Liberal Education

Navigating the Rapids: On the Frontiers of the Knowledge Revolution

Over time, the roles and responsibilities of our nation’s colleges and universities, as well as their approaches to educating students, have undergone a number of transitions. The pressure for change has always been shaped by a combination of new generational values and expectations, on the one hand, and broad social, economic, and environmental forces, on the other. Today’s societal context offers an especially exciting blend of cross-generational change combined with the emergence of complex, multifaceted problems—including, most notably, a host of problems related to poverty, public health, the environment, and other “global” issues.

Many local communities are responding to today’s complex problems through collective-action approaches, social movements, movement networks, and other new forms of collaboration that are focused on creating sustainable communities in which individuals of all backgrounds can thrive in a changing world. The Institute for Sustainable Communities defines a sustainable community as “one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. It meets challenges through integrated solutions rather than through fragmented approaches that meet one of those goals at the expense of the others. And it takes a long-term perspective—one that’s focused on both the present and future, well beyond the next budget or election cycle.”1

Higher education, by contrast, often focuses on individual achievement, as seen through the perspectives of particular courses and disciplines. Although colleges and universities support many forms of scholarship and pedagogical practices that address societal issues within the curriculum, the new collaborative problem-solving approaches developed by communities outside academia are often incompatible with the culture and organization of higher education institutions. It can be challenging to draw upon the resources of an academic community in order to contribute to community-based collaborations.

Yet, more intense interactions between colleges and universities and their surrounding communities are beginning to affect the internal structure and capacity of higher education institutions, while also supporting new forms of collaboration both within the academic community and within the neighborhoods, cities, and regions with which these institutions interact. University-community collaboration depends upon the ability of the participants to think together, to identify problems that are shaping life in the community, and to work together in new ways in order to develop strategies for addressing those problems. The required openness to new voices and new kinds of questions will slowly reshape the academic community itself and foster transdisciplinarity, while still drawing on the traditional disciplines.

What can academics learn from our engagement with society, and what can our community partners learn with us and from us? What happens as we explore new ways to interact with society, and how can that interaction strengthen our own ability to educate and our own scholarship? Finally, how can campus-community interaction build capacity within the community for collaboration and mutual benefit?

New approaches to the production and use of knowledge

Over two decades ago, Michael Gibbons et al. foreshadowed what has become a core component of the collaboration between colleges and universities and their community partners, arguing that a new form of collaborative knowledge production was emerging from within the classic investigator-centered research model.2 Collaboration has changed how knowledge is being created, where the work is being done, and who is contributing to the effort. This new form has grown into a concurrent and iterative model of knowledge generation and use that is not framed through the lens of a particular discipline, but rather through a new transdisciplinary framework. Transdisciplinary work differs in some important ways from traditional scholarship in terms of how observations and data are collected, how arguments are made, how the results are evaluated and interpreted, and how knowledge is used.

Transdisciplinarity sets problems in the context of application and insight, and methods of inquiry are drawn from many disciplines as well as from community participants. Those separate disciplinary and professional frameworks are gradually blending to create a different, more integrated approach to the study of complex problems. As colleges and universities move toward more intensive collaboration with government, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups within the communities they serve, and as they redefine their role in community building and embrace the practice of mutuality and reciprocity, new approaches to collaboration will be needed—both within the academic community and within the infrastructure that supports campus-community interactions. Collaborative knowledge is becoming “problem solving capability on the move.”3 Knowledge is now beginning to spread more widely through working relationships, rather than primarily through approved scholarly channels.

Dealing with wicked problems

A “wicked problem” is one that involves a range of stakeholders who have different values and priorities, has origins in a tangled set of interacting causes, is hard to come to grips with or make sense of, continues to change even as we seek to manage it, and has no clear or familiar solution.4 As Archon Fung has observed, wicked problems unfold in “a diverse and mutually interacting ecology” of people and organizations and require a great deal of boundary crossing to bring together ideas and resources from multiple sources.5

Addressing wicked problems effectively will require new leadership skills; new ways of learning; new ways of working together across organizational, social, and economic lines; and new ways of drawing upon insights from many disciplines and many community perspectives. This will be accompanied by a demand for cross-sector solutions that are shaped by a framework Fung calls “the democracy cube.”6 The democracy cube raises three key questions: Who participates? How do they communicate and make decisions? What influence do they have over the resulting public decisions and actions? To this trifecta, we might add two additional questions: Who decides what matters most? Who contributes resources, and how will this work be funded?

