Academic Asepsis

Written on March 29, 2008 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Dean of
IE Business School

Wilhelm Von Humboldt
(1767-1835), founder of the eponymous Berlin-based University, is
generally considered as one of the fathers of modern University and his
ideas have inspired most higher education institutions in Europe and
the Americas. One of the salient features of his legacy was the
development of a sciences taxonomy and the consequent organisation of
university departments according to a set of knowledge areas and
disciplines. The main aim behind this major effort was to advance the
progress of knowledge through the specialisation of academics. Since
the compendium of human knowledge was, and still is, so vast, it was
virtually impossible for academics to effectively develop research
unless they focused on a given field of knowledge and dealt with their
scientific peers.

The specialisation of academic knowledge and
the consolidation of independent disciplines also resulted in the
development of multiple degrees, according to the subjects studied by
graduates at university. This changed the pattern existing before, when
most university graduates shared a similar generalist degree, following
common curricula, and most applied knowledge was learnt while
practicing the profession.

Undoubtedly, the specialisation of
academic knowledge and the generation of research through university
departments have produced an unprecedented progress across the
sciences, the humanities and the arts in the past two centuries.
However, different factors affecting higher education in the last
decades, including globalisation and the impact of new technologies,
have led some analysts –particularly in management education- to point
out at some of the negative consequences of the division and
compartmentalization of knowledge. One of the more extended criticisms
is encapsulated in the called “silos syndrome”, according to which
university departments have become like silos where its academic
members are detached from reality, partly because they are sharply
separated from scholars from other disciplines. Putting it bluntly,
finance professors only relate to other finance professors, they only
attend finance congresses and only publish in finance journals, which
are –obviously- read by their finance colleagues; of course, they are
authorised to teach and research only in their field of specialisation,
i.e. finance.

A further problem derived from this syndrome is
what I refer sometimes to as “academic asepsis”: only those academics
with the right pedigree and who belong to an identifiable academic
group –sometimes called “school”- have the legitimacy of producing
valuable research in their own field of knowledge. They are the
authoritative sources of knowledge. Parvenus, such as practitioners
lacking the conventional academic credentials, or those belonging to
different disciplines, should be left out of the club, in order to
guarantee the quality of the knowledge generated or taught.

I am drawing a caricature of what reality actually is and, I believe,
even at very compartmentalized universities academics understand the
value of interdisciplinary initiatives such as co-teaching or
co-publishing by different area professors. However, department-driven
universities face the challenge of articulating an integrated vision of
the world to their stakeholders, mainly their students, and of avoiding
a narrow and irrelevant concept of research.

Do we need a 21st Century Von Humboldt?


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