Pre-Pandemic Models of the University: Alternative Approaches

Another book on the transformation of the University that turned out to be quite a sensation was written by David Staley, Associate Professor and Director of the Humanities Institute and Director of the Center for the Humanities in Practice at Ohio University. The book was published a year and a half ago and was met both with great enthusiasm and negative feedback, therefore, it deserves our special attention. Just like Ronald Barnett, David Staley believes that the University is always in a state of formation by nature, but modern universities suffer from a lack of imagination in terms of reinventing themselves. However, unlike Barnett, who advocates the idea of ​​the Ecological University as the "gold standard" for all institutions, Staley offers alternative scenarios for the evolution of the University. In his opinion, everyone who craves innovations in higher education needs, on the one hand, to focus on the already existing transformational experience of universities; and on the other hand, to not be afraid of purely speculative reasoning that broadens ideas about the future of the University, its possible formats, and scales. 2_Steily.png

The synthesis of these two principles resulted in ten models of innovation in higher education (in fact, ten alternative models of the University). The author offers them up for the readers' judgment, drawing the corresponding historical parallels. For the sake of fairness, we must say that the "prototypes" of most of these models were known long before Staley's book and were discussed by many experts, including such well-known authors as Noam Chomskyand John Moravec.

According to Staley, the general outlines of the innovations in higher education are as follows.

Platform University refers to the metaphorical idea of ​​a supermarket open 24/7 for anyone to get whatever they need and leave whenever they want. And this applies not only to students but also to professors. There are no full-time teaching staff and administrators, no formal admission procedures, no specific schedule, no mandatory curriculum, and so on. Students and educators share common interests in a particular subject or research area. Training courses are constantly updated and exist as long as they are in demand. Platform University is a self-organizing structure that operates in physical spaces such as libraries, co-working spaces, museums, offices, manufacturing facilities, and even churches.


A system of Microcolleges can include an unlimited number of microstructures dispersed in a wide variety of spaces - from scientific laboratories to private homes. Each of them is represented by a group of several students, led by one professor with a high professional reputation in a certain scientific field. The nature of the studied issues, the content of the curriculum, and teaching methods here are determined by the experience and personality of the professor - the central "element" of the Microcollege. Together, these microsystems represent an educational ecosystem with minimal administrative regulation. The only factor important but not critical for the accreditation from the relevant regional bodies is the professor’s reputation in the academic community. Certain electronic devices help the professor to capture and analyze their spoken language in order to coordinate and personalize work with students. Microcolleges are focused primarily on people with a high ability to self-organize. 4.png

The Humanities Think Tank (HTT) gives a new status to representatives of the humanities and social sciences. Such centers can exist both within a larger structure and autonomously. This is a team of people representing a spectrum of areas in the humanities and social sciences, whose main function is to read, think, discuss, and compose analytical reports and forecast materials necessary for the development of government, social, economic, and military strategies, the formation of alternative policies and the solution of vital problems for individuals and society as a whole.

Nomad University exists everywhere and does not have a specific localization, which helps to prepare specialists for a cosmopolitan world. They can engage in professional activities both independently (on a freelance basis), and in temporary teams for specific projects. Accordingly, the university is constantly changing its location depending on the specific issues it is going to deal with. Its basic principles are constant mobility that provides a unique educational experience in each particular case, the concept of the city as a campus, and the implementation of the project learning technique.


The Neo-Liberal Arts College radically implements the ideas of liberal arts and is not structured into faculties and separate educational areas. It focuses on the formation of seven basic skills required in the 21st century: solving complex problems; the ability to generate meanings; productive activity; imagination; multimodal (verbal and non-verbal) communication skills; intercultural competence; and leadership. All these skills as the main goal, not a by-product, are developed, first of all, in workshops and in various internships under the guidance of mentors. The College has a campus, but most of the educational process is held in enterprises and organizations that invest in students as potential employees.


Interface University is the realization of the idea to combine/synthesize human and artificial intelligence (AI), which results in AI becoming the "third hemisphere" of the human brain. Artificial intelligence takes over part of the functionality of the left hemisphere of the brain, which allows students to focus more on developing the right hemisphere, whose attributes cannot be imitated by the computer yet. These attributes include curiosity, creativity, imagination, surprise, and reflection. Students are in constant dialogue with their ‘third hemisphere’, completing various educational tasks. The main (core) skill in Interface University is programming.

The University of the Body trains its students to perceive and interpret external data contained in visual, tactile, oral, kinesthetic, and olfactory objects, using all the senses. It also trains students to communicate information through various media of their bodies. To do this, students learn the language of facial expressions and gestures.

The Institute for Advanced Play relies on games, imagination, and the construction of alternative worlds. The Institute is based on the concept of understanding games as the most effective form of cognition. In a way, it resembles a game club, since there are no teachers or students as such. There are only fellow players. Selection is carried out through competition challenges.


