The Ghost in the Machine: Human Capital and the University of 2040

The Ghost in the Machine: Human Capital and the University of 2040

Each iteration and forecast of higher education’s relentless cost disease has proposed technological fixes:  scaled open education in digital environments, predictive analytics, blockchain verification, crowdsourced assessment – an AI driven training machine, fine-tuned to student and employer need, relentlessly driving the expense ledger into the ground. Despite a distinct lack of success of digital leverage in improving investment scenarios for governments, universities, and students alike, there remain relentless positive framings of diverse affordable futures – if only we would give in to the machine.

There remains good reason to be optimistic about education technology innovations as long as we center ethical learning and improved outcomes at the heart of that story. They can and will generate transformative economies of scale and reveal insights into learner behavior that will allow us to produce efficiencies and pleasures alike.

The university winners – survivors? – of 2040 will, however, be those institutions that reveal, activate, and cultivate the highest quality human interaction and insight possible. Job market displacement, new modes of learning delivery, and, yes, responsive learning systems will produce something that can legitimately be thought of as a deep alienation. It will resemble the disorientation and diminishments of the past, especially as regards the mis-measure of human potential and the crisis of meaning in the face of permanent economic disruption. Our uncertainties about the relationship between learning and thriving in the age of AI means we must become expert at the uncomfortable intersection between purpose and knowledge.

We already see students and their families betwixt and between humanistic measures of return on investment and a finer calculus of opportunity cost and lifetime earnings. We see crises of cultural confusion in and around the university – depression, anxiety, hostility to speech and inquiry, ambivalence and sometimes xenophobia towards outsiders – that speak to the extent and force of the coming disruption. This emergent crisis of confidence is not singularly a matter of misplaced faith in new operators to deliver core post-industrial competencies, driven by profit, and unbothered by the distractions of a progressive social agenda or the political economy of reputation. Nor is it simple populist rejection of our core values of inquiry, openness, and faith in scientific progress. There is a legible fraying of the historical covenant between universities, their funders, and the whole continuum of stake-holding.

What does this reorganization of human capital look like? The investments we made in the 19th and 20th centuries in honoring content knowledge and that drove scientific discovery and disciplinary maturity must now be made in mediation for its own sake. While we will never diminish or abandon sustained cultivation of deep knowledge or inquiry-driven innovation and problem solving, it is time to begin to invest, value, and reward differently.  The high functioning university of 2040 will be populated by a class of experts – arguably as great in number as the  narrowly defined content specialists whom we previously knew as faculty – who will facilitate and negotiate the relationship between learner talents and aptitudes, available opportunities to contribute to a public or private enterprise, and the role of leisure and contingency in the future world of work.

By 2040 we will have entered a new era of inter-institutional collaboration fueled by the development and stewardship of vast digital archives of high quality and “verified” learning materials. The long-predicted diminishment of coverage and comprehensiveness as markers of institutional maturity will have occurred and physical campuses will be less locations for inplace learning of all possible subjects and instead rich sites of sustained counsel and deliberation. Empathy displaces both history and mercurial notions of research excellence as the core marker of value.

Where does this mediation happen? First and foremost – between learners and experts in learning systems. Advising and supervision will evolve away from its current auxiliary status and urgently become more central to our enterprise. As such, this will also require a reconsideration of a system of rewards and security, even a complex re-evaluation of institutional hierarchies. Content expertise will continue to be democratized while the interrelated questions of the deployment of knowledge and the iteration of passion and purpose will continue to present themselves as urgent, perplexing, and unruly.

The emergence of learning engineers on the design side of the equation must be met with the development of transformation specialists on the wisdom side. Learning engineers and transformation specialists will collaborate around a new system thinking that will look to minimize incongruous waste of human potential and a world of work distant from the old verities of loyalty, place, and deep identification with organizational desire. Negotiators, mediation specialists – not unlike the class of experts that emerged out of early 20th century labor relations and the crisis between capital and workers – will assist too in the framing of stakeholder stories and resource need.  This work is both technical and pastoral.   It means working back and forth between the emergent grand library of opportunities and a perpetual crisis of meaning.

Why is this reorientation towards mediation and the human a question of survival? The university’s historical monopoly on credentialing is coming to an end.


“The very democratization of knowledge that presents individual learners with such a remarkable universe of opportunities will diminish the need for centralized systems of verification embedded in arcane tradition”


The university’s moment of disenchantment is coming and our best opportunity to preserve a re-energized cultural authority is to embrace the new enlightenment. Invest in guides, mediators, coaches, wayfinders, and touchpoints.   Value empathy, connection, liberation and shared prosperity.

This is not the triumph or return of a narrow therapeutic ethos – although illness, disorientation, and a healing purpose will need to be part of a new framing of expertise. In the early 1960s, Clark Kerr, in his paean to the late industrial knowledge industry, The Uses of the University¹ wrote:

“The multiversity is a confusing place for the student. He has problems of establishing his identity and sense of security within it.  But it offers him a vast range of choices, enough literally to stagger the mind.  In this range of choices he encounters the opportunities and the dilemmas of freedom.  The casualty rate is high.  The walking wounded are many.”

The wounded are still with us and they are us – not only “students” but all who gaze upon, value or dismiss the learning enterprise. We would do well to invest in a little first aid.


¹ C. Kerr, The uses of the university, Harvard University Press, 2001, p.3



James C. Hall is the Dean of University Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology and holds the Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa.   He is previously the Director of New College at the University of Alabama and the Convener and Executive Director of the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning and is active in conversations about student autonomy and university transformation


Header photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

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