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When you think of Penn, what comes to mind? Is it a community of scholars, a US News ranking or a collection of ivy-covered buildings? For many, a university means a campus. Why else do you think Penn spends immense amounts of money on new buildings and then plasters them across our admissions bulletin? I saw something in last week's Economist that made me reconsider what exactly constitutes a univeristy and what role, if any, it will have in the future. Opposite the obit there was an ad for a joint program between NYU's Stern School of Business, the London School of Economics and HEC in Paris offering an executive MBA from anywhere in the world. To my knowledge, it's the first truly global inter-university endeavor. The TRIUM consortium offers executives a joint degree in global business in 16 months through online course work and quarterly two-week study modules at the three schools. In addition, each class will also attend two one-week courses at other partner universities. This year, studentst will visit Chinese University in Hong Kong and Fundacao Get£lio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In essence, this means that with the advent of the Internet age, education will no longer be relegated to a campus or a single university. In the not-so-distant future, the alma mater as we have known it may no longer matter. The Internet is beginning to fulfill its promise to render the bricks-and-mortar facilities that make college excessively expensive and inaccessable virtually irrelevant. It's a welcome promise at a time when institutions of higher learning are checking their academic missions at the door, attempting to corporatize the intrinsically medieval university. However, that very benefit poses a profound challenge to the university because its promise and its threat are one and the same. The earliest universities were much like the modern incarnation we know today, basically communities of scholars and students offering regular courses of study leading to recognized degrees. After all, the Latin word universitas means "all" in a collective sense and could be used to characterize any group of people cooperating toward a common end. The university is essentially an educational guild, no different from a medieval Venetian gondola builders' guild. The first schools -- Paris, Oxford and Bologna -- drew students from all over western Europe, who flocked to study under the various masters concentrated at these schools. Buildings were in no way as important then as they are now. Often univerisities would pick up and move when the need arose. Even Penn moved from Center City to then-suburban West Philadelphia in 1872. Today it would be inconcievable that the University would leave its 262-acre campus nestled in post-apocalyptic West Philly. These very buildings that house scholars and students, fostering the university environment, also constrain our educational mission. The TRIUM project promises for the first time a possibility to divorce the connection between university, campus and degree. With the help of the Internet, students may no longer have to travel to attend college, and if the TRIUM program succeeds, they could seek an advanced degree at a single or a combination of schools from any part of the globe. Why would anyone get a degree from just one school, when you could get a degree from any collection of the top schools? Imagine under the education section of your resume: B.A., History from Penn, Cambridge and Heidelberg. Not bad in my book. Were this to work, I could be working on my thesis from Venice, sitting in the archive with access to primary documents, a specialist in Barcelona and my dear advisor in Philadephia. The TRIUM project has the potential to destroy the notion of the university as we know it, dismantaling regional academic communities and replacing them on a global level. In doing so, universities could return to their original vocation of academics and recreate the medieval communities of scholarship that have eroded in the face of growing corporatization. There are hundreds of programs like TRIUM already readily available worldwide, covering every point on the educational spectrum -- from an e-MBA at Duke to an online VCR repair certificate course from DeVry. And there are currently more than 450 online universities generating more than $2 billion in revenue, according to Chase Manhattan Bank. By 2005 they expect more than 1,600, a sector they predict will be worth in excess of $9 billion. Ironically, the decorporatization of academia could be a better business in the end, something for capital-crazed administrators to consider. Maybe Stanley Chodorow was right after all...

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