if i had a billion dollars

At a recent glitzy conference, a venture capitalist asked me what company i’d create if he funded me. I thought the question odd but it got me thinking. Lately, i’ve met a lot of genuinely rich people and a friend of mine pointed out that the only thing you can do with that kind of money is buy a private jet. Gross. So it made me think… what would i create? I know it wouldn’t be a tech company…

As a kid, did you ever dream of designing a country? Or a city? Or an island? Well, i did. As i got older, i got more practical. I want to design my own university.

I’m fascinated by university structures. How architecture affects the ways in which people interact and learn, the ways in which collegiate social networks affect long term development of ideas, the ways in which disciplinarity divides, the incentives for teaching and research, the problems with competition for scarce funds, the relationship between formal and informal learning for students, etc.

The problem is that i’m not interested in fixing a broken university – i want to start over. (Yes, i realize the problems with this desire…) But, i want to give people a reason to want to learn, give professors a reason to want to teach/research. I want to create a brand from scratch, truly design a system from the bottom up. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

25 thoughts on “if i had a billion dollars

  1. museumfreak

    I totally see the appeal here. I, personally, would like to start a university primarily thrusted to accomodate students and faculty whose brains work differently from the “norm.” It’s so frustrating for me to be within a conventional university stricture/structure because my brain just doesn’t work that way, but I love the idea in theory . . . I’d be thrilled if someone would pay me to be a cyborg . . .

    I’m curious, would you intend to start an online university, or a physical one? Tell me more about your ideas . . .

    and why is your blog not asking me how to spell apophenia?

  2. EsmeV

    First, I would fund CUWIN’s open source, open architecture mesh networking solution and get mesh nodes made. Second, I would deploy citywide and countywide wireless broadband networks using these open source mesh nodes and offer broadband service free of charge to everyone. A much more fun, interesting and disruptive (to telcos and cable cos) way to spend a billion dollars. Then watch the Great Telco Meltdown from my comfy designer sofa with a bottle of Dom Perignon shared among friends!

  3. zephoria

    Definitely a physical university. One of the primary purposes of university for students is to meet people. It is the first critical point in America when people get to radically shift their social networks. Online schools do not do this. I would be obsessed with diversity on every axis. I think that prissy privileged schools gain a lot from the fact that few students comes in with an already existing social network because few students come from the same high school. I think that this is key – you need to be forced into meeting tons of new people and preferably lots of people who think about the world differently than you do.

    University is not primarily about education – it is about giving you a set of structures with which to engage for the rest of your life. This is part of why teaching is so complicated – your role as a teacher is not primarily to teach content, and certainly not the content of your research. It is to get students to grapple with new ways of looking at material, ways of finding information and ways of thinking critically about what they find. It’s about getting them to engage with material, whatever that material may be. No professor is actually prepared with giving students those skills. But this is first – content sits on top of this.

    (My site is not asking for apophenia because i’ve implemented different anti-spam solutions… thanks to Jay Allen.)

    Esme – yay! That’s definitely your life work. My life work is very much embedded in education and restructuring the way generations engage with the pursuit of knowledge. I definitely don’t think that there is a best way to spend $1B but i know that i’d want to spend it on structuring a system to support my life’s work.

  4. TitaniumDreads

    The way architecture interacts with the learning experience is of particular interest to me. I am constantly peeved by the way that buildings treat us as beasts to be herded rather than living beings that need to interact with one another. Stairwells are a perfect example of this. I frequently run into someone that I know on the stairs but can’t talk to them because we would be holding up traffic. All stairwells need to have chairs and benches built into them.

