A visionary university without a vision
2009 saw yearlong celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of one of the worlds oldest universities, the University of Cambridge. From humble beginnings in a secluded market town, Cambridge University has emerged to nurture some of historys great minds from Milton, Newton and Darwin through to contemporaries like Stephen Hawking, and Amartya Sen. Discoveries born of Cambridges research labs such as the decoding of DNA and in vitro fertislisation (IVF) technique have revolutionised scientific thinking and practice, while it's Footlights Club has served as a launch pad for the careers of social commentators John Cleese, Eric Idle, Stephen Fry and Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat). Yet while the 800th anniversary celebrations bowed to tradition and past success this came with recognition that these should serve as the foundations for, rather than architects of, future endeavours.
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So how did those tasked with framing the future of a visionary university build a sufficient vision to propel future achievement and serve the objective of transforming tomorrow? Quite simply, they didnt. Having a grand vision was dismissed as something that would risk prematurely narrowing scope and limiting potential. An explicit vision might put boundaries on scientific endeavours which by definition should be boundaryless, or assume that the subjugated knowledge of today holds relevance in the world(s) of tomorrow. An explicit vision might prematurely label that which has yet to form or be born. There was no room for vision.
The rationale appears well grounded; none of their predecessors anticipated the great changes of the 20th century. In this period one third of Cambridge colleges we're founded or officially achieved collegiate status. During the same time Cambridges reputation for exclusivity and competition gave way to diversity and collaboration, both in terms of student intake and research activities. Thus rather than relying on a predetermined image or aspiration, University Vice-Chancellor Alison Richards claimed that the seeds of future success would lie in remaining ferociously engaged, holding fast to certain values and thereby shaping and adapting to changes around the world. This emphasis on the nature of values and dedication that underpin success at the expense of a grandiose and potentially limiting vision is one to admire. Indeed, recent events in the corporate world suggest it is one which may well hold relevance far beyond university life.
To this day Cambridge University remains wonderfully secluded yet open to the world, steeped in tradition but not scared to constantly challenge the ideas of a previous generation. There is little risk of complacency born of success, or becoming blinded by an image of what the university might become. Instead it's 800th year history has bequeathed the university with the critical insight that the best way to deal with the future is not by attempting to manage it or map it out, but to create it by living it.
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