Communiversity: the future of the university?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the public university in society lately and my last two blogs reviewed the history of the university up to the colonial colleges in America and then to the emergence of the U.S. land grant university.  This blog speculates on the future…..

The Public University as Communiversity*

The mission of the university is described as the production, preservation and transmission of knowledge.  I believe this is an incomplete understanding of the public mission.  Our failure to take the application of knowledge seriously results in a partially-deserved “ivory tower” critique.   Productivity (application) of knowledge is just as important as production (accumulation) of knowledge.  Research must be fully integrated with teaching, as well as off-campus community outreach to capture the synergy of each and serve the educational needs of the nation.

Knowledge should be available in both the written (published) and community-based (online) formats. Transmission should no longer be a one way “downloading” of information from the teacher-expert to the student-learner, but a mutual sharing of knowledge. The communiversity of the 21st century will make “learning through inquiry” the integrative paradigm that resolves the tension between research and teaching within the academy.

I spent much of my early career working in agricultural extension, where university experts were expected to make recommendations for farmers to implement.   Agricultural extension educators carried the authority of science, the arrogance of academia, and a nearly 100-year old federal law that mandated Extension educators not only aid in the diffusion of knowledge but “encourage the application of the same.”

These 20th century assumptions must (and are) changing.  Some academics (including those in agricultural extension) are actively  inventing new ways of working. Outreach educators engaged in participatory research and education for example, acknowledge the contribution of all learners in the inquiry process – those from the university and those from the community.  All participants are expected to help identify and define problems from their own perspective, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions and interpret results, thus capturing the synergy of the scientific and the lay learning experience. The outcome of participatory learning is not only community-based knowledge and scholarly publications, but empowered community members likely to act on their new knowledge.

Other university educators are actively creating new online courses and engaging in community conversations using learning networks and blogs.  A rapidly emerging forum for community learning is the online discussion groups that focus on specific activities and issues.

Communiversity Programs

An example of a learning network is the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association.  While easily overlooked by academics, these networks of active learners share questions, practical experience, and science-based knowledge on a daily basis through a listserve.  To support this group and similar like-minded citizen-investigators, I participate in online conversations and stay linked via Facebook and Twitter groups created to share knowledge and experience on food self-sufficiency.  I believe more academics should join in these conversations to keep up with current public interests related to their area of study.

Another public program that should be adapted by the communiversity is the “Dutch science shop” concept.  In these university-managed and community-based offices (similar to a county agricultural extension office) citizens share knowledge and initiate research to solve problems of importance in their own neighborhood. These centers might also offer a training ground for students through service learning and internships.  Community learning centers would provide a public space for citizens to build group identity and gain public skills, while encouraging local learning, research and action.

A Need for Radical Change

I believe that a radical transformation of the public land grant university is needed to better serve the citizens, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant communiversity. Of course, these changes will not occur without much dialogue and debate. Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, past president of Yale University wrote, the university should be…

“…a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions.”

Personally, I look forward to the debate and would like to hear your own opinion on these suggestions!


* I first heard the term “communiversity” from Richard Sclove, the author of Democracy and Technology and founder of the Loka Institute.

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

2 thoughts on “Communiversity: the future of the university?”

  1. You're right — more people need to be involved in debate and dialogue about the role of the Land Grant University. Here in Pennsylvania, Penn State U., a land grant university, is actively promoting the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry as economic development. I attended a webinar (shown locally in our county seat and sponsored by local Chamber of Commerce and our local Economic Development Corporation). Penn State professors led the webinar which was broadcast to locaitons around the state. It was all about how great this natural gas play will be for Pennsylvania. Their attitude bordered on — "to heck with the environmental risks." I think citizens of our Commonwealth don't know that their Land Grant U. is in bed with this industry.
    Jane Bollinger
    Chairperson, Wayne County (PA) Area PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture)

  2. 2012 will mark the 150th year of the Morrill act that established the Land-Grant system.
    …where the "leading object" shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to "agriculture and the mechanic arts"…..
    The "primary" purpose I feel has now fallen victim to reinterpretation and the true spirit of the pioneers concept, for the most part, forgotten. This also happened at the start of the 20th century after great expansion of areas of study at Land-Grants. When at that time Kenyon Butterfield became President of the Massachusetts Agricultural College(now Umass) he revived the original mission through a brilliant sustainable approach of simply "tying an agricultural thread" through all studies. I believe this approach could again be beneficial and enjoyable for students, faculty and citizens.

    The idea of a college for agriculture and engineering to benefit "unbiased" common good can be found in the 1840s. Here in MA. during a meeting after the Tri-County fair in Northampton the fair committee started a discussion on the development of agricultural college. The pressure on farmers to produce for the growing population was now taking a toll on their land. A time when food and land resource security for the future began to be of great concern. The fairs had been the place where production could be compared/judged and ideas exchanged. But these occasional gatherings were just not enough. The importance of farming and land stewardship was realized as a benefit to all and education/research should be supported for common good. The members of the Tri-County fair committee continued the pursuit to forming a Ag. College in W.Mass. Local support for the concept was nurtured and then brought to Boston. Similar ideas were now growing in other areas and at some point the local idea melded into an approach of a national system with a college in each state to serve each states unique needs. A national system would also allow for the sharing of research of multi-state interest .

    On the 150th anniversary of the Morrill act we now are again faced with similar food and land resource security issues. Again our local farmers have recognized the future need to contribute locally to reduce the growing pressures on the now considered global food system. Local education and research are necessary to advance the sustainability of our unique local land resources and specific community needs. The support of the Land-Grant locally is as needed now as it was at it's start. To not recognize the added importance and value of the original mission primary focus should be of major concern. The proper implementation to honor the original mission needs to be revitalized to serve as the model to the now extended areas of education and service for common good of "our" state land-grant universities.

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