  5. Adam

    danah, that is the NEATEST idea, and I hope you don’t mind if I steal, er, borrow, um, expand upon it 🙂

    At my ideal university…

    – There’d be NO fast food.
    – Students would enjoy cafeterias with comfortable seating and tables that departed from the sterile norm, largely organic food, and a layout and/or events to encourage folks to meet and mingle with new people.
    – Fraternities and sororities would be banned.
    – Wifi would be disabled in lecture halls. Sorry, no backchannels.
    – Dorms would put apartments to shame, and would be heavily subsidized. RAs would be there to facilitate, counsel, not police.
    – The arts would get funded (and lauded) on equal footing with athletics.
    – People would be assigned to first year dorms by administrators to facilitate diversity, break up cliques, provide balance in terms of extroverts/introverts, artist/athletes, engineers/English majors, etc.
    – Most classes would be around 15 students.
    – Printing in computer labs would debit student accounts 10 cents per page to minimize paper waste.

    Whew… I could go on and on…!

  6. John

    I have heard speculation that Bill Gates will eventually create from scratch a big university (i.e., costing A LOT more than $1B) on the scale of Stanford or Harvard.

    I used to tell my friends about an entity called “John’s University,” which was designed to be a U with no central administration.

    That, to me, would be the “killer app” for higher education. The money savings alone would reduce tuition and fees by a significant margin.

    At the time, my big innovation was the management of majors: Instead of having actual programs, all students would design a major with an advisor (1:1; virtually unmediated by administration) and the student would have to sign up 5 professors who would sign off that the student had met his her obligations each semester, and, finally, for graduation.

    Additionally, John’s U would take no responsibility for student housing, student health, the faculty club, and much else. To some this would be draconian — an abandonment of what some like most in contemporary Universities –, but I think it would free up students and faculty to study, work, and participate in public culture. (Indeed, it would treat students like the adults they are.) In a sense, this would return much of University governance to the medieval model.

    There are yet some resources that I do not think are amenable to this model. Perhaps the primary one is the library. One catch about contemporary University libraries is that if you look at library spending, you will find some crazy expenditures for science journals, while libraries will complain about renewing certain journals in the humanities. There seems to be some serious unevenness here. Maybe John’s U should expect faculty and student to rely on public libraries as well — they could use the pressure from such a constituency to beef up their collections for the general public.

  7. Sean Savage

    Right on danah. But don’t throw out everything. The thing I love love love most about the typical North American university campus is very simple: this is the only place left in society here that’s physically designed for living without cars. Everyone walks and bikes. So everyone is physically a little healthier, and socially too — the environment doesn’t force folks into their own little bubbles.

    One of the other things I love (although it’s rapidly disappearing): these are about the only places left designed for living as a human and not just as a megacorporate consumer. So Adam I want to live in your university, but with no billboards, no banks of single-channel always-on TVs, and no kiosks luring students into credit card debt in return for logo-laden plastic sports bottles. (But strike the “no IM in lecture halls” rule.)

    And while we’re dreaming, no military brainwashing kiosks or boot camps on campus.


  8. zephoria

    Oh, i definitely would not throw everything out. Actually, quite the opposite. I would start by asking what systems currently exist, what purpose they serve and what they need.

    For example, Adam mentioned fraternities and sororities. I have never been in them and have a sour taste in my mouth about them (magnified of course by my advisor’s research on them). Instead of just saying they’d be banned, what i’m curious about is what purpose they serve. Well, for starters, they create social solidarity around ritual and tradition. They give people a site in which to bond and develop deep relationships. Their hazing phase lowers psychological barriers that help people bond (very similar to things like the Arete Experience or Landmark – loved by frat-hating San Franciscans). They connect new students to older students and alumni as well as frat/sorority members at other university, building a very valuable and structurally brilliant social network.

    Then of course, there are the negatives. Some of which have to do with creating cult-esque network structures and ritual-driven elitism. For example, in the frat/sorority, there’s an attitude that the frat/sorority is more important than the rest of the university.

    Next, i started thinking about other collegiate setups that follow this pattern. My undergrad advisor Andy van Dam had a cult of personality that built out a structure very very similar to the frat. There were rituals, networks that crossed generations. We lived together, ate together, played together. Our “frat house” with the CIT (computer building). There was psycho drama, issues around dating, hazing, the whole nine yards. There were in groups/out groups and elitism. It was both frustrating and wonderful.

    Rather than getting rid of frats/sororites, i would wonder how we could model the most valuable aspects and reduce some of the detrimental externalities.

