A Pivotal Year for the Committee on Coherence at Scale

By Charles Henry posted 04-14-2016 14:33


First convened in 2013 to reinvigorate and rejuvenate higher education in the United States, the Committee on Coherence at Scale believes that the inherited norms, customs, traditions, and institutions that have structured academic research and teaching have contributed to an expensive, fragmented, and inefficient organization of higher education that now needs to be constructively challenged, redefined, and subsequently reassembled. As the Committee looks ahead, several founding tenets remain in play; we also expect to continue investing in most of the areas of recent activities. Some changes regarding the constituencies we wish to engage, and the pursuit of a more structured governance, are noted at the end of this post.

The committee continues to promote two overarching goals. The first is to effect substantive changes in the culture and behavior that govern and inform decisions, including funding models, within the community of higher learning. The Committee’s main point of interest is academic knowledge organization. Knowledge is the fundamental product of our colleges and universities. Discovery of new knowledge, in tandem with sustaining our intellectual heritage across generations, is the framing concept and rationale for all of higher learning. Today, our knowledge environment is disorganized and exorbitantly expensive, segmented by an array of local, redundant investments: academic presses defined by a paucity of experimentation; multiple, disconnected repositories; thousands of libraries and remote storage facilities; bundled institutional journal subscriptions, with most of the bundled materials of little or no use to the schools that lease them; silos of data; and proprietary data sets of our cultural and scientific legacy.

The committee’s second objective is to promote a coherent digital environment that allows for the robust interoperability of all facets of academic knowledge organization and management as a public good: an environment that manifests the shared interests and intellectual productivity of higher learning sustained over time. There exists today a unique opportunity to construct such an environment: never before have so many well-conceived, large-scale digital projects begun to flourish. Each of these projects represents a fundamental aspect of our knowledge organization, whether it is publishing, preservation, accessibility, advanced searching, or the reuse and repurposing of our intellectual resources.

These principles will continue to frame a series of activities that have proven instrumental to our mission and which we intend to pursue in the next three to five years. These include:

Understanding the transformation of scholarship and learning. Key to the Committee’s purview is the ongoing oversight and funding for analytic and simulation studies of key potential transformations in the current system of research, scholarship, teaching and learning in order to identify, test, and validate underlying assumptions. This includes gaining a more sophisticated understanding of costs and alternatives. 

Helping to realize a coherent and comprehensive national infrastructure. The Committee will continue to connect, provide support, and reinforce the interoperability of projects that appear to be reliable components of the emerging landscape.

Coordinating and prioritizing policy initiatives—Many of the organizations represented on the Committee on Coherence already have extensive federal relations programs but it is becoming clear that some current developments are enormously complex and full of unexpected consequences. The recent programs on Big Data or the National Supercomputing Strategy are examples. The Committee will serve as a forum for developing and coordinating strategies for dealing with such proposals, and also for reaching out to the administration to follow on to other issues. 

Within this framework of activity, some important changes are envisioned for the Committee beginning in 2016.

A more forcefully articulated mission. A consequence of academe’s highly individualized and intensely competing institutions over the last century is that significant changes to the traditional model of research and information management require a broad coalition of decision makers. Two or three universities, or ten, cannot effect a rationalization of currently fragmented and expensive habits of doing business. It will likely take 30 to 40 institutions to make the necessary improvements and efficiencies the Committee envisions. This is an exceptionally complicated undertaking with little precedent, and represents the chief challenge to the Committee in the foreseeable future.

A shift in targeted audience. The Committee has functioned well within the communities of academic libraries, information technology organizations, and large scale project representatives, and will continue to work assiduously with these constituencies. Going forward, it must also reach out to presidents and provosts as a chief professional category of fundamental importance for the wider collaborative decision making essential to improve the cost and efficiency of higher education. 

Greater structure for the project. To date, the Committee has operated  informally, meeting about once a year and communicating through various academic social networks. We are studying the feasibility of hiring a project manager to more concertedly organize the various strands of Coherence activities—policy making, research, funding, and scenario projection.

Outreach to the private sector and corporations as funding sources. The Committee deems engaging with and persuasively incorporating industry and private interests essential to its success and longer-term sustainability of the coherent digital environment it strives to build as a national good.

 Charles Henry is president of CLIR.