Polymath University implies mastering three different specialties at a time, for example, literature, marketing, and chemistry, and forms different types of thinking. Students who study triple majors in widely diverging subject areas develop flexible and complex thinking. The educational concept of this university is based on the idea of ​​the holistic world around us.

Future University teaches both pure and applied futurology through the study of systems of various types.

In his interview forInside Higher ED David Staley explained how he came up with the idea of these particular alternative models for higher education and on what principles he based his concept. He argued that radically new institutions must be built from scratch, for example, as it happened with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. “A very few -- like the colonial colleges, Harvard and Yale -- transformed themselves into research universities, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Those institutions that do transform tend to change into pre-existing forms of the university, as when a commuter campus transforms into a research university with a Division I football program. This is not innovation as much as changing to emulate another institution. Even this kind of transformation is quite difficult to achieve.”

Staley accepted Barnett's challenge to expand his imagination and to propose radically new models of the University. To do this, he studied not only a wide range of ideas on the future of higher education and science, but also the legacy of the founding fathers of innovative universities. The most relevant among the modes proposed are Interface University and Polymath University. Realizing that many readers will see his ideas as pure speculation, i.e. completely abstracted from real practice (especially since the book itself has a corresponding title), Staley considers it quite possible to at least partially implement them. In other words, existing universities can organize smaller versions of alternative - innovative - universities, or rather, colleges, within themselves and engage a relatively small number of students and teachers. If the model is successful, the pilot college may grow in size. It may even reach the stage where, as a startup, it will stand out as a separate entity. This way, existing universities can create incubators for future innovative universities. 8.png

At the same time, one must be prepared for the fact that these new entities will not meet the existing educational standards and requirements for the manner of interaction between teachers and students. It may complicate their accreditation or even make it impossible in the first place. Hence, the implementation of alternative models of the University should be supported by their legitimization.

The book by David Staley, as mentioned above, has caused extremely contradictory judgments from not only average readers but also from the academic and expert international community. To some it seemed too ‘crazy’, to some – ‘not so innovative’, and to some – ‘radically revolutionary’.

Here are some reviews of the book:

“I read this book for a workgroup. I don’t know how this waking dream got five-star ratings from anyone other than an administrator wanting to trim faculty payroll, but I didn’t find anything useful in it. It’s a series of musings about different educational models that share one thing in common- corporations are kings serviced by students and teachers and there is no faculty job security, specialization, etc or really any reason whatsoever anyone would pursue university-level teaching.” (Ann Campbell)

“I cannot convey how dreadful, naive, pathetic, bonkers, and boring this book is. I had high hopes. The revisioning of the university is an important project. Moving beyond 'the crisis' is necessary. …. [But] the 'speculative' designs offered in this book are ridiculous. They were either completely disconnected from the political economy or created a 'microuniversity' that 'serviced' the gig economy.... Our universities were - and are - extraordinary institutions. They have lost their way, but setting up a classroom in a church is not a forward-facing strategy.” (Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research and Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) 9.jpg

“The main issue that I have with this volume is that, "Speculative Design," does not necessarily mean announcing each and every non-traditional concept for education as a possible source of innovation if there is no surrounding analysis and context for how any of this could work. The other issue that is more ancillary but may have made this even somewhat practical would be discussing the actual majors that several of these university designs could specifically target. This would not be appropriate for all of them but …. If you are looking for some notions way out in left field that likely have not been imagined by any of your current university committees, perhaps this would be worth a perusal. Otherwise, I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I heard his ideas, thought about them, and now have no new information nor insight as to how any of this would be tenable, especially in a post-COVID world.” (Dan Graser)

“As a fellow Higher Ed admin quarantined in the time of COVID, this book was a compelling read that presented many models to imagine operating in. There are definitely some possibles (Nomad U, Polymath) and there are definitely some favorites (Microcolleges, FutureU). Instead, I think it's better to imagine a possible future of Higher Ed institutions with the best elements of them all - student choice (Platform), travel experiences (Nomad U), influencing policy (Think Tank), sense-making (Liberal Arts), niche environments (Microcolleges), cross majors (Polymath), cyborg evolution (Interface), and designing the future (Future U). If not done carefully, we could end up with what we've got; post-COVID, we may have no other choice but to truly evolve.” (Leah Macvie)

Of course, David Staley's book is not a list of recipes that can be used here and now. The author honestly warns the reader about this by the very title of the book, introducing the concept of "speculative design" into it. But it is also obvious that it needs to be read, even for the sake of understanding how conservative our own imagination regarding the future of the University is or how open we are to innovations; to what extent we are ready to radically transform the university reality and ourselves in this reality.

Eduard Galazhinskiy

Translated by Snezhana Nosova