    As for no cars – definitely. This comes down to architecture. In the late 60s/early 70s, campuses were re-architected to limit large students groups from gathering. The side effects at Harvard were brilliant – it created nooks and crannies where people sat and communed right outside. At Brown, it created a mess of buildings that meant people never saw each other. There are a lot of interesting architectural approaches that force interaction. I’m actually in the camp of inverting the 60s/70s approach.

    One of the architectural elements that i think is essential concerns the placement of dorms, eating establishments and classrooms. Dorms should be on the inside of campus, not the outside, forcing students to constantly be present on campus. Students should have to pass by different social gathering spots to get to class and to get to food. Food establishments should be relatively large so people can gather in large numbers and “accidentally” run into each other. Bikes should be practically useless except for getting across campus (as opposed to Stanford which is set up so that no one can walk which minimizes accidental encounters).

    It’s stuff like this that i’d want to think through. I think it’s unhealthy to start with the shouldn’ts; instead, the key is to start with the whys.

  9. zephoria

    John – the thing is that i think you need to start with flexible architecture (social as well as physical) to build distributed organizational schemes. But you do want to start with the well-being of people on the campus and create the space for community. Universities are not solely about education but distributed organizational models assume they are.

  10. Kevin Bjorke

    That’s what Walt Disney did, grabbed some readymade pieces (Chouinard & the LA Conservatory) and slammed them together with a bunch of other stuff in the late 60’s — and a key part of the initial design was, as you say, care about how disciplinarity divides. CalArts initially had six schools: art/film/dance/music/theatre plus an overarching “critical studies” to mix them up and potentially re-define them over time. Sadly the last school rapidly atrophied into a department once the individual schools started on demarcations based not on content but personal staff agendas (art, political? who’da thunk?). How to stop or control this? I’m not sure. Didn’t work for King Lear, that’s for certain.

  11. Adam

    danah, very good points about frats ‘n’ sororities and asking WHY rather than simply saying thou shalt not. You’ve definitely persuaded me that yours is — albeit more difficult — more rewarding in the long run. And given that the surest way to get young people to do something (and dearly WANT to do something) is to ban it, your thoughts make more sense in the short term, too :D.

    But how to replicate the bonding while not the unwanted bondAGE? I’d say look to thematic groups. Though humorously dysfunctional in a few ways, I still think that Marching Band and other organizations are often closer to the ideals of a Community that’s open, fluid, strong, and so on. At Stanford, for instance, and at many other schools, ANYONE can be in band. Can’t play an instrument? They’ll teach you if you’re willing to put in the time.

    Also, here in San Francisco — although out of the college realm — I’ve found that Lindy Hopping (swing dancing) carries with it a wonderful community (with sub-communities)… in fact it’s rather a global one. On the whole, I can stay at a Lindy Hopper’s house in Singapore and she can visit here at stay in my apartment simply based upon the fact that we’re Lindy’ers — “good people” — much the same as if we were fraternity brothers, etc. But the difference between Marching Band and Lindy Hop and other thematic groups vs. fraternities is that it’s not our skin color or our ethnicity or our religion or our money or other things with high-barriers-to-change that sort us out and connect us, but rather malleable attributes that are, in the end, valuable achievements in and of themselves (arts, music, etc.). For that matter, then, I suppose one could also say sports teams also make for good communities (I found this to be so while on Novice Crew (rowing) at Northwestern).

    * * *

    I love your architectual models overall, especially moving dorms to the center of campus and encouraging people to walk, not bike or drive, to their classes. With that said, though, I’m not sure if I like the idea of mega-cafeterias outside the center. That just sounds too institutional and forboding to me. Instead, I prefer cafeterias right where you live. Ideally, while the tendency to eat in your own dorm would be strong, there could be thematic or other specials — perhaps weekly — offered at each cafeteria which would encourage intermixing (“Primo Pasta night at Jones dorm,” “Very Vegetarian night at Collins.”) By keeping the caferias dorm-based and small (or at least not huge), you’d facilitate small-group mixing and also likely provide a wider choice of atmospheres and quality (not mass-produced) foods. Also, with cafeterias right downstairs in the dorms, folks’d be more likely to flop downstairs (even in their bathrobes and slippers) to join in a communal breakfast than if they had to trek across campus to get something other than a coffee and donut or leftover pizza in their fridge.

