This article is published in the September 2005 issue.

Computing: Our Role in 21st Century Universities and the Knowledge Economy

Musings from the Chair

As computing researchers, we can rightly take pride in having been key enablers of today’s knowledge economy; networks, sensors, data management systems, email, web technologies and collaboration tools have helped create the global village. As Marshall McLuhan described so perspicuously in the 1960s, “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

Globalization, like all change, has brought both challenges and opportunities: challenges to existing structures and processes, and opportunities for increased collaboration and community building. News and press sources, including Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, The World Is Flat, have focused on the economic impacts of globalization—offshoring, business process change and economic competitiveness. However, the implications for universities are just as substantial.

Although some pundits, including this writer, have observed that, given the slow rate of change, the rector of a medieval university would instantly recognize today’s university structures, the central theme of university over the past two hundred years has been increasing democratization of access. In the United States, early private and public universities were later joined by the “land grant” institutions, created under the 1862 Morrill Act to create “Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” In 1944, the U.S. “G.I. Bill” made post-secondary education accessible to a new generation of World War II veterans.

Each of these, and similar legislation elsewhere, redefined the compact between universities and citizens and broadened participation in higher education, with concomitant social and economic benefits. Arguably, we are today renegotiating that compact yet again, albeit implicitly. State funding is a declining fraction of most U.S. public universities, necessitating new approaches to mission definition and budgeting. Moreover, the episodic model of higher education, where young adults matriculate and acquire the knowledge needed for productive careers, is being challenged by globalization and the rapid pace of technical change.

In computing, we have long known that an enduring commitment to continuously updating our technical skills is a prerequisite to first-class research and education. This requirement now touches a much broader spectrum of society, as jobs, professions and companies now appear, migrate or disappear in a few years. In turn, this raises a plethora of questions about how we, as computing researchers and educators, help revise the university compact in a 21st century knowledge economy. We are, after all, in the knowledge business!

In this milieu, the policy, social and technical issues abound:

  • What tools and technologies can best sustain lifelong education?
  • As the volume of “born digital” data continues to explode, how do we manage these data to put the right information into the right hands at the right time? In other words, how can we make Vannevar Bush’s Memex real?
  • How do we continue to broaden the base of participation, in computing in particular and in technical disciplines in general?
  • How can we help build virtual organizations rapidly that combine the skills of the best people, regardless of location?
  • How can we foster interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary education that trains individuals to work in collaborative groups?

As Jim Foley noted in a previous CRN column, “Computing: We Have a Problem …” (May 2005, p. 4), issues related to computing research funding and enrollments, within this global context, affect our innovation, economic growth, international competitiveness, national security, and quality of life. In addition to the two task forces CRA has recently formed, which Jim also described in his column, I invite your comments and ideas on additional roles CRA can and should play in these areas.

Dan Reed (Dan_Reed [at] began a two-year term as CRA’s Board Chair on July 1. He is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Director of the interdisciplinary Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI).

Computing: Our Role in 21st Century Universities and the Knowledge Economy