March 1999 // Letters to the Editor
The Paradigmatic Example
by Tom Abeles
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Tom Abeles "The Paradigmatic Example" The Technology Source, March 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Griffiths and Gatien's article "The Role of the Traditional Research University in the Face of the Distance Education Onslaught" (1999) is, in many ways, a misdirection. It is made even worse because the authors use, as their "straw man," their institution, the University of Michigan, which is not just a research university, but one of the world's premier institutions, and advances knowledge globally. As such, it and a few others represent a group of postsecondary institutions that may emerge stronger and better-positioned in the brave new wired world of which distance education represents only one dimension.

What is noticeably absent, though, is a discussion of how the research university in general, and the University of Michigan in particular, will be changed by emerging trends. Regardless of the strengths documented by the authors, the research university will and must change unless it is to suffer the fate of Shelly's Ozymandias. The authors seem to project research universities as an adamantine sea wall, standing impervious to the crashing waves of change being wrought by the wiring of the world.

Yet these institutions will see profound changes as a result of this wiring. Their role as depositories of knowledge will decrease in importance as knowledge becomes decentralized. Research programs will become stronger as institutions are forced to maintain their status by strengthening their efforts to provide new knowledge. This will probably mean that some researchers in the publish-or-perish industry will either falter and fade or be absorbed into larger, more successful research teams. These teams may not remain located on a single campus, but rather may become collaborative and virtual. This in turn indicates that research universities may be forced to choose their arenas of specialization, rather than remaining the traditional academic "mega-malls." Globally, only a few broad institutions may remain, and the authors' institution may be one of those.

The world-wide pressure to maintain research stature will put greater pressure on fiscal resources, which cannot be limited to foundations and governmental agencies. There are two issues here. First, the public and the private sector are placing increasing pressure on research institutions to provide scholarly activity that contributes to the community. Collaboration with business is seen as a benefit to the community via job creation through innovation—and as a validation that the institutions will not be recipients of a version of the infamous Proxmire "Golden Fleece" award. Secondly, as suggested by Bill Readings in his book University in Ruins, the university has lost its privileged position of establishing community norms. This means that, increasingly, public sector funds are being diminished, and the decision on how to allocate monies is becoming less influenced by the academic community. Faced with these dwindling funds, research for its own sake will be pressured to look toward outside funding sources, such as the corporate world. Similarly, "humanities" are rapidly becoming majors that a parent paying for an increasingly expensive college education dreads their child choosing. What universities offer in their undergraduate curricula and the focus of those offerings will have to become a significant source of discussion within the academy.

Thus, research universities face new and different challenges from the wired world. Administrators will probably have to make decisions as to which academic markets they will try to maintain in their baccalaureate programs and which they will have to either leave to others or maintain through joint efforts with other institutions in a collaborative network of postsecondary education.

The specialization of research universities will have a serious impact on the rest of the academic community. The Carnegie Commission defines about 130 U.S. universities as research universities, with Class I institutions having research funds in excess of 40 million dollars and Class II institutions having research funds of between 15 and 40 million dollars. Those with lesser funds may find that they must strengthen non-research programs on their campuses and support research through collaboration with larger research-focused institutions.

On the other side, most institutions, from large public universities to smaller private colleges, will have to strengthen their educational programs by rewarding faculty for something other than the traditional publish-or-perish activities.

The authors have cited historic information to substantiate the current stature of the University. The entire postsecondary market is changing. There are new entries into the market and many of the traditional institutions will not survive, even those supported by public funds. At this juncture, it is dangerous to extrapolate to a future based on the past, particularly using one variable. The problem for the University of Michigan, as well as other institutions, is that it is dangerous to extrapolate from past information to a future position in a postsecondary universe which is as dynamic and changing as it is today.

The reductionist approach of studying a single dimension, such as distance education, in isolation from its larger domain is fraught with danger in a world as complex and far from equilibrium as the academy currently is. Additionally, the concept of distance education is one which is rapidly evolving because of both the rapidly changing technology and the opportunities which this presents. One has no doubts that the University of Michigan will thrive in the evolving post secondary ecosystem. It is hard to imagine that it will emerge unchanged. Thus, using today's distance education as a measure of tomorrow's probabilities is inadvisable, and shows the problems ahead of those who would use the past to project the future.


Griffiths, J-M., & Gatien, G. (Feb. 1999). The role of the traditional research university in the face of the distance education onslaught. The Technology Source. Retrieved February 25, 1999 from the World Wide Web:

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