    I admit that your idea of what-would-you-build-with-a-billion-dollars has been rather skewed towards the university idea, but wow, it’s something that I find especially fascinating in and of itself! I spent 8 years in college (undergrad and grad), living on campus every year actually, and was floored at how much wonderful stuff colleges got right and yet also devastated at how much they completely missed the boat on facilitating learning and community building. Colleges ARE in a need of a rebuild from the ground up!

    * * *

    Oh, and a quick followup question to danah and others: Given that you’ve said (and I agree) that students should live in the center of campus… do you also think all professors (and their SO’s) should live there, too?

  12. Marja

    With regards to Johns U and the idea of taking the administration out of the university – I’ve been at University in England and Finland (switched ‘majors’ – from literature to law – and unis and countries) and hence have experience of two different types of educational systems… the core difference being, in Helsinki the university is mostly concerned with research and education whereas the city offers its students housing services (regardless of what institution of education they’re studying at) and the Students’ Union supports itself with government grants and its own private enterprises (it has a travel agency, several student caf�s, and a nightclub, amongst other things), whereas in Birmingham the university (Birmingham University, there are five in the region) is far more involved with student societies (the Guild of Students gets university funding) and the students’ accommodation (especially in the first year; in the second year, the students tend to move to shared houses) and hence, the student culture. Both systems, I would think, emerge out of need: students are poor, so some sort of centralised administration to help them through the long years of education is vital. In Finland, Universities are state-funded and they can collect no tuition fees, so they can’t afford to support student societies (and I don’t think they ever did, even when they had the money, it’s just not seen as part of a university). In England, Universities have pressures to make money… as all universities are underfunded. This leads them to, amongst other things, investing lots of money into attracting more foreign students (International students from outside the European Economic Area are ‘pure income’) and selling the university brand… understandable in a capitalist system, but entirely unnecessary in Finland 😉 (where most universities are thought to be good or great anyway; when I get my master’s, I’ll probably be employed in the field of Law within 0-2 months – but then, I’m already living in the capital).
    One problem with the Finnish system is that, since we’ve always had all students graduating as Master’s of something, the Bologna process will cut the funding of the Universities in some areas (like engineering) – particularly those where you can do fine with only a Bachelor’s – because the Universities get state funding partially by the amount of people getting their Master’s and with their Bachelors’ in hand, students will stop writing their Master’s theses… (But this’ll be fixed with time, undoubtedly.)

    I guess the point I’m trying to get at is: the American/English social services are renowned for being CRAP so universities are forced by circumstances to nanny the students who see themselves as buyers of these services (seeing as they go into debt to pay for uni – when scholarships aren’t enough)… in Finland, the broad range of social services make it possible for the university to be unconcerned with where the students are living yadda yadda yadda, as we – who pay no tuition fees and may choose to take a tiny loan or work and live on the state-funded support – do not expect them to – and this results, amongst other things, in more freedom and efficiency. The university doesn’t care if I’m depressed (there’s YTHS or Nyyti for that, two different, independent organisations that provide mental health services for very cheap prices), it’s solely concerned with providing people with opportunities to learn and the minimum requirements for a degree. Say, a Bachelor’s in Law is 180 credits, I will probably get one with 240 credits, including 45 extra credits in languages and the rest in sociology and women’s studies… a Master’s in Law is 120 credits, I will get one with 110 credits in Law (as is required), 25 in languages, and some more in something else (probably sociology and third world studies). That’s true academic freedom… I don’t have to pay anything for extra learning.

