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An Ivy League academic made a startling prediction at a talk at Arizona State University on Friday: Knowledge is progressing so quickly that the concept of a standalone university could soon be obsolete.
Jonathan Cole (pictured above), former provost at Columbia University, made that forecast during a discussion of his new book, “Toward a More Perfect University,” with ASU President Michael Crow in the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus.
“Instead of creating more sports leagues, what we should do is produce academic leagues,” said Cole, who is the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia. “Why not form a league that’s not based upon a school or a department, but based upon a problem?”
In Cole’s example, complex issues such as the study of inequality of wealth would be studied by a collaboration of the top minds around the world, enabled by technology.
“We’re so far from our maximum in terms of universities’ potential that we should rethink every aspect of them,” he said.
Crow said that universities need to challenge the “hierarchy of knowledge,” which has become distorted.
“We’ve built this social hierarchy that physics is the elite science and everything else is trivial by comparison. Why do we have ‘physics is better than chemistry,’ ‘chemistry is better than biology’? ‘Economics is more important than political science, which is more important than sociology’?
“The understanding of each is equal.”
Cole said that Crow has been a driver of innovation at ASU to a degree almost unheard of in higher education.
“Most leaders of academic institutions are risk averse, not risk takers,” Cole said. “Michael Crow is a prudent risk taker.”
In his book, Cole refers to ASU as “a cauldron of change,” citing Crow’s creation of transdisciplinary research initiatives such as the Biodesign Institute, as well as programs such as the Global Freshman Academy and the Starbucks Initiative.
“Every time I come to ASU, I see amazing things unfold in front of my eyes. It’s a level of excellence that you rarely see in an American university combined with access and really giving people opportunities,” Cole said.
Cole said that admission to Ivy League colleges has become so impossibly selective that the students are “boring.”
“They all have perfect scores. They’ve never deviated from the beaten path. They’ve never flunked chemistry,” he said.
“They have taken the quirkiness out of the student body.”
He praised ASU for taking students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
“ASU doesn’t pay homage to the kind of testing mythology that has been internalized in American society as legitimate.”
He said that although his entire education and career have been spent at Columbia, “The Ivy League is not where it’s at.
“Most education and most research is taking place at state universities, and we cannot let them fail.”