients is the hallmark of what is known as problem/experiential based learning and a struggling trend in education. No longer are we doing arbitrary exercises in some textbook that have been solved 1000’s of times by competing students. If we are going to expend collective effort as a class, we will accomplish something for our community taxpayers and constituents by doing so. Students can’t float through a class, everybody has something real that needs to be delivered — and perform — in order for the team and university to succeed. Bell-curves are no longer essential — you either deliver to specification or not. By returning this value to our regional companies and patrons, they are more likely to fund and partner with us. Students are more likely to be engaged as they empathize with the needs of real people they are connected to. Students end up being specifically trained in the ways our companies need them trained. Professors become master matchmaking coaches. This system evolves, and is naturally size-constrained, by the company and community constituents.

Many whom I describe this future to immediately point to the lack of regional and state support for institutions. To some degree it is a chicken or the egg problem. The vast majority of institutional support is indeed coming from the federal government, which often exacerbates the community connection problem. However, if we had strong regional partnerships we should have a stronger support base and network to win increasingly competitive federal grants. The more we rely on these federal grants and student tuition as our primary resource streams, the more un-sustainable and disconnected our university becomes to the region and constituents with which it serves. No wonder everyone just goes to MIT to get their problems solved. When you don’t have connections, you just pick number 1. It’s an empathy problem.

The More Empathic University

Imagine a future where students are sought after in high-school based on their actual performances and skills in real world activities and offered scholarships to apply those skills to real-world problems. A university recruiter asks what problem the student wants to solve in the world, looks at what opportunities/projects are in the pipeline, and builds a team, often years in advance to address the problem. That team could solve just the problem for a regional company or constituent, or compete to solve grand challenge problems against other institutions. The drop out rate of students funded in collegiate scholarships is much better than the student body at large.

Professors, now as coaches, get out and recruit students. They tell stories of real achievement in the face of adversity instead of hanging more journal papers that nobody reads on a wall. They really need to know their team. Professors know the company clients and train students to specifically get into the pros. Professors become names discussed at the dinner table after major accomplishments.

Companies will realize that universities provide better return on investment due to volunteer support. Even graduate students are cheaper. It’s not as far out of a concept as you’d think. European graduate students are often directly funded by local industry or consortium.

Looking back at our Gibbs Energy equation for phase change. The future of universities is likely to drive that transformative experience even more than our current approach. The focus is clear: succeed. The pressure is real, not fabricated. The teaming is more intense. The resources are more likely to flow in during the junior and senior years. Connections will be forged on many levels. Empathy will be the key to the Future of Universities. We need to start the dialogue on every level. Exchange people and roles. Understand each other. And fast.

Is the K-12 feeder system not prepared to deliver students for this new future? Collegiate athletics crowd-sourced it’s entire feeder system. No surprise, most athletic conferences now have their own TV channels. When the conditions are right and we promote, instead of inhibit, phase change spontaneously occurs. We just have to accept that the future is not what we are doing now, there are other ways of being.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/dr-jacob-leachman/ )