Monday, February 8, 2010

Can universities and cities learn from each other?

Late last week I talked with someone from an organization dedicated to improving higher ed completion rates by working with state policy makers and large institutions. She remarked at how hard it is to get big institutions to change (and of course that while it is easier to get little institutions to change, the impact is, well, smaller).

Her comment got me thinking about the size of universities. In Utah, the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College, Utah State, BYU, or Utah Valley University are all the size of municipalities. And, they have a lot of the components of cities--governments (of a sort), police, food systems, power systems, etc. So what if we thought about universities as (good) cities? Would learning be better? Would students be more satisfied? Would change come about easier? Under what conditions?

I'm not sure I have answers to these questions, but two great books about cities: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Steven Johnson, Emergence both convince me that healthy cities create learning by their nature, and that their nature requires a great deal less formal control than do universities. So is it possible to get to the learning outcomes of higher ed, and have students have the experiences that lead them there, by taking cues from decentralized, self-emerging systems like cities?

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

I think that at the very least, learning from great cities could do a lot to improve university-student relationships.

In my admittedly narrow experience, university administrations seem to be either dismissive of student input or fearful of it. The best reason I can think of for this is that universities are following the standard school student-administration relationship, where the administrator (High school principal, middle school teacher) always knows better than the student, and if students are allowed a say in how things are done, they'll probably screw it up.

I think this is likely wrong at all levels of education, but it makes the least sense at the collegiate level, where the vast majority of students are old enough to vote to elect city, state and national officials, but usually have very little say in how their educational institutions are governed.