How I fell in love with experimental universities—and made them the topic of my doctorate

Choosing the right topic for a doctorate is important, but it can also be very difficult. You want to do something that matters, right? So you might fantasize about the thrill, writing all-nighters, and talking about something that is yours to a large audience. In the meantime, you wait and occupy yourself with other things.

Then one day, you stumble upon it.

For a while, you may not realize what has happened. You may mention the idea to different people, mostly to hear how it sounds. And then it becomes so obvious that this is it and you wonder how come you have not seen it before.

That’s how it was for me with the topic of my future doctoral project—experimental universities, for which I am currently writing a research proposal.

Purposeful things touch your heart

When I was a teenager, I went on a day trip around the castles of Volyhnia in Ukraine. One of the castles happened to be in Ostroh, and so did Ostroh Academy, a modern successor to the 16th century institution of the same name. The Academy occupies the building of the former Capuchin monastery. It is a very serene place, and there is something magical about it, something of Hogwartses and Castalias. The Academy never really left my mind, and in three years I came back as a student.

Being a school in a remote location, my alma mater had to experiment. The study schedule was flexible and changed on a weekly basis to accommodate visiting professors. Unlike other Ukrainian universities, as much attention was paid to seminars as to lectures. Finally, there was an array of study programs unusual for the Ukrainian higher education landscape, such as Creative Writing or Theology. In the Academy, for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. This was where my fascination in higher education began.

In my current job I am part of the group that facilitates university transformation in Russia at the SKOLKOVO Education Development Centre. Our headquarters are in Moscow, but we travel all over the country, trying to bridge the gap between what universities are and what they could be. Most of my colleagues, like myself, were once exposed to alternative educational models. I think that alumni of experimental universities can never be truly indifferent towards higher education, because purposeful things touch your heart.

Over the years, I have developed a renewed fondness for universities with an unusual design. They serve as convenient illustrations for any idea I want to convey. A unique interpretation of teaching? Take Maastricht University in the Netherlands, combining problem-based learning and research-based learning. Decidedly interdisciplinary research process? Take Zeppelin University in Germany. Stakeholder engagement in decision-making? Take a cooperative university like Mondragon in Spain.

Last year, it finally dawned on me: experimental universities are more than just curious cases. They are more important than everyone thinks. They can become turning points.

Why do experimental universities matter?

The reason why experimental universities matter is because, well, first, they are just different and as such diversify higher education systems. Experimental universities are the best antidote for standardization. One example: in the dark times of the 19th century, when only men could get college degrees, Wesleyan College was the first school chartered to grant degrees for women. Another example: modern private German universities offer education for generalists in the country of narrow specializations. In countries where alternative university models are plentiful, students can find the school to suit them perfectly. They can become exactly what they are meant to be.

Second, experimental universities serve as laboratories for new models, methods, and approaches. For example, problem-based learning (PBL) spread from the initial group of founder universities: McMaster University in Canada, Maastricht University in The Netherlands, and Roskilde and Aalborg universities in Denmark. In the recent decades, successful experimental universities have actively engaged in “model export”, disseminating ideas and practices internationally—as an illustration, see Olin’s Collaboratory.

Finally, a successful experimental university can make us reimagine the University itself. The coolest historical example of this was the University of Berlin, which gave birth to the Humboldt’s Ideal, the model of the research university. The Humboldt’s Ideal became a new standard and spread around the world like wildfire.

I want to understand how one creates an institution like that—not just a unique model that occupies a small market niche, but a university that is capable of influencing the whole system of higher education. It is one thing to be an outsider who somehow manages to survive in the class but a completely different thing to make popular kids follow your lead.

XU”—starting the work

On a very bright and cold day last September, I told a friend about my idea and asked what he thought. It was the first time I was seriously discussing this with someone. He listened very intently, and said the idea was good. He also said he might just have the guy for me and introduced me to the professor he thought could help me. Suddenly, the project became real.

Writing a research proposal is a lot like falling downhill with trekking poles strapped to your wrists. At first, you cannot tell up from down, and everything gets in your way. But we only take those poles to beautiful places. If you persist, you are bound to end up somewhere interesting.

There are pleasures to planning the research project, too. I was rewatching X-Men when I thought—what a marvelous mischief it would be if I abbreviated my experimental universities as “XU”! “EU” wouldn’t work anyhow, and let’s keep “Ex-U” for the antiuniversity movement. I decided that I will look at modern and historical cases of successful XU, understand how and why their models came to be, and distill the findings into a guidebook for everyone who is thinking about creating a new higher education institution or donating to one. There will also be a book, a website, stories. Done right, this project could do a lot for the world.

But can I do it right..? I am not sure yet. On days when I work on my research proposal, I fall asleep scared and excited at the same time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dara Melnyk is Head of Research Group at SKOLKOVO Education Development Centre. She has a BA from The National University of Ostroh Academy (Ukraine), and an MA from St. Petersburg State University (Russia). Dara’s professional and research interests fall under the umbrellas of university transformation and experimental higher education.

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