The New Look of the American University?

This past weekend I attended a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) alumni event at their Mountain View, CA campus.  Fully expecting to get hit-up for one of the fund raising campaigns (and I did), but I wanted to get a look at this Silicon Valley campus which didn’t exist when I attended in Pittsburgh, PA decades ago.  After spending five-hours, between the planned program and networking with the faculty, I came away wondering if I had just seen the tip of a major change in American universities.  Granted there is a long way for CMU to go and I’m not seeing similar signs from my other alma maters.

What did I see?

  • An invitation to the alumni to feel welcome at the campus and not only visit, but to participate.  They are not just talking about coming to homecoming, watching a football game and leaving a pile of money behind (that is located on the Pittsburgh campus, anyway).  They are starting-up an alumni mentoring program for graduating students and are planning alumni events around facility/student research projects.  What is next, the faculty and alumni consulting?
  • A serious approach to teaching the students in hands-on, project teams with the instructor as a coach.  Course knowledge is delivered when needed by the team so they can put it to immediate use, thus increasing retention.  All projects are forced through the full process from initiation to closure, including full planning and mock management reviews.  This is a lot more real world than I experienced in school.
  • A serious approach to merger of science and art.  The event had a panel discussion which included two alumni pioneers in this area: Ralph Guggenheim a co-founder of Pixar and producer of Toy Story and Richard Hilleman video game producer of the original Madden Football, NHL Hockey, PGA Tour Golf and Tiger Woods Golf, and others.  Based on the accomplishments of these individuals and other, CMU has created interdisciplinary degree programs that don’t exist in any other university.  This is significant on two fronts: (1) The uniqueness of the educational opportunities and (2) collapse of the wall between isolated fields of study (in other words, vanishing turf wars between the bastions of academia).

Yes, I came away wondering if I had seen the tipping point of educational change.  What are the possibilities; if alumni stay engaged with the university throughout their life and act as a continuous improvement feedback loop, from the real world; if the process of content delivery is as important (or more) than the knowledge, thus delivering students bringing immediate value to business; and if the students follow their passion in defining what they study (as in the cases of Guggenheim and Hileman) and change the world in the process?

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