For most of my adult life I have found you need not look far for those who declare the current situation to be the “worst ever”, so at the risk of joining that chorus of doomsayers; I will submit that the state of affairs in higher education is not the rosiest it has ever been; given the rapid advancement of technological replacement for traditional means of instruction and knowledge dissemination, the defunding of state support for higher education and what appears to be a growing consensus that universities should be run in a fashion similar to that of corporations. Leaving aside the fact that corporations are often run with apparent disregard for the well being of our planet and its sentient beings, “university-as-efficient-factory” is a goal virtually impossible to attain, even if it could be justified as an aspiration; for the “raw material”, i.e. students, are individual representations of the reason de etre for all organizational activities, not something like putty to be shaped. That is to say, in this case, our raw materials are us (or other humans); and what we do to and with them is tantamount to what a person might do to, and with; his hands, feet, eyes, and so on.
University campuses, in my opinion, are at high risk in the current environment; given that virtual campuses are more efficient, since each student would use less energy to connect remotely rather than to assemble in one or a few locations, fewer instructors would be needed to provide “Max Headroom” type talking-head delivery, and compilations of knowledge in electronic formats are logical replacements for libraries, books or other “old-fashioned” repositories. Computers could research and organize vast amounts of information, turn it into something like knowledge and a computerized voice could announce the results simultaneously to eager students all over the globe. Costs would be infinitesimal compared to the “messier” way we currently provide higher education. State legislators would surely be thrilled with such an approach and those who believe testing is the best part of education would also be delighted, since feedback from students on what they have “learned” can be efficiently captured online and you do not have to stare them in the face when you hand the papers back.
What is to keep the above scenario from becoming reality? I believe it will take a revolution for us to not rush headlong toward this approach and this revolution will have a lot to do with a re-establishment of the understanding that optimum learning: takes place in physical communities, is socially constructed, involves students entering and reflecting on situations strange to them, and actively engages the entire being of the person in real-time experiences.
I have spent the last seven years attempting to build a center at the University of Tennessee – Martin, our Institute for Civic Engagement; where through student leadership, civic engagement, community service and service learning; students, faculty and community partners mutually influence one another toward enhanced understanding of life optimized. In my opinion, those campuses that can create such centers, or otherwise offer a reason for their physical presence to continue; will thrive in the decades ahead, and the others will not.