Waking Design for 21st Century University: Action Dialogue with Oguz Baburoglu

I was lucky to catch up with Oguz Baburoglu a professor and action researcher in the socio-technical tradition. His consultancy, ARAMA, has become the premier search conferencing team in Turkey. Bringing participative methods to all sorts of governance and university redesign has made them popular, yay!  Oguz is especially intent on helping to redesign the Future University about which he offers  a chapter in the AR+ Cookbook. This is also the focus of our dialogue as we approach the first global gathering of action oriented transformations researchers, where we look forward to Oguz’ participation.

Hilary: What’s calling your attention in your life and your action research these days?

Oguz: Currently we have three major university transformation projects that ARAMA is involved with. The one on my mind today is a university with 38 satellite k -2 schools. A whole system which includes the high school I graduated from. So it’s exciting to work on redesigning the ecosystem together with the university and 38 different location, k 12 schools. That’s also very challenging. In terms of technology we have partnered with Google, to use google technologies in digitalizing higher education institutions.

Hilary: I’d like to learn more about ARAMA. What does it look like to convene participative search conferences in today’s Turkey?

Oguz: Our practice at ARAMA is to always seek opportunities to bring to people together to design or transform their institution. Our Future Design conferences seek every opportunity to mix different stakeholders, we could simply say people together, both within the institution as well as between that institution and many other ones relevant to its success.

Hilary What does that look like say in your efforts at redesign of universities for the 21st Century.

Oguz For instance, at one, the faculty are very eager to respond to our invitations. At another we have started with broader sweeps. Search conference methodology is more flexible and amenable to that sort of emergence. And after some conferencing then we want to prioritize from what we have heard in the initial phase of gatherings. There’s another methodology that we use called polling conference which is useful if we want to bring large numbers of stakeholders to give input on design parameters. Or we would use participative design workshops and we can have a clinic, or open space, the kinds of tools from the kit of an action researcher.

Hilary: Got it. And of course much is written about this, and not just by you and your colleagues. Thank you. It’d be great to taste some of your expertise during our gathering at Chalmers! We’re going to be talking about the transformation of learning institutions. What is your own experience with regard to the possibility of academia and learning institutions becoming more responsive to society’s needs?

Oguz:  I’ve been around the world in terms of sampling academic settings. Two universities in the UK. And then I did my phd at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and taught in several places. In all these I found enormous similarity in the sense that it’s very hard to move change. By and large universities are very disciplinary focused. The professors are in a class of their own isolated from much of what’s going on in the student life space and, even more so from the life space of the community.

Hilary:  Is there a key leverage that can shift the current system toward transformation?

Oguz:  Societal pressure on the university has increased by leaps and bounds. And what I mean by that is the challenges that of the globe, of international organizations and national institutions which confront the university with the kinds of challenges that we as human kind have not experienced before. And there is fantastic technological change, along side planetary threat, and failing financial and democratic institutions around the world. There is resulting chaos, and the massive movement of people either escaping from terror or escaping from the poverty that is increasingly caused by climatic changes. The University has become the prime institution for responding since it has the brain power.

Hilary It makes sense that Society turns to the university. But I am not sure it’s so helpful yet.

Oguz There are now many facilities for collaboration. All kinds of funding and large global corporations funding through their corporate social responsibility. So there are many enablers for universities to respond to these challenges. Your Learning Futures Ficino Initiative at AR+, as I see it, is one that is aimed at this sort of meso level.

Hilary I see us convening champions like you. People who are all for transformative knowledge creation and who bring some resources from within their current space.. We’re developing a global learning community, a stage a platform, to serve our local and global, glocal, sustainability agenda. I see that as personal, micro in your language, and it’s systemic, meso, and large scale all at once.

Oguz:  OK. I often call Turkey the Silicon Valley of university startups. Within the last five years around 100 universities have been started from Ground Zero. We’ve had the opportunity to design just three of them, but given the increasing interest in innovation and intrepreneurship there’s growing interest in our efforts. All three universities that ARAMA have helped design are in the top 12 of the 200 ranked on an index for entrepreneurship and innovativeness.

Hilary:  You’re sitting in a very innovative space. What is it in the new design recipe that liberates us from this millennial old way of being in the Ivory Tower mentality?

Oguz:  We’re seeing an amazing responsiveness to demands of society and local community. In order to respond – and that to me is responsibility of the research and education mission – the university becomes more agile, more flexible. That starts with a curriculum of research that’s being done also within a classroom. The student starts with liberation from a tradition, set-in-concrete curriculum. This also equalizes the distance between the professors and administrators and students. In other words, there is a necessary democratizing happening.