As Fung explains, wicked problems require “multi-sectoral problem-solving” and ways to remove the barriers to “pooling knowledge and coordinating action” through the formation of networks that connect organizations.7 These networks are built on two basic premises: (1) finding solutions to many of society’s most pressing problems will require tapping into the expertise and ideas of different parts of the community and different disciplines, and (2) solutions to multi-faceted problems must be designed in an adaptive way, rather than chosen from a repertoire of well-researched and well-tested solutions.

Edward Weber and Ann Khademian have explored the changing role of networks in the repertoire of community responses to wicked problems. They argue that the use of networks is gradually nudging aside more traditional problem-solving approaches based on the marketplace and the choice of a small leadership group or “hierarchies.” These networks are creating new ways to share scarce resources and achieve collective goals in a more flexible, innovative, and efficient way. Networks take many forms and can be hard to define, but they all involve some form of enduring connection among organizations, individuals, and groups.8

Many of these networks connect in one way or another with local colleges and universities, which serve either as simple members of the networks or as conveners or “backbones” for them. All networks require a passion for, and a commitment to, the collaborative process; that is, they require a collaborative mindset. Whatever its relationship to a particular network, the campus supports the core resource of any network, namely knowledge transmission and integration. Campuses also serve as a source of participants in the work, including students, faculty and staff members, and alumni whose educational, professional, and personal interests can be well served by contributing to a network that has formed to address a problem they care about.

New forms of interaction

To capture the experiences of a diverse community and tap resources that otherwise might be ignored, new forms of interaction among citizens, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the business community are being created to address community problems. These include collective action, social movements, and new public governance.

Collective action. John Kania and Mark Kramer launched a new generation of thinking about collective efforts directed at complex problems through their series of articles on “collective impact.” They suggest that five components are needed to create an effective collective-impact model: (1) a common agenda arrived at through a thoughtful process of exploration and interaction; (2) shared measurement systems and a willingness to look honestly at the evidence collected; (3) mutually reinforcing activities that draw on the strengths and interests of each participant; (4) continuous communication among the participants; and (5) a mechanism for backbone support that facilitates the building and maintenance of the relationships needed and the capacity of all participants to act knowledgably and in cooperation with the others.9

Social movements. Marshall Ganz describes a social movement as a form of collaboration involving new groups of “purposeful actors,” including individuals and organizations that “assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values and mobilize political, economic and cultural power to translate these values into action.”10 Mark Leach and Laurie Mazur call these collective efforts “movement networks.” Networks are often made up of groups and individuals who might not naturally agree on a course of action, but who see value in working together to achieve some elements of a common purpose. Unlike collective-action models, these networks can “deploy a diverse array of assets and strategies, enabling advocates to amass political power [and] scale up impact.”11

New public governance. A form of cross-sectoral collaboration that is done in the public interest and draws upon the capacities of partners across public, nonprofit, and private sectors, new public governance draws upon the characteristics of both the classic marketplace model and the relationship model in order to set policy and guide practice. As in other examples of blended models of policymaking and practice, the expectations of “policymakers . . . differ in important and even decisive ways, depending upon whether they regard the policy environment as a marketplace or an interdependent community.”12 As collaborations and networks of various kinds continue to emerge, providing new ways to act together in order to address the pressing challenges that face our communities and our nation, there will need to be different measures of productivity, different forms of accountability, and different measures of progress toward mutually agreed upon goals.

As Leach and Mazur note, all collaborative models require new kinds of leadership and the ability to manage collaboration across “fluid boundaries of structure and membership.”13 Indeed, a stable structure can actually be an impediment to success. The capacity to adapt quickly to changing conditions becomes essential in an environment characterized by both uncertainty and constant change. Ganz describes the leadership of social movements as work in a volatile context, requiring “motivational, relational, strategic, and action skills—and the capacity to develop those skills in others.”14

In addition, supporting a social movement and generating the capacity for cooperation that lies at its heart will require the creation of a new kind of working space, one that fosters growth, creativity, and an inclination and capacity for action. Such a space emerges from the blending of individuals, networks of people, and cross-sector organizations of various kinds. Perhaps the greatest challenge that people who become active in social networks will face is the need to forge a movement across the lines that often divide us from each other in communities—race, class, culture, generation, ethnicity. Efforts of this kind place new demands on the anchor institutions and governing structures of a community, including local governments and higher education institutions. Neither of these types of entities is normally organized to be nimble, flexible, and capable of rapid adaptation to change.

