Why Are Universities Failing Humanity?
Among all the great universities on Earth, there is not a single graduate program that adequately addresses the global crisis.
Humanity is going through the most turbulent and complex change — at planetary scales — that it has ever gone through and there is literally no PhD program on Earth dedicated to preparing scholars to address this situation.
I will explain why this is the case by combining anecdotes from my own personal journey with commentaries on institutional history drawn from the work of others to (a) explain how things came to be this way; (b) express that it is unlikely things could have evolved any differently for important historical reasons; and (c) sketch an outline of what we might do now to remedy this unacceptable situation.
But first, let me try to back up my bold claim. Is it really the case that universities do not prepare graduates to manage the complexities of 21st Century global threats? There are centers for advanced research at places like the MIT Media Lab, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University, Future Earth with a network of regional hubs around the world, Harvard’s Growth Lab, the Oxford Martin School, and the UK Met Office for integrative climate studies. Each in its own way brings advanced training to scholars and researchers working across disciplines on extremely complex challenges. And this is but a sampling of world-class infrastructure that exists in the world today.
But do any of these organizations take a fully integrative approach to the coupling of human and ecological systems capable of designing and implementing policy solutions at the appropriate scale to avoid planetary-scale systemic collapse? Do they train people to intervene in ways that can save us from running ourselves off a civilizational cliff? I ask this question because the current reality is very much one of humanity speeding toward this increasingly inevitable outcome. Whether you consider the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, increasing alarm bells in every new report of the IPCC, or the crossing of planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Center, it is clear that humanity is either on the threshold of catastrophic collapse or it will soon cross a threshold that may not be seen until it is too late.
This is a time of extreme urgency and need, yet almost no major institution on Earth is mobilizing its capacities to address the scale of our predicaments.
How did things come to be this way? Why isn’t there a PhD program that brings together major discoveries in the biological, physical, and social sciences (alongside the deep importance of the arts and humanities) for mapping out the causes and consequences of biological, physical, and social evolution of planetary systems? I don’t ask this question idly, it has been the central pursuit of my entire career.
Let me step back and share a personal story. I graduated from high school in 1995 and entered my first academic environment by enrolling at Southeast Missouri State University that same year. As the valedictorian of my tiny class (I grew up in rural Missouri and was ranked first in a class of 32 students), I was awarded the prestigious Governor’s Scholarship — a full ride that covered tuition, room, and board — which gave me the intellectual freedom to take a non-traditional path through the academy.
Six years later, I had completed three undergraduate degrees. The first in interdisciplinary studies was a combination of physics, philosophy, and dance that bent quite a few rules as I gained permission from top administrators to move outside the rigid confines of degree requirements. This was accompanied by the completion of degrees in physics and applied mathematics as I dove head first into the philosophy of science as a burgeoning complexity researcher.
Flash forward five more years and I acquired a masters degree in atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where I again moved across disciplinary boundaries as if they were shadows dancing on a dimly lit wall. This time I was laying groundwork for navigating the complexities of global change as an Earth Systems scientist who increasingly cared about the human drivers of planetary change.
But then I got stuck.
There came a point where my intellectual journey was so much at odds with the administrative structures of this truly world-class research institution (all graduates of UIUC know how much excellent infrastructure and personnel are available for advanced training). But I was at a loss to know how I could continue — for my work required a merging of physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities that was nowhere in existence at the time.
And I knew this with confidence because two of my years in Champaign were spent helping design a groundbreaking undergraduate program in Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability that now accepts 75 new students per year. As part of that project, I mapped out all existing course offerings and research institutes on campus while gathering comparative studies of different educational programs across the country that aspired to do similar things.
There was no place in the United States to pursue what I was looking to create, which I can now describe as an intentional science of large-scale social change focused on global challenges.
