Universities between Tradition and Innovation
Artigo de Klaus Capelle
Expanded version of a paper presented by the Rector of UFABC at the event "Times Higher Education Summit: World Class Universities for Latin America". A shorter version can be found here.
A tradition of accelerating change.
The concept of creating environments for preserving and passing on high-level knowledge such as libraries and higher learning institutions can be traced back to the beginning of modern civilization. Suitable symbols may be Plato´s academy in ancient Athens or the Grand Library in ancient Alexandria. Universities as teaching institutions have been around (although not always under that name) for at least two millennia.
In addition to preserving and passing on established knowledge, scholars always have been involved also with the creation of new knowledge. However, the pursuit of research as a separate key task of universities gained visibility and enhanced practical significance around the time of the industrial revolution and Humbold´s university reform. Thus, research has been a distinct central mission of universities for several centuries.
To create and maintain a university and research facilities is highly expensive. Teaching and research provide immense, but long-term (sometimes very long term!) benefits to society. Thus, in modern economies universities have been increasingly pressed to also provide more short-term benefits to society, to justify the investment of resources. The recognition of outreach as a distinct mission related to direct interaction with society became common in the United States around the middle of the last century and spread to other regions, including Latin America, in the last few decades.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, universities have received from society (or taken up by their own initiative) a myriad of further responsibilities, among which those I have called the "Three I´s": (technological) Innovation, (social) Inclusion and Internationalization. In the case of UFABC, described in more detail below, a fourth I, standing for "Interdisciplinarity" is added. The running of a hospital and the involvement with secondary schools (directly or through providing teaching degrees) add further complexity to the range of activities of many universities. Another demanding task that is quite important in Latin America and the United States (but less so in Europe) is to guarantee the physical integrity of the university population, i.e., campus security. Of course, all these activities have been present at universities for a long time, but an increased external pressure, as well as internal interest, in adopting them as key missions, became apparent in the past years.
Although highly oversimplified, this brief overview indicates increasing responsibilities on a scale that is exponential not only in the metaphorical, but even in its original, mathematical, sense. As is typical of exponential growth, the dynamics is unsustainable in the long run. Notably, the concept of sustainability itself evolved from its original meaning of environmental sustainability, which is both an operational requirement for modern universities and an important subject for teaching and research, to include social and economic sustainability of universities and of society.
The question of economic sustainability task takes, of course, a very different form for private universities, which compete among themselves for clients and are susceptible to the uncertainties of the market, and public universities, which (should) compete among themselves for excellent personnel and students and are subject to the uncertainties of politics, such as changing national policies for higher education, regulation, subvention and the national economy.
All of this complexity is managed by the universities, according to the ideal of academic autonomy, which implies that the university is a self-governing body. The extend of autonomy differs from country to country, but should at least include the right to decide whom to hire, the ability to set their own research agenda and the absence of political influences and indoctrination in the class room.
So what does this exponential increase of activities and demands leave us with? A self-administrated, semi-autonomous body maintaining a delicate balance on a tripod with legs of unequal length, juggling an ever increasing set of additional tasks and missions, while aiming for different kinds of sustainability and hosting an ever more diverse population of faculty, staff and students.
How do universities deal with this maze of complexity and interrelated challenges? Two important lessons from biology may help in searching for answers. One is that the best way to react to rapidly changing challenging environments is to innovate and evolve without fear. The other is the importance of diversity to guarantee the stability of an ecosystem. The answers thus need not be the same for large traditional universities, founded at a time when the institutions´ missions were lesser in number and more focused in nature, and younger universities, created around the beginning of the new millennium.
An example of radical innovation at the beginning of the new millennium.
In this context, the Federal University of ABC, a young Brazilian public university located in the industrial belt of Latin America´s largest city, São Paulo, a region known as the ABC area, is a radical example of academic innovation.
UFABC was created in 2006 and is the only Brazilian university whose faculty is composed 100% of Ph.D. scientists. The Three I´s of innovation, inclusion and internationalization are recognized as intrinsic part of the university´s mission and day-to-day life. UFABC aims to be a medium size university, with about 20.000 students at full capacity, specializing in interdisciplinary research in science, technology and humanities, but has no plans to expand into areas such as law or medicine, which attract many students but are well-served by other institutions in the country. Self-limitation is a key aspect of sustainability and governability.
Interdisciplinarity is built into the very foundation of teaching and research at UFABC. In particular, UFABC has no academic departments, whose boundaries would separate students and faculty with different specializations but common interests. UFABC´s concession to the organizational (and perhaps psychological) need for some subdivision is the Center, of which there are only three, one dedicated to applied social and engineering sciences, one to natural sciences and the third to cognition, computation and mathematical sciences. Although it turned out to be rather difficult to eradicate the departmental structure from the minds of faculty, the opportunity to eliminate it from the organizational structure was provided by the creation from scratch of a new university.
Research is done in and across these Centers, in addition to hundreds of small research groups and a few larger research units called Nuclei, which are by design interdisciplinary and temporary, so that they can neither emulate traditional discipline-based departments nor crystalize into bureaucratic structures. Students are exposed to research from the first year on. Multiuser laboratories run as university facilities provide access to advanced equipment for all researchers, independently of the group/nucleus/center they are associated with. Graduate studies are supported by a large program of scholarships, payed from the University´s own budget, and include special options for interaction with industry.
On the undergraduate level, there are only two entry-level programs at UFABC, known as interdisciplinary Bachelor´s degrees, one focused on science and technology, the other on science and humanities. Both are full degree-granting three-year programs, during which broad subjects such as energy, life, information, society and the structure of matter are dealt with in compulsory classes for all students and supplemented by classes providing technical skills in math, computing, experimentation, etc. Up to 50% of their course load consists of optative classes, which the students can use to take specialized courses leading to 24 undergraduate engineering, teaching and Bachelor´s degrees.
The optative components of the curriculum of the interdisciplinary phase can be (and usually are) used by students to take more specialized classes from the disciplinary curricula. The specialized undergraduate courses are thus not taken after the interdisciplinary Bachelor´s degree, but concomitantly. Hence, the UFABC model is not one of two successive, but largely independent, cycles of formation, as in the Bologna model. Rather, two overlapping undergraduate-level cycles are integrated in one common pedagogic structure.
The first lesson from biology, cited above, was to evolve without hesitation. The examples described in the preceding paragraphs illustrate a few possible directions for this evolution. The second lesson, about the importance of diversity, means that not all universities can be, or should be, like UFABC. We need a healthy mixture of universities with different sizes, concepts and structures. For example, not all universities need participate in all four I´s. Interdisciplinarity is key to many urgent scientific and social problems, but this does not mean that the disciplinary problems have disappeared. Likewise, not all universities need to prioritize technological innovation, social inclusion or internationalization.
UFABC celebrates its 10th anniversary in September 2016. While 10 years are too little to come to a definite judgement on the success or failure of the new type of university represented by UFABC, the response of students, of the job market and of external and internal evaluations and rankings is highly encouraging.
UFABC, just as other new universities, inherits a millennial tradition while facing the scientific, technological, pedagogic, economic and social challenges of the 21st century. In the past, universities have lived up to these challenges. The future is in our hands.