What if We Ran Universities Like Wikipedia?

Anaheim, Calif.—A silly question? Maybe. But the analogy, made by a speaker at the Educause conference here today, reflects a recurring theme at this year’s event: Do our university bureaucracies still make sense in the era of networks?

In a session called “The University as an Agile Organization,” David J. Staley laid out the findings of a focus group he conducted asking educators what a college would look like if it ran like Wikipedia.

First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.

And instead of tenure, it would have professors “whose longevity would be determined by the community,” Mr. Staley said, and who would move back and forth between the “real world” and the university.

Universities “seem to be becoming more top-down and hierarchical at a time when more and more organizations are looking more like networks,” said Mr. Staley, who expanded on the Wikipedia theme last year in Educause Review.

The Wikipedia analogy struck one observer as silly. Universities are nothing like an encyclopedia, and Wikipedia is nothing like a university, argued Siva Vaidhyanathan, associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia.

“At least he is pushing universities to be more like a not-for-profit,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan said in an e-mail. “Most shallow thinking about universities yield prescriptions to be like businesses.”

He added, “But he clearly understands Wikipedia about as well as he understands universities. That is, not very well. Wikipedia is peculiar. Its brilliance is in its peculiarity. It’s also more static, intellectually conservative, and elite-governed than most people believe.”

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