Saturday, August 26, 2023

Some Predictions for the Future of Academia

Penn State summer geology field course in Utah

I am now beginning my fifth year as a full time faculty member at my university, and over these past four years I've experienced many changes at both the departmental and university levels. Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic wildly shifted the entire landscape of higher education, but in many ways I believe it really just sped up some changes and shifts that were already gathering steam.

Throughout my adult years, I have worked in a corporate environment, as a federal employee and researcher, and now as an academic (not including the years that I was toiling away in graduate school). I've seen and experienced just about every type of "workplace politics" imaginable. What I've seen is that most institutional changes are ubiquitous across career landscapes, and most are typically driven by changes in funding or costs. In other words, and as cliche as it sounds, most changes can be traced to "the money" (even if the institution is "not-for-profit").

Over these past four years working for a university, I've directed a graduate program, worked across disciplines, collaborated internationally, sat on advisory boards, worked with university executives, deans, and provosts, and developed curricula. I've been a part of campus strategic planning meetings, regular department meetings, and met with hundreds of industry and academic professionals. I've participated in review panels or meetings where the distribution of large sums of money is decided. I've worked intimately with municipal governments, tribal representatives, community organizations, non-profits, start-ups, and billion-dollar companies. I've been on faculty hiring committees and worked with large external donors. I've contributed to city council meetings, state corporation commission meetings, and personally petitioned for policy changes at multiple governmental levels. I've spoken to just about every type of audience imaginable on the topics of climate science, climate change, and education. I've worked with countless governmental institutions, and guided dozens of students through their internship experiences. I've written over a hundred recommendation and reference letters, and also witnessed countless alumni still struggle to find gainful employment. I've written grant applications across institutions, and had many rejected. In short: I've learned A LOT about how the "engines" of industry and academia function and roll along. In many cases, I've seen that people have really good ideas, but are unable to realize them due to countless obstacles, lobbying, and red tape along the way. I've also seen that almost every student I've had come through my program has said that they want to make a difference. They are all motivated and eager to effect change. I have hope for the future, but I also know first hand just what they will all face along the way. It's an ultramarathon of politics, money, and obfuscation.

It may sound like I'm sour...but please understand that the list that follows does not come from a place of cynicism or bitterness...but rather just from experiential observation (although I suppose there is a little bit of "gut instinct" baked in there as well). I'm curious to hear from my fellow academics (particularly those at different institutions) on how they feel about this list. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you see other major changes coming down the pike?


So now that I've been at my institution for several years, I wanted to make a few predictions about where I think the University experience is headed. I think some of these changes are relatively good, others are probably detrimental, and some are just inevitable regardless of their impacts. NOTE: these predictions are made through a lens of the graduate-level geosciences, but many are still university-level changes that I see coming...

It will be interesting to look back on this list in 2030 to see if I was close at all, or if I am completely off base. I mostly just wanted to get these thoughts down on "paper." One disclaimer that is worth noting: I do think that universities with enormous endowments will probably be exempt from many of these changes (at least in the short term).

  • Most (if not all) geoscience and geology programs will either be integrated into broader/interdisciplinary “earth systems” or “sustainability” programs, moved to online or professional programs, or just shuttered completely.
  • There will be an incorporation of sustainability efforts and climate action plans into most campus strategic plans (and carbon neutrality goals by 2030/2040).
  • There will be an incorporation of climate science, resilience, adaptation, mitigation, and climate solutions into nearly all facets of academic programming and across disciplines and departments.
  • Universities will move to more centralization of administration, staff, IT, and travel, grants, etc.
  • There will be a slow migration towards the outsourcing of necessary funding for programmatic and departmental essentials (i.e. field courses, field trips, project funding, programmatic essentials), to that of fundraising/donor or corporate sponsorship sources. The onus will be on departments to raise funds for their programs (as opposed to having university or state support). Think: "6-Week Summer Geology Field Course - made possible by Exxon"
  • Universities will trend towards more NTT, soft-money, and “career track” faculty, with an eventual attrition of traditional tenure track faculty.
  • “Career forward”, “career engine”, and career development initiatives that prioritize professional education for students over pure academic research.
  • A move towards more tuition-focused initiatives (i.e., butts-in-seats, over research dollars).
  • A continued prioritization of business, pre-professional, and sports programs and infrastructure (over research-focused academic programs).
  • Continual (and frankly unsustainable) increase of tuition costs, but with a re-organization of various program and course fees.
  • A swing to a “teaching first” approach for most programs (and away from research) and as such, faculty workload shifts to at least 60% teaching.
  • More administrative task will be transferred to faculty (like portions of grant management).
  • Faculty contracts will eventually migrate to yearly contracts regardless of tenure status, with full yearly evaluations for contract renewal.
  • More MS programs will move to tuition-based experiential professional MS programs that require internships, practicums, or other professional experiences, over traditional theses.
  • More graduate programs will move to an online-only delivery or MOOCS, and will also have specific progressions plans for working professionals (I think this is a big one).
  • Tuition waiver and teaching assistantship support will be pulled back for most graduate programs.
  • More programs will move in the direction of micro-credentialing, certificate programs, badges, and training (or simply shorter, one-year graduate MS programs).
  • Programs will move away from traditional 1-on-1 faculty/grad-student advising, to a multi-faculty approach (i.e. co-advising across programs for all grad students).
  • Most new tenure track faculty lines will require the funding of an endowment (to cover part of the salary) for approval.
  • University overhead (indirect) will generally trend to over 60% at most institutions.
  • States will pull back more of their funding for state institutions, with the expectation of a shift to more tuition dollars.
  • With the advancement of technology like Gigapan, Lidar, and 3-D imagery...and to increase accessibility for all students, many field-based courses, trips, and campaigns will become entirely virtual (e.g., "virtual" field work or field camps)
  • ChapGPT and other forms of AI will be widely incorporated into academic curricula and used by students for things like computer programming and statistics (...but also for cheating)

I wonder how many of these predictions might come to pass...and how many won't. I'm curious what other big changes may come over the next decade that I just haven't (or can't) anticipate. And for any fellow academics reading this, I'm curious what changes you see coming for your universities and respective departments...