How could this have come to be? My sketch of the history will be brief — for its purpose is merely to be illustrative of the kinds of mechanisms that drove the evolution of institutions in the last 100 years. A useful starting point is the prescient essay of William James written in 1903 called The PhD Octopus where he outlined a systematic critique of a new management practice being implemented at Harvard University at the time. This practice being that only a person with a PhD in an academic program would be eligible for hire as a professor in that subject.
The practice exemplifies the larger pattern that set the stage for how universities would develop and change across the 20th Century. Academic departments would be created around established scholarly disciplines. In the early days it was fields like biology and physics, history, and English (or whichever other language was appropriate for the institutional culture). These subjects later branched out into new fields like ecology, genetics, molecular biology, computer science, and so forth — but in every case the core practice was to have each academic unit manage its own hiring process for faculty, oversee admissions for incoming students, and set graduation requirements for completion of undergraduate, professional, and advanced degrees.
As the current president of the Cultural Evolution Society (a colleague and friend of mine), Peter J. Richerson, recently noted at the inaugural meeting of this scientific community, the management framework created a mechanism of cultural selection at the level of academic departments that has since gone on to influence all future structural developments of universities as they changed across time.
If you want to become a student, you have to choose an academic discipline. If you want to do research, you have to compete for faculty positions at an academic department defined around an existing discipline. And if you want to teach, you are required to fit your courses into existing disciplinary programs. If you want to contribute to solving a problem, it has to be one that is recognized by disciplinary experts in your academic field. Sit with this for a moment and let it sink in just how powerful the accumulation of changes has been across the last twelve decades as this organizational development process took hold at universities around the world.
The situation is complicated further by the ways that funding mechanisms like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health in the United States (and their analogues in other countries) set agendas for which topics will get financial support. Academic researchers — each representing a field of study developed in the institutional frameworks of universities — became advisors and shapers of research agendas that then became inaccessible to anyone who is not in the intellectual country club of academic scholars. Simply peruse the grant opportunities in these massively influential institutions and you will quickly learn that you are ineligible to apply unless you have a doctorate from an accredited university.
Said another way, one must go through the institutional silo of an academic department at a university to be eligible for funds to conduct research of any significance.
And now we can begin to see the problem as it truly is. There has been a cultural evolutionary process of institutional change that gave rise to “intellectual species” — the disciplinary expert — who then set the agenda for future developments of scholarly work for academic and non-academic researchers. When we see this in historic context, we can begin to think about how a solution might be brought into existence from here.
More on that in a moment.
A criticism that might be brought against the assessment I’ve made so far is that there are academic institutions in the world that seek to address global issues in a systemic manner. A few among many that could be named are Antioch University, Evergreen State College, and Schumacher College. Each has in its own way sought to address the limitations of more “mainstream” universities by crafting programs in whole system design, integrative approaches to environmental studies, and related topics. My response to this criticism is that — while I applaud these efforts — they are not capable of scaling up with research infrastructure to do things like build high-performance computing facilities, fund advanced materials research laboratories, create collaborative frameworks across national labs and other universities to achieve things like the Human Genome Project or the creation of an ecological equivalent to what CERN is for particle physics.
In other words, they lack the capacity to do systemic research because they don’t have the infrastructure or partnerships needed to do so.
I note this because it is only through massive cooperation among government funding agencies, universities, and private sector partnerships that such large-scale endeavors have been achieved in the last 100 years. There is a reason the Earth Institute is at Columbia and the Media Lab is at MIT. For these are academic institutions that direct the flow of many hundreds of millions of dollars in research investments — and it is only at scales this size and larger that the global crisis can hope to be tackled in any meaningful way at all.
So I do not fault the Schumachers and Antiochs. They have an important place as experimental projects in education. But they have failed to scale for many of the same reasons integrative efforts haven’t taken hold in mainstream institutions. The disciplinary silos that create funnels for learning, teaching, research, and funding have created barriers to integration across domains of knowledge relevant to the convergence of global crises. And so we must find another way forward if we as a collective humanity are to succeed in time.
