Bursting the ‘Reality Bubble’

Safely tucked away in idyllic and pastoral small-town America, shielded from the harsh realities of life in an unforgiving world, it is altogether too easy for us to believe that we live in uneventful times. While students undertake timeworn trials and ragged rituals in order to be elevated to the economic elect, as have countless thousands before, it is only natural to lose oneself in Colgate’s own “reality bubble”; like most universities, its very own hermetically sealed causal system, set adrift. Despite the chimeric allure of this sheltered academic life, the past twenty-five years have forcefully demonstrated, time and again, that those organizations and institutions which will not anticipate and adapt to the impacts of technology-driven decentralization are not long for this world. Following the siren’s song of the status quo – trusting that all will be well and continue as it has since the Old Academy with mere Band-Aid fixes and lip service – is a sure path to irrelevance.

In daily life, it seems as though the immediacy of the present obscures the speed with which we hurtle towards the future. Even those of us who grew up in a world without mobile phones or the Internet regularly use technologies that were virtually inconceivable – in our own lifetimes, no less – but have become banal. Few of us notice and less truly appreciate how rapidly and dramatically the world is changing around us.

Better and cheaper computational and communications technologies are empowering individuals on a scale unprecedented in human history. Time honored modes of human interaction – families, governments, institutions and society itself – are scrabbling for any means of survival as the ground gives way beneath their feet. The extensive and elaborate edifice of political and social organization is largely an attempt to solve uniquely human challenges: communication and coordination across vast distances in time and space; the satisfaction of our curiosity, our need to know and understand; the improvement in living conditions for ourselves and our progeny; the accumulation of wealth, fame and power. 

Overthrowing the tyranny of distance typically involved the self-imposition of some lesser tyranny. In exchange for subjecting oneself to this lesser tyranny, access is granted to some good or service that the individual would not otherwise have. But we have defeated distance, and we are beginning to realize that these lesser tyrannies no longer provide unique services. Individuals can now connect directly to other individuals in order to achieve their goals. Musicians and fans no longer need record studios, drivers and passengers are no longer taxi monopolies. Of course the studios and taxis are doing everything possible to prevent competition, to remain in their positions of power. Disruption usually comes from outside of an industry, battling the entrenched incumbents before reaching dominance. But every now and then, some agile and forward-thinking group manages to disrupt from within. Regardless of the industry, this group will have to abandon the old top-down models of access restriction, and embrace new peer-to-peer models of access distribution. Such a move is difficult, appears counter-productive, challenges institutional orthodoxy and upsets bureaucratic inertia. Though difficult, the alternative is a shortsighted exercise in futility.

Colgate has an opportunity to take the lead in the reformation of higher education. As a small university, Colgate faces less bureaucratic inertia than many other schools. As an elite university, Colgate has the intellectual capacity and academic rigor to take a leadership role. With its renowned small size, phenomenal faculty and excellent students, Colgate can combine the nimbleness of a guerilla startup (compared to most U.S. universities) with industry credibility to truly blaze a new trail for higher education.

Now is the moment; a rare confluence of technologies, trends and events (nationally and locally) have set the stage for an inside innovator. The public is losing faith in a traditional education, federal dollars are dwindling, student debt is skyrocketing. Today’s students are digital natives and particularly unsuited to archaic pedagogies, while ‘technology in the classroom’ has replaced the transparencies and overhead projectors of my youth with Powerpoint and digital projectors (effectively changing nothing). Box-checking and social experiences have come to dominate, with ever more student organizations and activities and less intellectual engagement. Already obsolete as content deliverers, universities spend untold millions on amenities and facilities. The seeds of disruption have been planted and are just starting to sprout. 

After Blockbuster, K-Mart, B.Dalton and Borders, as the hotel and taxi industries are being turned upside down, the higher education industry is well aware of what it faces. Colgate is part of the industry-wide discussion about what is in store, what it means for the industry and what should be done. Many of our faculty and administration are actively involved; indeed, Associate Professor of Geology Karen Harpp is creating a successful new blended pedagogy. And yet, watching the highlight reel from this year’s Innovation and Disruption in Higher Education symposium, presented by Colgate University in New York City, shows several of the panelists claiming that the industry is doing pretty well and even liberal arts colleges are the coming disruption!

Bold and decisive action is required to forge a new model for higher education. Band-Aid fixes and lip service hardly fit the bill. There are concrete steps Colgate can take, right now.

Maximizing the effectiveness of these steps will require the right atmosphere. Towards that end, the university should take swift action to address the cultural issues on campus. The lack of a vibrant intellectual life outside of class is tied to the drinking culture, which inevitably links to Greek life. The systemic forces at work in these organizations lead directly to their incidents. The recent campus demonstrations for inclusivity, openness and tolerance, as well as an end to sexual violence both point, in part, to these same issues. Changing the systemic forces such that intolerance and excess are no longer incentivized would be as simple as removing the concessions granted to these organizations. If they were treated as any other student organization, many of the undesirable systemic forces would cease to exist.

To further improve the campus climate, and to foster those extra-curricular intellectual exchanges with faculty that we associate with the residential liberal arts experience, Colgate should implement the Living the Liberal Arts Working Group recommendations.

While it is easy for me to write that action should be taken, the actual action is more difficult than the stroke of a pen. Recognizing the infeasibility of immediate comprehensive radical experimentation in pedagogy, Colgate should conduct these experiments outside of the normal academic year. Perhaps the January term could be brought back, or summer courses offered. Regardless of when, Colgate must recognize that the age of silent students passively receiving information in lecture format is over and new methods are being investigated.

Some of the characteristics most in demand in our rapidly changing world are adaptability, perseverance in the face of failure and innovation. These are also the same characteristics developed through the act of creation. Tackling a creative (as in actually creating something) project from start to finish is a transformative experience that far too few people experience. This experience should be harnessed during our education. Colgate should, and is in the early stages of, establishing a MakerSpace (a space where people can create and invent together) on campus. Ideally this would be freely open to the Colgate community. Those educational innovators on campus who utilize discovery-learning methods could use the Makerspace, transforming the educational experience. Eventually, Colgate should add a ‘making’ requirement to the Core Curriculum.

Although other schools are already implementing these or similar goals, it isn’t too late for Colgate to assume a leading role in reforming higher education. Well positioned in the academy, with a motivated president and board of trustees, having a uniquely engaged and active student body agitating for change, now is the time for change. It must burst its own bubble and see this juncture with open eyes: whether Blockbuster or Netflix, Colgate must decide its fate.