Hilary: When the tasks of research, service and teaching, become truly responsive to community needs, stakeholders become equalized. Right?

Oguz Research should not be just the domain of the esteemed professor. It’s inevitably going this way given our technology. Google and other such knowledge dissemination makes knowledge more freely available. So there needs to be another task for the university. Knowledge creation is that new task. No longer knowledge producers & purveyors.

Hilary No longer what Friere called the banking model of education. In a way the university student was a bit of an empty vessel to be filled by the esteemed professor. Now technology changes that relationship.

Oguz One of our universities has 80,000 students and we’re designing it, using participation of stakeholders in Future Search, so as to have them do social entrepreneurial, and social impact projects in the university town. In a period of one to two years the community will realize the benefit of some inspired projects. It’s no longer university as Ivory Tower against the communities but engaging with the community demands, for prosperity, for general welfare. The professors now has a role change too. A paradigm change, melding practice and theory in a much better way. It’s a very exciting time to, to transform the academia.

Hilary: It is a very exciting time. Classic ivory towers of isolation from the society is not going to work anymore.
Oguz It’s not just a matter of technology. It’s a matter of understanding, engaging, being the communities that are experiencing these kinds of circumstances. The area for reflexivity is doing all the design work in search conferences and the like.

Hilary: I am inspired to imagine these 80,000 students doing social impact projects in a small town.

Oguz: We are increasingly getting the kind of leadership in universities who are willing to take on such challenges. Especially in smaller towns or cities the demand for more responsiveness is more pronounced. Everybody knows everybody.The new university is a big part of the economic system with all the of students, the families, the transportation, the restaurants et cetera. So long as the city governance are able to collaborate, and private industry and civil society, too, then the demand becomes more organized. Willing to work with the students and faculty and so on.

Hilary And you help that with Future Search, to facilitate and enable these mechanisms, e.g., helping think through how should needs be integrated into research, or what kind of, what part of the curriculum?

Oguz Yes, these are the kinds of design questions that one can address in a participatory manner as is all our undertakings. These are not engineering design issues. These are generative co-creative kinds of issues and we help the stakeholders to co-generate actionable knowledge as well as ways of following them through. The assumption that we’re making is that the professors will come along in time. We are not going to transform all the professors. There are 2,500 professors at this university. We have run a number of search conferences. We’re going to be running a decision conference next weekend, to prioritize the number of initiatives that came about with the various stakeholders searches we did. We did them with the students, with the faculty etc.

Hilary Is the action orientation to knowledge creation accepted or even much understood?

Oguz: Educational action researchers are more accepted because of the relevance to the disciplinary domain so there are more action researchers in a school of education by and large. However the school of agriculture, school of medicine, of dentistry, of nursing, all these faculties are very strong at this particular university that we’re working with. So that’s also very exciting because, there is a responsibility to practice in professional schools which dovetails with action research and therefore action orientation is accepted more easily in these knowledge domains.

Hilary Do you hold hope for the action orientation in learning?

Oguz: Yes! And structures of networking matter. There are not so many networked universities around the world. There’s the UN university funded largely by the Japanese government.There is Laureate University, a private university, with over one and a half million students around the world. They have a campus here in Turkey. I met the president actually yesterday. We might be starting a transformation with that university as a sort of local chapter or link node. They’re in the New York Stock Exchange, so it’s one of the few universities that is traded. I’m just citing a couple of network universities, I hope they are more advanced, more engaged in transformational knowledge creation, to engage the society with sustainability related goals. And I have also experience with the Nordic development programs which combine universities with other big societal actors, because of the tripartite relationship mandated by law.

Hilary:  There are different names. I’d say we’re talking about community engaged scholarship, enterprise development, value creation, leadership development, developing collaborative advantage, university-industry partnership, urban development, community development programs.

Oguz There is a colossal networking effort that needs to be done. And that needs to be meaningful. And then having a global organization to be a partner a Ford Foundation, Google Foundation or something that operates around the world.

Hilary:  I hope you can help us! Collaboration and collaboration and cooperation, it’s cropping up from everywhere. I hope AR+ can serve some role. So if you were to come to the meeting what would be the benefit to you?

Oguz:  What would make it worth time to come would be to come with a one or two change agents who I’m working with in the different universities, to give them a chance to be aware of this global initiative, this global effort, and be part of the conversation, so they take something back to their institution. So in a way, this gets my networks here in Turkey to be linked up. That’s very worthwhile for me.

Hilary:  Thank you. It’s great knowing you and learning from you. The sense that we can come into a global shared learning platform and actually do something back at home too. I’m excited so we’ll see where it goes. Thank you so much for your time.

Oguz Bye. Bye.