Discovery Over Dogma at Today’s Innovative University

Opinion

There’s a rich and often controversial conversation going on right now about the role that colleges and universities should play in preparing students—and our society—for the future.

One of the most provocative voices in this discussion belongs to David Brooks, the always-thoughtful and always sensitive columnist for The New York Times. Recently, Brooks advanced the notion that universities should be places for character formation, transcendent experiences, and love of knowledge.

I totally agree with this, even though I absolutely disagree with Brooks when he says that universities should focus on moral and spiritual development. Yes, of course, morals matter—and so do our individual spiritual journeys, wherever they take us.

But, in my view, universities are places of discovery, not dogma. And, as an innovator, I believe that they’re probably the last institutions left where this discovery can actually take place. I say this because other institutions or organizations that talk boldly about discovery and innovation often are constrained to let agendas or market forces get in the way of true and meaningful exploration.

A good example of true and meaningful exploration at today’s university can be found in the new way that campuses are innovating on an interdisciplinary level. In other words, how can we get people from all disciplines—the humanities, arts, sciences, medical sciences, engineering, computer sciences, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, policy, business, and more—working together to look at repercussions of choices made when creating new solutions to critical problems?

The key words are “working together.” That’s how the real world, the new and interdependent global economy, and the digitally linked ecosystem operate. Universities are responding with more and more team-based experiential education, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. Indeed, there’s a true spark in the innovative process that comes from group interaction. I’m all for reflection and reflective experiences, but the world’s problems, the challenges we need to address, are so complex that we absolutely need to empower our young people in learning how to blend different mind-sets and skill-sets for the common and better good.

I believe that an inclusive team-based experiential education that helps students navigate innovative pathways to the future goes beyond just addressing and solving pressing societal problems. It also provides an empathetic understanding of the world and its people—many of whom are far less fortunate than we are. So, in the end, this democratic innovation process leads to peace, individual growth, as well as progress.

My point here is that universities need to innovate—to move forward, not backward. They need to empower students through a variety of interpersonal interactions that will help drive the next—and much needed—discovery cycle. We must always be morally responsible and spiritually open through a full understanding and realization of the repercussions of the choices we make. But we can’t lean into the 21st century if campuses turn too inward and return to their 17th century moral and spiritual missions.

The history of Yale University, arguably one of the greatest institutions of higher education in the world today, bears this out.

Yale’s roots can be traced back to the 1640s, when colonial clergymen established a college that would preserve the tradition of European liberal education. But in 1718, the school was renamed “Yale College,” thanks to a gift from a Welsh merchant named Elihu Yale, one of the first products of emerging globalization. In donating the proceeds from the sale of nine bales of goods, 417 books and a portrait of King George I, the outward-looking Elihu Yale sought to connect a small school in Connecticut to the restless and dynamic planet that was taking hold and taking shape in the early 18th century.

We are, once again, encountering a restless and dynamic planet in the 21st century. And all of us in higher education have to recognize the imperative of innovative opportunities and possibilities that this presents. If we shrink back, our students, and the society they’ll soon inherit, will miss out on the potential positives and necessities of the discovery process.

Vikram Jandhyala is vice president for innovation strategy at the University of Washington. He is executive director of CoMotion, UW's collaborative innovation hub, and the UW co-CEO of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). Follow @vikramjandhyala

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