The essay The Transformation of American Journalism is Unavoidable, from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, says:

“There used to be [a news industry], held together by the usual things that hold an industry together: similarity of methods among a relatively small and coherent group of businesses, and an inability for anyone outside that group to produce a competitive product. Those conditions no longer hold true.

If you wanted to sum up the past decade of the news ecosystem in a single phrase, it might be this: Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the start-ups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate, narrowly and broadly, outside the old strictures of the broadcast and publishing models. The past 15 years have seen an explosion of new tools and techniques, and, more importantly, new assumptions and expectations, and these changes have wrecked the old clarity.”

How much of this is applicable to today’s research universities, where the old clarity, if not wrecked, seems to be slipping away? The Internet and digitization are altering long-established practices of knowledge generation and dissemination. Globalization, the water we swim in, is increasingly internalized in the aspiration of many universities to “become global.” Commercialization expands in the form of innovative for-profit teaching based on MOOCs (massive open online courses) or research platforms based on proprietary big data. There are growing government demands that public research funds be tied to short-term pay-off and expectations of skill-based teaching linked to employment opportunities. (These developments are, of course, not limited to the United States, but I’ll leave it to others to comment on national and regional differences.)

Research universities are robust institutions, conditioned and protected by deep traditions. The rapid and wholesale transformation experienced by America’s news industry is not their future. Neither, however, is their future the comfortable continuation of the present. This requires that we ask the same question as journalists – what are the underlying normative principles that must be preserved even as practices and institutions change?

This is a big question. A full answer would take us deep into a discussion on academic freedom; what constitutes knowledge in the public interest; tensions between the autonomy of knowledge and accountability for public funds; the methods and rules that distinguish between fraud and truth, accuracy and inaccuracy; and principles of effective and responsible teaching. Seriously examining such questions is not the task of a blog, but listing them reminds us that the modern higher education system rests on a normative foundation. Features of that foundation will no doubt be modified – peer review, for example, might be challenged by government-determined science priorities; the market might set the value of a certificate of learning.

Incursions into the traditional university monopoly over research and teaching notwithstanding, universities (along with museums, libraries, scholarly societies and publishers) will continue to insist on the value to society of public interest knowledge and protect the principles and practices necessary to that knowledge. This is in the interest of all nations, including their government and commercial sectors.

Author: Kenneth Prewitt, Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, Director of The Scholarly Knowledge Project, sponsored by SAGE publications

Image: A student walks across a university campus REUTERS/Mike Segar