A Simple Plan to Change the Way We Do Higher Education

By Ronin Research Scholar John Paulas

It is time to convert campuses to flourishing spaces for the communities where they are.

Higher education leaders are becoming increasingly aware of a truth that the last year’s catastrophes and social awakenings have accentuated. Colleges and universities have been running an operating deficit that has grown into a huge debt, a deficit of care. The culture of higher education is simply not driven by care for the people of its campus community, let alone the people of the community who live their lives outside its gates. 

As with all problematic systems, the culture, policies, and institutional structures are to blame for this situation, not individuals. However, the ailing culture manifests itself through the conscious and unconscious thoughts, words, and actions or inaction of any individual within the culture.

The ecological study of the “edge effect” has seen that increased biodiversity and interaction happens at the margins of habitats. Think of the border of the field and forest or a riverbank. Let’s make our campuses the real community junction that they can be rather than the pricey gated communities they have become.

A work culture that doesn’t work

Academic labor occurs as if in a monastery. Novices are trained in the culture of the traditional university. They are told from the beginning that only the few “good ones” will “make it” as tenured professors. The others must look elsewhere. Upon taking final vows, they experience firsthand the harsh reality that no place exists for them in any monastery. This discouraging “professional” culture affects all members of the academic community, placing value only on the monolithic outcome of the tenured faculty job, ignoring the individual hopes, intentions, and work of its people, and never seriously looking to the community beyond the monastery walls.

The fact that we can talk about “town–gown” relations, the language presupposing a natural tension, shows the non-organic relationship between communities and the campuses within them. For the knowledge production community to flourish in the future, all boundaries between campus and community must be erased. 

Incredible service done by employees who care is not only a nonstarter in hiring and promotion, but also a de facto impediment to both. This culture of the university must be repaired, and all relationships must be healed through the creation and maintenance of a healthy community. To produce a flourishing culture, care for humans and the practice of humaneness must be prioritized, while care for protecting abstraction, ideals, disciplines, attitudes, outlooks, etc., must be put aside. Attempts at “public outreach” are doomed from the start because of the deprioritizing of humane practice within the culture of higher education, and because the community beyond the campus could benefit from inroads but does not need a helping hand.

Campus as cruise ship

The very business model of the university and liberal arts college must be repaired to erase this debt of care. No more campuses operated like year-long summer camps or retirement communities, where lodging, entertainment, and educational programming are all included in the hefty price tag. If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore in this regard, it is that the “campus as cruise ship” mentality and model need to change.

The fact that we can talk about “town–gown” relations, language presupposing a natural tension, shows the non-organic relationship between communities and the campuses within them. For the knowledge production community to flourish in the future, all boundaries between campus and community must be erased. 

Taking a page from the courtroom or legislative hearing, learners invite knowledge practitioners to meetings as expert witnesses to answer questions the group has rather than to determine facts or curriculum for the group.

A core inequitable and problematic structure within the campus today is the administration and governance system that hierarchically excludes the majority of the campus community and disregards the community beyond the gates of campus. Current forms of governance and administration must be replaced with forms of broad and inclusive community governance. Leadership and decision-making power must be based on the desire and ability to listen to and incorporate the voices of others and to facilitate, not impede, positive change.

Unprofessional development

Work life development is a holistic and healthful project unfamiliar to the academic setting described above. By work life, I mean anything that a person gives effort to in their lives, with professional and personal flourishing as the goal of that work. This concept of work includes aspects of one’s life of effort that are invisible in the U.S. because they are not “jobs” reflected on IRS W-2 or 1099 forms.

The academic culture is uniquely lacking in imagination and care about the possibilities for individuals to flourish in their work lives on their own terms. The culture intends the person who is intellectually trained as a PhD in medieval studies to be a tenured professor of medieval studies. A professional outcome is conflated with an intellectual outcome, and all professional outcomes not in line with cultural expectations range from failures to curiosities in the eyes of cultural insiders, most of all the individual PhDs themselves, who have internalized this uncaring voice of the culture that labels them. A conscious plan and practice are necessary to extricate individual members from this negative cultural mindset of the academy and turn their work practices and mindsets towards their flourishing and the flourishing of those with whom and for whom they work.

Turning the campus over

Turning the campus over to the local community solves the problem of the university as cloistered monastery. Traditional higher education must be replaced by new knowledge production and transmission settings and structures. Rough models for turning the campus over to the community can be found in spaces such as the Presidio of San Francisco (ultimately controlled by the federal government and not the City of San Francisco, but you get the idea) and military installments elsewhere that now function, or are in planning to function, as centers for community commercial and non-profit activity around cultural and knowledge-related business.

School of the future

In this new context, learner-led education is fundamental. We must recognize that every single person has something they are motivated to learn rather than assume that we have self-motivated learners on the one hand and bad students on the other. The ideas of the syllabus, curriculum, and canon have long been heavily wielded tools to impose the intellectual will of others onto learners. No more. In the higher education of the future, the personal motivations of learners, from teenagers to older adults, drive the learning environment completely. Individual projects that are produced collaboratively for the benefit of others are at the center. Using digital means, learners call upon experts in various areas of knowledge and professional practice to give suggestions to guide their projects. There are no classes, just small group meetings convened by the leader of a project. 

Taking a page from the courtroom or legislative hearing, learners invite knowledge practitioners to meetings as expert witnesses to answer questions the group has rather than to determine facts for the group. The school has no standing faculty and administration of the school is community driven, enough to organize the basic functioning of the institution and ensure that the outcome for all is driven by care and in a caring environment. 

The infrastructure of the former campus, the libraries, labs, and facilities, become community resources sustained by public, private, and non-profit organizations. Campus safety, health, and all other benefits focused on the campus community are turned to serving this local community without prejudice. 

This conversion will maintain gainful employment and create other opportunities to boost the local economy equitably. Access to real planning and employment opportunities for the whole community has to be a central part of the plan. The current uncaring higher education environment more or less dumps furloughed and released employees onto the street when a school is in trouble and draws more and more on inequitable labor practices when the school is doing well. Having a resources webpage is not the answer. Active engagement with professionals is the answer. As a work life planning professional, I have seen so many individuals flourish by getting in touch with their work life aspirations, by understanding their unique experiences, skills, and ways of working, and by connecting with the people with whom they resonate professionally.

By turning the campus over to the community, the spaces and infrastructure become not hubs or centers, but flourishing margins for public, private, and non-profit activity. Ecological study of the “edge effect” has seen that increased biodiversity and interaction happen at the margins of habitats. Think of the border of the field and forest or a riverbank. Let’s make our campuses the real community junction that they can be rather than the pricey gated communities they have become.


John Paulas is a Ronin Research Scholar and president of PhD Matters Ltd, which empowers individuals and communities to make a change for the better in their work lives.

One Comment

  1. Maria Jakubik

    Dear John, Thank you for your inspiring blog about transforming universities. After more than two decades I left the university because my new boss demotivated me. She has not supported my conference visits even I had four accepted papers. The reason was that there were only two conferences planned for me. Another unmoral thing that disturbs me is when professors asking their PhD students to add their names as co-author to publications though they have not contributed to it. University performance is measured by the number of publications and it forces people to publish in groups (this way every author will get a credit). Thank you for your thoughts.

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