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The millennial university, then and now: from late medieval origins to radical transformation

Barton Kunstler (Director of Educational Services at the Global Management Consortium, Massachusetts, USA.)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 April 2006




Reflecting on the forces that produced the first universities 800 years ago provokes consideration of today's universities at the start of the new millennium. The paper complements Snyder's critique by suggesting that higher education engage in an exacting review of its most cherished assumptions, from the categorical definitions of disciplines to the fundamental structure of its pedagogy.


Comparative historical research fuels a conceptual examination of the university today. It adopts Snyder's view that higher education is currently adrift in fulfilling its academic mission and sustaining itself in a competitive environment. This approach yields a much more dramatic range of future plausibilities for contemporary universities than do more conventional extrapolations.


Rearranging schools and departments will not solve its problems, nor will it make much of a contribution to the state of the world. But digging deep into the wellsprings of knowledge, learning, and wisdom, and engaging in the great work of harmonizing the university with the emerging needs of its era and the concomitant forces of social change, can only energize the culture of higher education.

Practical implications

The article has important implications for strategic planning in higher education. It argues that universities will become increasingly irrelevant if they fail to recapture the spirit of exuberance, intellectual discovery, and social relevance evidenced by the earliest universities. This can be achieved by reassessing the university's mission and social role, utilizing technology to accelerate the learning process, and rethinking disciplinary definitions to reflect the explosive growth of knowledge and changes in methodologies in virtually every academic field. The most enduring transformation will begin with a dramatic shift in program content and pedagogy rather than reliance upon organizational restructuring.


A historically‐grounded vision of the university's current creative potential establishes a reference frame that bestows the freedom to transcend linearly progressed trends. The university can then be re‐imagined as a vital transformative and healing institution uniquely suited to its mission in an era rife with anxiety, uncertainty, and risk.



Kunstler, B. (2006), "The millennial university, then and now: from late medieval origins to radical transformation", On the Horizon, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 62-69.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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