Emily Levine Asks: If Colleges Are Dismantled – What Will be the Impact on Their Cities?

Dear Commons Community,

Emily J. Levine, an associate professor of modern European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has a commentary in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education asking the question if colleges are unbundled and become essentially Internet-based services, what will this mean to their cities and communities. It is an interesting question.  She bases much of her article on the higher education disruption position of  observers such as Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig, and Anant Agarwal, who have predicted that online technology will make many colleges obsolete as education moves to a smorgasbord of electronically available courses thereby reducing the need for a physical campus or place.  Levine is right in challenging their position. She states:

“…the university has an additional purpose that is missing in these conversations and that historically played a central role — service to surrounding communities and cities. In fact, history provides a valuable lesson about what might happen if the university’s services were unbundled. And it shows that this central feature of the university would be lost — along with the local economic and cultural benefits that the university provides — if it were to be dismantled.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, even as the world became more interconnected, ascendant universities remained embedded in the cities that promoted them and benefited from their successes. From the last quarter of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, the fortunes of universities often rose or fell with the ability of their presidents to maintain relationships with their communities. Community support positioned a university for global prominence…

Notwithstanding the prognostications of disruption, the twin forces of globalization and MOOCs have not felled the university. And in fact studies show that online programs draw a majority of enrollments from students who live less than 100 miles from the college. The local has persisted for the economic as well as cultural benefits that universities offer their communities.

The risk of unbundling is that nobody knows what held the package together, and the value it offered, until it begins to unravel. However, history reminds us that the university is more than the sum of its parts. In our efforts to achieve the goals of access and efficiency we should protect our campuses and our communities, or we might actually lose that crucial thread to the past.”

As I argue in my recent book, Online Education Policy and Practice:  The Past, Present and Future of the Digital University, Levine is correct in her position at least for the foreseeable future.  But at some point, more advanced technology will evolve based on artificial intelligence and brain-machine interfaces that will radically change much of human endeavor including higher education.  The need for central places will change accordingly.



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