It has been my view for some time that attachment to the traditional disciplines is making it harder for universities to adapt to changing circumstances. Most universities organise themselves in accordance with disciplinary boundaries that, in the case of the humanities, go back to the Middle Ages, and in the case of engineering and science, to the 19th century.
Now, in a recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education where a number of prominent thinkers were asked to describe ‘the defining idea of the coming decade’, Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research suggests that it might be necessary to abandon disciplines in order to ‘think beyond old boundaries’. She points out that the problems universities are asked to help solve all tend to lie between disciplines; but universities, organised into disciplines that stay shielded from others often for budgetary reasons, can find it hard to embrace interdisciplinary methodology. Their work is often determined and assessed by peer review panels, which are overwhelmingly established on disciplinary lines.
In fact the academic attachment to disciplines is far-reaching. As people progress in their careers, the discipline they are in tends to determine working methods and even personal friendships. Often a lecturer will feel that their primary allegiance is to their discipline, with the university often coming a rather poor second. Breaking down this particular order would be very difficult and could meet very significant resistance; but it may well need to be done. But if it is done, it may fundamentally alter the nature and atmosphere of the university.
I think that change is necessary, but it will fail unless it is properly prepared and unless academic consent is secured along the way. All of this should be part of a broader campaign for universities to regain society’s trust and confidence.