How To Build An University

The above title is a red herring: This is no how-to guide on building universities. Indeed, I am no expert, and not pretending to preach. Rather, as I could not possibly title something like "Wondering How To Build An University" without being considered crazy or pompous, most likely both, I settled for this less offencive title.

However, the troubles with title offers some insight why the discussion is problematic. People do build things and organisations, but universities are not one of them, at least by common imagination. Despite being an empirical fact, hundreds of universities have been granted license in the last few decades, and an urgent demographic necessity, there is no other way to satisfy the growing middle classes, university building is seen to be something that takes hundreds of years, much beyond the imagination and scope of a single lifetime. Hence, while knowing 'How To Build A Company' is interesting and useful, claim to know 'How To Build An University' is crazy and pompous.

There is some justification in viewing university-making as a long term exercise. The globally acclaimed universities have histories stretching many centuries, and they make a big play of it. Many universities still use Latin where they can - on logos, in certificates and in graduation ceremonies - making a claim to a history even if none exists. The university architecture often invoke a past, often in gaudy and artificial fashion. And, where the universities do not exist and are urgently needed, like in India, regulators whet their appetite for stability and history by overtly defining land requirement first, defining the university by its campus and not by its content or activity. In short, university is a heritage product, and it is somewhat jarring if one claims to 'build' (or even explore building) a heritage product.

However, there are two things about universities and heritages. First, the universities are not that old. There are a handful of universities, in Europe and North America, which have history from before nineteenth century, and their modern forms, take Harvard if you like, have only emerged in the early Twentieth century. Second, heritage is a funny business - as some universities which are really old, like some in Egypt and China, want to refresh themselves and look modern and forward-looking, while others, which are really new, like the ex-polys in England, try their best to look as old as possible. Third, it is important to note that heritage has become a really interesting attribute rather recently, partly as a consequence of the search for authenticity by the newly-affluent Chinese and Indian students, who demand fragments of Latin and colourful robes as a part of the feel-good package of 'traditional' education.

My broader point is that this heritage business is indeed at odds with education. Illusions and vanity, dear as they are for the Higher-Ed marketers, are tools of confusion, not clarity. And, difficult as it may seem to build heritage, it is really not - as many of the theme parka and hospitality businesses have already perfected the trade. In fact, Higher-Ed as a heritage business is as counter-productive as it can be, with unintended consequences such as monkish indifference of the faculty, certificates of unintelligible value and students obsessed by social lives rather than moved by any greater purpose. The institutions in the heritage bubble are tools of social decay, rather than constant regeneration, as we expect universities to be.

My rephrased question, then, is this, how to build an university to perform the social functions that must be performed, to create a socially engaged, economically productive and morally imaginative student community? We may indeed be at the breaking of times, and even without being too apocalyptic, which will indeed be not out of place in the current circumstance, we should still appreciate the need for new engagements with society, value of economic re-alignment and re-imagined citizenship. Universities that will be built, in line with demographic necessities, can not simply be in the heritage businesses, and must answer the 'how to build' question.

And, this is a difficult question to answer. Apart from the lure of the 'faux heritage', the other influence on the university making is the regulatory guidelines, which usually define universities in terms of its real estates. Apart from making the university an enterprise open to builders and landowners, and excluding educators from the conversation, this has an additional consequence in defining what an university is. A high fidelity definition of university has become, within a space of two decades perhaps (as universities got built), a collection of buildings and sporting facilities, and nothing much else. 

The problem with this definition is that this puts the cart before the horse. Universities are, first and foremost, communities. They are communities of values, ideals and practises, and only by fostering these communities, an university can be successful. The real estate, the campus and all that, facilitate these communities, but they do not define the universities by themselves. In fact, if anything, the emphasis on real estate obscures what makes an university - people and their connections, is the short answer - and completely disregard some of the essential ingredients of a 21st century university, the online communities and conversations that must play an essential part. 

Coming back to the original question of 'building', it is perhaps important to realise that at the heart of our discomfort with 'building universities' lie our expectation of university as a settled form. Universities, in this imagination, are not to be messed with, but rather sustained, even if new capacities have to be added, through an extension of symbols and language, and appeals to an invented past and imagined values. And, this imagination is wrong, and counter-productive, and perhaps central reason why the world we built are falling off its seams. Asking the question is an essential first step, an opening of a possibility outside the current boundaries, and while what follows will perhaps be an inevitable game of practicalities and compromises within the current regulatory systems (the state must be satisfied), the point of an university is best realised within the new imagination rather than in tradition.




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