A university campus in which bits and bytes replace bricks and mortar

February 26, 1997|By William R. Brody

FOR THE PAST CENTURY, American universities have provided extraordinary leadership, and Johns Hopkins has been a leader among that group. Now the question confronts us: What must we do to continue our role as a premier research university?

For we find ourselves in the midst of a profound reordering of the political, social and economic fabric of our global village. It is fueled by dramatic advances in science and technology. Facing this, we must ask ourselves how to preserve the fundamental tenet of the university: the freedom to explore new ideas no matter how bold, no matter how much they challenge the established dogma.

Can we provide a high-quality education, one that prepares our students for careers that have not yet been imagined, when we are faced with extraordinary pressures to make our education more ''relevant'' -- that is, to prepare our students for the jobs of today? At the same time, we must make this education more affordable. Can we do it?

I believe we can, but it will not be an easy task. We are in the middle of a revolution. It has been brought about by the new manner in which knowledge is generated and information disseminated. And the university is at ground zero of this information explosion. The force of these changes is so powerful that we must adapt or lose our relevance to society.

Those who predict the demise of the university from the new proliferation of bits and bytes are perhaps missing the point. To be sure, the university, and the research university in particular, will have to be configured very differently in the 21st century. Exactly how this difference will manifest itself we cannot predict with certainty. . . .

Fundamentally, we must come to understand that we are just one player, engaged in a worldwide effort to expand and exploit knowledge. It is a pursuit that is no longer the exclusive domain of the universities. There is a very ''knowledge industry'' outside nTC our doors now -- it is the foundation of the new economy -- and that industry is in the midst of cataclysmic changes.

For our part, we need to acknowledge that universities are no longer the sole focus for the creation of new knowledge. Neither will we have exclusive rights to provide education and training.

As universities, we must remake ourselves in the context of this new information age. This calls for a process, not a single event. It is a process bound to last longer than the term of one university president. But it is a process that, irrefutably, is already under way.

In the course of events that are to come, I would suggest that several areas bear particular attention. The first of these is the way we organize and access information. The academy is changing its role as the central, physical repository of our civilization's intellectual content.

To understand this change, we need to distinguish between information and knowledge. We are in the so-called ''information age.'' This age is quite different and distinct from what I would call the ''knowledge age.'' Perhaps if we're lucky, the knowledge age will come next.

In the information age, the progress of analog and digital communications technology from telephone and radio to television, satellites, faxes and computers, has increased our access to information at a dizzying rate. I am amazed whenever I read an article about the joys of instant access to information through the Internet. Are there really people out there who crave more information crossing their desk or their desktop?

Information overload

Uncontrolled information has become a burden, not a resource. Who among us fails to suffer from information overload? With hundreds of cable-TV channels added to the proliferation of newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, books, to say nothing of junk mail, one hardly has time to waste surfing the net.

In fact, what we crave is better access to knowledge, not information. Knowledge is content that is assimilated, collated and interpreted to provide a unique perspective that helps us perform a task, solve a problem, or stimulate our intellect. The paradox of our times is that we are inundated by information, yet starved for knowledge. . . .

Central to our mission as a research university is the way in which we discover new knowledge and disseminate that knowledge through education. How will the information age change the way we carry out that mission?

I believe there are three ways we may be affected. First, I think we will witness the transformation of the university from a physical campus, or specific geographic locus, to a dispersed, virtual campus.

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