Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I think that in most ways the university as we now know it is already dead. But the present university system has a nervous system like a dinosaur -- when you chop off the tail it takes awhile for the head to realize that something's gone wrong. In 1999, through electronic media such as the Web, a great deal of information is available through other sources than books. Universities can go on pretending for a long time that they are still the major sources of knowledge in our culture because in a sense they are the final arbiters of what the contents of books mean - even though most people are getting their information from somewhere else, and assigning their own meanings to what they read and see. To riff on Bill Gibson, the street finds its own uses for meaning. In the next millennium, universities will become credentialing establishments, rather than privileged sources of knowledge, to a greater degree than they already are. This leaves us with the question of how long can universities survive in that fashion. And I think the answer is that they can maintain as long as industry is willing to put up with it. Companies will start hiring people with requisite skills whether or not they possess any particular credentials. That approach works at the inception of new skill sets and for a while afterward, because a manager class -- that is, people dedicated to management skills who don't themselves possess the highly honed technical skills to do the job well -- hasn't yet emerged. Eventually all of the people who apply for all of the jobs will be indifferently credentialed, and a manager class will be in place. And then there will no longer be anybody at the mid or high corporate level who can quickly tell whether an applicant is skilled or not, and they will get back to the issue of credentialing and will have to reinvent it. But all the time that that's going on, the university system and its method of credentialing will still exist, and there will still be traditional businesses that operate on the basis of those credentials and in no other way. I doubt that the old credentialing methods will die off in all areas of expertise, because, for instance, corporations will always need MBAs and MBAs come into existence through traditional degrees in traditional universities whose methods are well understood by managers already in place.

Interview with Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone


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