Sources of Knowledge

In a post last month, Kris Olds raised the issue of expanding sources of legitimate knowledge. This is a point that he has been writing about for some time in his more formal research. Citing a survey done by Technology Review, Kris points to a declining role in the importance of universities as the source of leading technology innovators. Kris states,

The broad trend that we have noted is that firms, think tanks, NGOs, multilateral organizations, topic-specific expert groups, and so on, are playing an increasingly important role in the production of knowledge, of innovation, of creative impulses.

Speculating on the causes he ponders,

Is it because of relatively low pay, or rigid institutional structures and lack of opportunity for career progression? Or is it because of ever increasing demands on faculty as mission mandates widen? Or is it due to morale challenges in the context of limited (or declining) levels of state funding?

These are broad categories and include many different aspects of the problem. I’m not certain how my feelings on this fit in to these explanations. The university produces a very particular kind of knowledge. It is the form that broadly speaking fits in the research program of a PhD student and is designed to be published in a top research journal in his or her field. Universities generally demand a very long apprenticeship before issuing to a student the right to do this kind of work without extensive supervision.  As innovation becomes increasingly important across fields, this sort of training seems less and less relevant.

In fact, whole new categories of preparation have been created to legitimate non-PhD holders with the credibility to be legitimate sources of innovative knowledge. For the most part, these are called professional degrees, and include the MBA and other similar ‘business degrees’. You might also include such qualifications as E-MBA and other post-graduate diploma programs. After all, a bank may need an expert as an energy analyst, but what need would they have for the kind of knowledge a PhD could bring?

While it would be true to say the scholarly expert plays a smaller and smaller role in innovative knowledge production, there is another way in which the he or she has come to dominate knowledge. The system of preparing experts through academic degree programs appears to have a life of its own and the university has remained a necessity for aspiring experts of almost every kind. This is even more true now as universities have developed a global monopoly on professional training. Scholarly experts have thus gained a very real power as the gatekeepers of almost every knowledge system. And in some ways, this is now much more the role of the university – or at least most universities – than the traditional role as the producer of innovative knowledge.

In hindsight, it seems almost natural to me that the university would be less and less relevant as a source of innovation. The major issue at this point is not whether universities can retain their position as knowledge innovators, but whether they can retain their monopoly as certifiers of legitimation. At present, there is virtually no challenge to the university granted degree as the measure of the ability to speak on professional topics. Even those who claim to challenge the quality of knowledge imparted by the university imitate exactly its model of certification.

While there are still many issues left unsolved with regard to understand the relationship between innovation and the university, I wonder about other problems. Particularly how the university will weather these coming changes. Is this the kind of situation that will lead to crises? Have universities peaked as a source of certification innovation paving the way for a new institutional form? If so, what institutional form could possibly replace the university?


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