Let me also add a comment about “political capture” and how the story I’ve just described doesn’t address the compounding issues with budget cuts and massive wealth transfers from public coffers into private hands. Nor does it deal with the spread of Neoliberal and consumeristic ideologies in the ways people think about colleges as products or job placement programs. Readers familiar with my work know that I have written hundreds of articles in the last ten years about wealth hoarding, the architecture of wealth extraction, the root causes of inequality and poverty, and related topics.
Relevant to this conversation is the near-total absence of systemic insights like these from academic institutions — in part driven by the lack of integration across the social sciences that were alluded to above. Scholars and researchers who seek to address systemic issues at universities must paddle against huge organizational currents, as is well known by anyone seeking to be both an academic and a transdisciplinary researcher.
Which brings us back to my story…
I still don’t have a PhD even though I have now contributed substantially to the fields of cognitive science, Earth Systems, and cultural evolutionary studies. You won’t find many lead authors in Nature who still look for academic offerings and are unable to find an intellectual home for their work. Yet I am just such a person.
My two attempts to create an academic home for myself were failed efforts at entry into interdisciplinary doctoral programs — one at the University of Oregon in 2006 and the other at Stanford in 2011. Now that I am three years into a lead role birthing the Cultural Evolution Society mentioned above, where I helped build coordination capacities for historic efforts to synthesize biology with the social sciences across dozens of academic fields. As I survey hundreds of universities around the globe where I have professional contacts, there is no place in which to plant the applied science of cultural evolution at civilization scale that I have diligently been working to create for twenty years — the last twelve of which have had no institutional supports.
Here is where my story is a mirror to the larger system. For I have met thousands of young scholars on my meandering journey who want to do research and create design practices in exactly what I am trying to create, yet they too have no home on offer to them at any university on Earth.
So now we come to the conundrum of our times. How DO we create the synthesis of knowledge and effective practices needed to guide our collective evolution as a species in these times of extreme threat? What can we learn from the history of organizational developments at universities in the last 120 years?
First and foremost, we need to recognize that entrenchment of institutional interests will tend to set in at whichever level gatekeeping is done for admission of students, hiring of faculty, and funding of research agendas. Do this and you will see that administrations and funding agencies have the power to rethink which level of cooperation — academic departments or larger thematic levels like the cumulative threat of human-induced global warming or systemic crises for societies with extreme wealth inequality — they will define their level of cooperation as the operational playbook for future organizational change.
By this I mean to say that interventions are needed to bring cooperation to higher conceptual levels than they currently exist for most universities on Earth. We need to stop selecting students, faculty, and grant proposals within disciplinary boundaries and start framing problems at systemic levels around which coordination is found to be needed for adequately addressing them.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that there was no smoke-filled room or nefarious master plan that gave rise to the reductionist silos of the academic world. It was merely the level of selection at which culture played out on the evolutionary stage of institutional change. We needn’t blame anyone and instead can roll up our sleeves and get to work changing the level of selection for where future organizational structures are likely to arise.
This means funding agencies need to be reorganized around systemic issues (ecological disharmony and extreme inequality have already been named as two high-profile opportunities yet to be capitalized upon; dealing with exponential technological change would be another). University administrations need to restructure hiring practices, admissions processes, and curricular offerings to reflect these systemic issues. Only then will students seeking to help drive home solutions to the global crisis actually find an intellectual home for themselves in an academic setting.
Are universities really failing humanity? I’m afraid the answer currently is yes. Will they continue to do so? That is a matter of culture design — only if we choose to remain on our current course knowing systemic collapse will arise somewhere down the road. It is up to us how we collectively choose. I, for one, have chosen the problem-focused approach that requires partnerships across many academic subjects. As more scholars make this choice, there will be increasing pressure to serve this population as the looming challenges intensify on the world stage.
Note that I have not given a full description of the interventions that will be needed. This is done by design. For it will take much more diversity of expertise than one lone Renaissance Man could possibly muster in ten lifetimes of learning. Our challenges truly are that complex. So let us come together and combine all that we collectively know to make problems like this tractable in the next few decades.
Onward, fellow humans.
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