The challenge for our institutions

To prepare a differently educated citizenry and to play meaningful roles in new forms of community-building, colleges and universities must model informed and collaborative ways of learning and working within their own institutional contexts as well as through their interactions with the broader society of which they are an integral part. The path toward a more interactive and collaborative approach to collective action will have implications for every aspect of campus culture and practice—the nature of the curriculum, the expectations of graduates, the approach to learning and teaching, the nature of scholarly agendas, the ways that faculty and staff careers unfold, and the structure of institutions. The path that lies ahead offers both challenges and opportunities for regaining a core role in society by creating sustainable communities, both on campus and in society at large.

What follows are but a few of the changes and challenges we must address:

  • the rapidly changing ways that knowledge is generated, validated, and used
  • the increasing fluidity of the disciplines through a convergence and integration not often reflected in curricula
  • the emergence of new collaborative models for addressing complex societal challenges
  • new technologies that create fresh opportunities to model, simulate, and experiment with aspects of complex and “wicked” problems and to communicate in cyberspace through a growing number of collaboratory environments and social media
  • new undergraduate and graduate populations with changing interests, experiences, and goals
  • a generational transition in the professoriate as Boomers approach retirement age
  • new expectations for college graduates and new demands in the workplace and in the practice of active citizenship
  • new working relationships within the communities with which we interact most intensely that require changes in our academic culture, support structures, and budget models in order to enhance our capacity to recognize and encourage collaboration

There are no tried and true (technical) solutions to the problem of creating capacity for transdisciplinary collaboration. The process of learning new ways of working together requires adaptive leadership and strategies. In their book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky focus on how we ought to lead when problems require us to change ourselves, change our ways of thinking, and adopt new forms of interaction with each other in order to create the capacity to work on problems for which we have no tried and true solutions. They describe “a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures.” Adaptive challenges “require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways—changing attitudes, values, and behaviors—people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalizes the change itself.”15 According to Heifetz, Linsky, and their colleague Alexander Grashow, “What is needed from a leadership perspective are new forms of improvisational expertise, a kind of process expertise that knows prudently how to experiment with never-before-tried relationships, means of communication, and ways of interacting that will help people develop solutions that build upon and surpass the wisdom of today’s experts.”16

An education for the twenty-first century

We can learn a great deal about how to become more adaptive and flexible through our interactions with cross-sector efforts within the communities we serve. What we need to learn, and what our students need to practice, is the ability to read the environment around us clearly, to develop the inclination and skill to work with others to make sense of what we see, to deliberate about what actions might be appropriate, and to act together on the choices we identify. According to Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, the wisdom to act thoughtfully and ethically with others is best learned by working alongside mentors and coaches who are practicing those same skills. Practical wisdom “requires nuanced thinking, flexibility, creativity and empathic engagement with others.”17 These habits can be learned.

Since the publication of the Greater Expectations report in 2002 and the development of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative a few years later,18 efforts to rethink the undergraduate curriculum and the experiences that accompany it have led to a shift of emphasis from teaching to learning and from individual courses and requirements to increasing integration of learning over time through the study of increasingly complex problems. Designing and offering this kind of education requires collaborative efforts that bring together faculty, students, and community members to learn and to address “real-world problems.” This approach is more likely to prepare graduates to work in an increasingly collaborative and networked environment.

The overall goal of this shift in the enactment of what it means to be educated is to prepare “intentional learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives.”19 While foreshadowing the realities of today’s world, in which our graduates will use their education in new ways, Greater Expectations focused largely on the adaptations taking place in the colleges and universities that participated in the studies and conversations that led to the report. The societal changes generating the need for new approaches—to the curriculum, to faculty and student work, and to relationships between the campus community and society as a whole—were an important but background element. As communities begin to create new forms of collaboration, we must put those societal changes in the foreground and learn from increasingly networked communities and the colleges and universities that interact with those environments.

