The New Techno-University in an Age of Unemployment

Rochelle Terman
April 12, 2012
Photo of a man typing at a computer.

For as long as we’ve had universities, it appears we’ve had crises of universities. And perhaps now more than ever, it seems that the death of the university (as we currently know it) is just around the corner. Regardless of the stated intent of universities to produce good citizens with a critical eye towards extant social relations, it now appears that universities are serving to reproduce social privilege instead of providing a level playing field. With nearly every university feeling the resource crunch – and social sciences and humanities at public institutions suffering the most – higher education is increasingly geared towards neoliberal paradigms, employability, and a functional relationship with learning. The university has come into question, both within and without.

What is to be done? – The question on everyone’s mind. It seems clear enough what kind of University we don’t want, but there has been much less elaboration about the university we are for, that which we should promote and to which we should be committed.


This challenge provides the impetus for the discussion series facilitated by the University of California Humanities Research Institute entitled “The University We Are For”. Recently, the institute took this discussion to the digital realm, asking what “The (Technological) University We Could Be For”:

There has been considerable discussion about long-distance learning, but other technological impacts have been arguably more far-reaching and profound. This distinguished panel will lead a discussion of "the university we are for," focusing especially on the impacts new technologies are having on pedagogy and institutional structure, on research and engagement in and across the academy.

The entire discussion is available online. And with so much buzz surrounding the seemingly-infinite potential of new technologies on education, it was refreshing to hear a debate over the solid possibilities and limitations that the digital era can bring to the university.  


Johanna Drucker, for example, painted us a vivid picture of a “university in the age of delightenment”: where digital archives and avatars worked seamlessly with real bodies and minds to produce truly cumulative knowledge. Geof Bowker highlighted contemporary projects that were paving the way for a new model of learning. New modes of communication – such as commutable document formats or crowdsourcing collaboration - allow for interactive formats, databases and communication above and beyond the written word. Within these visions, the university doesn’t stop within the walls of the “brick and mortar” institution but continues throughout society as well as throughout the lives of the students.

For all the panelists, technology represents not simply a set of novel tools for classroom but a space in which to rethink the entire structure of the university. As Nishat Shah assertively put it, we have not yet exhausted the possibilities of different forms of the university because we continue to commit ourselves to its material structure. This structure determines everything from the established teacher/student relationship, the separation of disciplines, and the standards for university prestige. It is responsible, according to Bowker, for the pressure scholars feel to pump out as many articles as they can instead of engaging in larger and more collaborative projects that extend beyond the life of the author. It is responsible, according to Nashat, for the pernicious practice of university admissions that equates an institution’s prestige with how many people they keep out. It is responsible, according to Beth Coleman, for the unequal status between students taking online courses and those who often pay more for a face-to-face classroom experience.
“Radical” proposals involving new technology are not really radical at all because they keep within the existing structure. The most visible manifestation of this is what Christpher Newfield calls “middle-brow tech”: bad powerpoints and mediocre classroom web platforms that embrace new technologies in the most banal and complacent way possible. For all the panelists, there was a consensus that new technologies must inspire us to radically rethink the current landscape of higher education in order to build the “Innovative University.” The university of the future (a Harvard-for-the-100-percent) will continue to serve as a political space for knowledge production, dissemination, distribution, acquisition, assessment and accreditation. But it will utilize technology to provide education that is both mass and at the highest quality, a truly “open” university striving towards a democratization of capability and lifelong learning.
Something struck me in this panel: even though the tenor of these lectures were utopian in their future-oriented visions, a kind of nostalgia was present during the panel discussion. It seemed that all the panelists yearned for a time when students eschewed the functionalist motivation for learning and wanted to learn for learning’s sake. In fact, most of the discussion centered around how the new university can counteract the current consumerist model of education in which students pick and choose their subjects based on their marketed, resume-building potential. How can we get students to love learning again, and not just see it as a way to acquire skills in order to do something else?
The conversation struck me as odd, considering that there was no undergraduate student on the panel (and seemingly none in the audience). While the panel featured an in-depth discussion of the fiscal crunch faced by Universities, there was hardly any mention of how current economic pressures affect undergraduate and graduate students facing a scary and mercurial job market.
As an illustrative anecdote: When I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2008, very few of my friends enjoyed full-time employment. Most of them were jobless, or else working minimum wage as restaurant servers, coffee shops baristas, or data entry pods. According to official University data, only 55% of my class had a job a year after graduation. Another 20% went to graduate or professional school; I suspect many were enticed by the opportunity to delay the disheartening job-search process for another few years. But perhaps more telling than the numbers was the level of anxiety and unadulterated fear that settled around us like an unrelenting black fog.

It’s a national struggle, and prospects look worse for students in the humanities. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, recent college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in the arts, humanities and architecture experienced significantly higher rates of joblessness. Even if the numbers of youth unemployment are going down, the feelings of job anxiety among university students will surely be far lasting.

While discussions like the one organized by UCHRI are desperately needed, we should keep the aforementioned dynamics in mind. As one panelist claimed, the new university will be guided by a concept of learning and work “as something pleasurable, enjoyable and engaging and not something to just maintain one’s lifestyle.” Fair enough. But for me, one thing is clear: the years of the “dream job” – employment that embodies one’s passion, is intensely pleasurable and puts food on the table – is over. Or at least significantly delayed until the Baby Boomers retire. The new university, grounded in new technologies and radical restructurings – should embrace a model of learning that is valued in itself but also complementary to solutions to real-life economic constraints and pressures.