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Q&A: Dean Alessandro Duranti on the future of universities

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Dean Alessandro DurantiBoom magazine asked Alessandro Duranti, author and distinguished professor of anthropology and dean of social sciences at the UCLA College of Letters and Science, how universities will intersect with society in 2050.
 
Do you think that many of the disciplines that we inherited from the nineteenth century will still be around, and will they look the same in the future?
 
When I started doing this work as a dean, my first idea was: Why don’t we just forget the departments? Why don’t we just think: Who do you want to play with? Who do you want to be with? That should be where you go. And then let’s see what happens in the twenty-first century. But that’s a really hard thing to do. And I didn’t want to be Gorbachev. I didn’t want to destroy the whole thing before we figure out where to go. So my solution has been to say, well, OK, let’s create a parallel universe inside the university that is much more flexible. Let’s play with that and let’s leave the old structure the way it is. That’s the idea behind our innovation lab — to take examples of collaboration and innovation that work and say: Let’s do that. That will be our play place. And let’s find money to do that. And donors are very excited about that. They like this idea of interdisciplinary collaborations.
 
 
Innovation is not a new mantra in some parts of the university, but in others it really is. How do you see bringing the spirit and practices of innovation into disciplines that have been analytical and contemplative?
 
All the young people who have made millions of dollars — and come to give talks to the students who participate in our Startup UCLA — tell these stories about failure. It’s a mantra. You’ve got to fail before you learn how to do the thing you’re trying to do. We don’t have this model. We have the idea that you do the thing, and it should be good, and then you stay there forever and ever. The community that’s interesting to me is one that is much more flexible, that reacts in a shorter time, that is well funded. Faculty come together; they invent something new. It could be they invent a new method, a new model, a new way of working together, a new way of teaching, a new way of collaborating with people outside of the academy. It will be that kind of space that will allow something that builds on what you know but that is different.
 
 
How is thinking of ourselves as engaged in constructing a future together with business, government, nonprofits, society, or communities changing what we do?
 
Hanging out with business people, which these days I do more than I ever did before in my life, one of the most interesting things I’ve found is that they’re interested in people who are creative — that means that the humanities is very important for them — but they are also interested in people who can work together with other people in teams. So much of scholarly work traditionally is Lone Ranger kind of thing. The model of the lab in the sciences is very useful to think with and to use in the humanities and social sciences. And we have a few good examples of that in the social sciences, but that’s not the usual way of doing research and solving problems. So that’s why when I think about the future, I think about these other models, these other ways of doing things that are built on collaborations that might have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago.
 
 
You’ve recently written a manifesto of sorts about how your discipline of anthropology should change to meet the challenges of the present and the future while recognizing that from the beginning it has been dependent on being engaged with the world outside academia, from donors who supported the first anthropologists at the University of California to employers who hire graduates today.
 
We have always been engaged to some extent. And engagement with people who are outside of academia — and people who are not the state or the federal government — means that we actually need to be able to talk to the public at large. When you convince a potential donor to give you some money, you have to explain why it’s a good idea. And that actually makes you think, what is a good idea? What is it good for? Is it good for society? Do we really improve the human condition? Do we do something useful for people? So there’s that side of fundraising, for example, that has all kinds of implications about the relevance of our work for people outside of academia, which is something that often gets forgotten, not only in the social sciences, but everywhere in the university. Faculty need to be able to publish where they’re going to be recognized as scholars by their peers; that’s very important. But at the same time, we also need to write in a way that the public at large can understand. We have to be good at telling stories. And do it in a way that people outside academia hear the story and see the pictures and understand what it is that we do, because then they can see themselves.
 
 
What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?
 
It would be interesting to look at the students coming to campus in the morning. What is that they carry in their backpacks? Will people still be carrying things in 2050? That’s an interesting question. We know now that they carry their phones and they look at them all the time. That we hadn’t seen before. They also carry some books, which we had a long time ago. But in 2050, what will they be carrying, if anything at all?
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