    In conclusion: there’s always lots of administration involved with providing opportunities to learn (and I’m sorry to say, with the Bologna process and the biggest generations growing older, Finland is moving more towards Universities planning our studies, what with there being a need to get students out of the universities quicker – they actually offered me a plan of my degree, but I shunned it). Still, I think decentralising services for students is a good idea… as long as the independent organisations are still able to offer good services for decent prices. Which is probably not a realistic scenario in a country like the USA.

    I’m sorry to have rambled so much.

    What I would like to change about American and British universities is the admissions system (but I would also import the LSAT to Finland, where 90% of the students who get into my Law school – but not I, may I note – pay for very expensive entrance exam prepping courses)… what do references and personal statements and SATs and interviews have to do with scholastic aptitude and your potential to grow or to do your degree? Entrance exams give students who fucked up high school and the choices made there (like, not taking higher level/AP mathematics, a choice I still regret) by being depressed/unchallenged by the education/lonely (e.g. me) an equal opportunity to get into university to do exactly what they want. For as long as prepping courses don’t ruin it. And as long as the material for the examination is available for all at a decent price (which it is not, incidentally, at my University – 190� is a lot of money to throw away into not getting in, when the two other law schools in the country offer their entrance exam material [law books] for 65� or 45�).

  13. coturnix

    Wow! That is EXACTLY what I’ve been dreaming of for a long time now. Now give me the billions!

    My version, though, is full and seamless integration of the University and the Town (a Village, really, due to its small size).

  14. Andreas

    Have you ever been to Cambridge in the UK?

    I suppose you could make the village smaller, but it was smaller originally and the university was there back then as well.

    I feel like we’re slowly moving closer to something like a monastery here. Or an ivory tower…

  15. FG

    You really should pay a visit to University “Carlo Bo” in Urbino next time you are in Europe. There are very interesting university environments developed by the architecth Giancarlo De Carlo during the last three decades. This is also an invitation 🙂

  16. John

    Adam . . . Interesting remarks that the Finnish system can be light on university-managed social services because they have a socialized backdrop.

    As you can guess, when I speculate that the public library might be more responsive to student/faculty needs, I’m really suggesting that certain things might well be moved to that sphere. I.e., out of the U., and into the public realm. But, as you say, the public domain — or I should say, more narrowly, public financing of institutions — in the USA is crap (as you say).

    Now I’m depressed.

  17. zephoria

    I actually don’t think that professors should live on campus. The incentive structure there is all wrong. Most professors are not enthused by 24/7 with 18-year-olds. And, honestly, their role on campus is primarily as parent-figure. This works for some, but it’s not a good motivator for many. I think that faculty should spend time on campus, be available for engagement, but that they shouldn’t be forced to live there. They should be allowed to have their lives and peer groups and children with the support of the university but without having to be in the middle of it.

  18. dylan

    You are not alone in this dream. I’ve always wanted to design my own highschool. An environment that will foster kids wanting to go there, social skills, as well as learning.

  19. Michael

    By coming up with a clear vision, you have half of what you need. The remaining half is to go out there and do it!

    You don’t need millions of dollars all at once. All you really need is a way of making the act of instruction self-sustaining. The web creates some interesting possibilities here. Start small, then build up when you have the means.

  20. Lori

    My design-from-first-principles fantasies also include countries, cities (both municipalities and city-states), islands and universities. Since your billion or so of seed money comes from a venture capitalist, I can only assume that the money comes with fiduciary responsibilities, and can only imagine your university being of the University of Phoenix ilk, where you can major in anything you want so long as it’s business.

    Being, as you are, a young punk scholar, you look at re-inventing the university from the perspective of someone who makes a living in the university industry–addressing primarily professional academic concerns, which is OK as it goes.

    I would propose that a population underserved by the university-as-we-know-it is the ‘nontraditional’ (i.e. adult) student who wants to major in something other than business. Not necessarily the retired and semi-retired PME’s (professional and managerial elites) who want to do the liberal arts thing as a hobby, as that market is also now being tapped. Rather, say, the burned out middle aged college graduate such as myself who regrets not having tried for (other than MBA) graduate school. Maybe Redo U. would be the perfect antidotealternative to Reinvent U.™

Comments are closed.