In this context, AAC&U’s recently released LEAP Challenge moves in a very promising direction. The key idea here is that all college students should both prepare for and actually work—for a semester or longer—on significant problems or questions during their time in college. Students’ “Signature Work” on these problems will take different forms. Some students will do research on significant questions with mentors on the faculty; others will create e-portfolios that show the range of their work on a significant question or problem; many will do their projects in the community, with community partners. Informed by new developments in the sources and uses of knowledge, the LEAP Challenge seeks to help students and educators think in new ways about what it means to be educated in the twenty-first century. The LEAP Challenge directs our attention to how our graduates will use what they will learn in the future and what they already know in creative and personally meaningful ways to address the kinds of problems that they will face in their lives, in their professions, and in their communities. Each campus that takes the LEAP path will design its own distinctive approach to undergraduate education, using its own set of real-world problems—local or global. The result will be the fostering of new solution-finding capacity in communities throughout our nation and beyond.20

Conclusions

Working in a transdisciplinary mode requires deep cultural and structural changes in any organization, including a college or university. Over the past twenty years or so, postsecondary institutions have been slowly embracing a culture of engagement that supports the new kinds of relationships and collaborations that will be needed to address the “big questions” and challenges that shape our era.

The colleges and universities that will thrive in the twenty-first century will be those that embrace deep engagement with broad societal issues. This will entail rethinking the roles and responsibilities of faculty and staff, the allocation of resources, and the opportunities provided for students to contribute to collaborative problem solving. It will also entail finding ways for all members of a campus community to work across disciplinary and organizational boundaries in order to foster adaptive leadership and shared responsibility. The patterns now emerging suggest what these more interactive and cross-disciplinary institutions may look like: they will be connected to a rapidly growing network of cross-sector collaborations within society at large. The components of a reconfigured internal community will increasingly create greater capacity to connect to the elements of more collaborative external environment. These growing connections between higher education and other community-based organizations and groups will begin to reflect and support a true culture of engagement, both on campus and beyond.

On campus, the culture of engagement will expand access to innovative and relevant educational programs, new research interests, and sources of information gathered both from the work of the academic community and from the knowledge and experience of external community members. This expansion will be supported by a broad array of partnerships that address social, economic, and environmental issues; a growing capacity to integrate efforts across the campus; and new forms of engagement within the university, along with new policy choices that will support and invest in engaged scholarship and collaboration. The result will be a more collaborative approach to both learning and scholarship. The shifts in culture, working relationships, and expectations will create new capacity to work on “big questions” and, thus, will have a measurable impact on the quality of life locally and globally through a focus on building sustainable communities.

Notes

1. “Definition of Sustainable Community,” Institute for Sustainable Communities, accessed October 23, 2015, http://www.iscvt.org/impact/definition-sustainable
-community
.

2. See Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow, The New Production of Knowledge:
The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies
(London: Sage Publications, 1994).

3. Ibid., 5.

4. See John C. Camillus, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review (May 2008): 99–106; Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 155–69.

5. Archon Fung, “Putting the Public Back into Governance: The Challenges of Citizen Participation and Its Future,” Public Administration Review 75, no. 4 (2015): 514.

6. Ibid., 515.

7. Ibid., 517.

8. See Edward P. Weber and Anne M. Khademian, “Wicked Problems, Knowledge Challenges, and Collaborative Capacity Builders in Network Settings,” Public Administration Review 68, no. 2 (2008): 334–49.

9. See John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011): 36–41.

10. Marshall Ganz, “Leading Change,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, ed. Nitin Nohria and Kalesh Khurana (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2010), 1.

11. Mark Leach and Laurie Mazur, “Creating Culture: Promising Practices of Successful Movement Networks,” The Nonprofit Quarterly (Fall/Winter 2013): 18.

12. Debra Humphreys, Heather McCambly, and Judith Ramaley, The Quality of a College Degree: Toward New Frameworks, Evidence, and Interventions (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 7.

13. Leach and Mazur, “Creating Culture,” 18.

14. Ganz, “Leading Change,” 3.

15. Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002), 13.

16. Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009), 2–3.

17. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010), 49.

18. See Association of American Colleges and Universities, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002). For information about the Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, see www.aacu.org/leap.

19. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Greater Expectations, xi.

20. For information about the LEAP Challenge, see http://www.aacu.org/leap-challenge.


Judith A. Ramaley is president emerita and Distinguished Professor of Public Service at Portland State University.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line. 

Previous Issues