In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Building a Meta-University

Friday, December 18, 2020

Author: Darryl L. Farber, Douglas Melton, and Monty Alger

Engineering practitioners, researchers, and educators struggle with complex systems. They keep us humble. Even as understanding improves about the complexity of both the natural and the artificial worlds and the interactions between them, and with growing knowledge about how complexity is generated through the development and deployment of engineering systems, new problems arise that need to be solved. These are “wicked” problems where defining the problem itself is a problem. Personal and social values complicate the problems further.

How then can new competencies and capabilities be developed to understand and learn about complex systems and associated problems? We focus here on prospects for higher education, specifically the idea of a “meta-university.”

What Is a Meta-University?

As conceived by Charles Vest (2007), the meta--university would function as a distributed and decentralized network of universities. They would rely on a variety of means and platforms for sharing scholarship—-teaching materials, archives, and research laboratories—in physical and virtual spaces to increase access, affordability, and learning effectiveness both for personal growth and development and for societal impact. Since Vest’s initial formulation, the concept of the meta-university has grown to include partnerships with business, non-governmental, and government entities.

The Value Net

Another way to describe the workings of a meta--university is through the lens of a “value net” (Brandenburger and Nalebuff 1996), which portrays relationships among participants in a market with one firm or enterprise, such as a university, at the center of a network of customers, suppliers, complementors, and competitors. The value net provides a unified view of the market playing field and the “players,” to highlight the interactions that add value. The value net grounds different scenarios of learning and learners and recognizes added or subtracted value in each of them. In effect a value net describes how the meta-university will emerge and evolve.

Relevant Initiatives

We are encouraged by two initiatives in our practice areas, call them working prototypes toward the meta-university concept.

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Institute for Learning and Innovation is developing new pathways for students, faculty, and professionals to better serve the “marketplace” of chemical engineering. And the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network has engaged 51 universities in developing a digital platform,, for sharing practices across a variety of topics. The platform expands the horizons of and access to engineering education to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset, collaboration, and ethical character.


These initiatives and others, such as edX and Coursera, also point to challenges:

  • How to develop a learner-focused platform that has rapid cycle time, offers options for a diversity of learners, provides extensive feedback, and is affordable and scalable
  • How to break down the legacy silos across natural, engineering, and social phenomena and be accessible in multiple ways that do not require a linear progression and that connect diverse communities
  • How to instill a sense of judgment to assess and manage risk and to decide and act ethically.

These are new capacities and competencies that need to be developed.


The meta-university facilitates understanding and unification of complex systems in at least three ways:

  • It unifies diverse participation over an expanding value net focused on education and the learner. The meta-university is not a brick-and-mortar place but a network of participants, and its essence is the interactions of the participants focused on the advancement of learning. It is a system for learning that enables an individual learner teamed with an intelligent machine agent to construct an engaging and unified course of study (personalized learning) that is recognized in the labor market. Learners enabled through human-machine teaming have access to a much greater universe of educational offerings.
  • The meta-university is a catalyst for new systems thinking. It is self-organizing and unifies value net stakeholders into a coherent “academy” where the participants’ attention (a scarce resource) can be focused on addressing specific problems or issues from multiple viewpoints, like the NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering (e.g., advancing personalized learning, managing the nitrogen cycle, or preventing nuclear terror). It serves as the catalyst for integration and convergence—a unifying viewpoint—among disciplinary perspectives that enables a higher, general level of understanding of complex systems.
  • The meta-university reaffirms that a universalizing viewpoint is necessary to comprehend and address “the big picture” of global circumstances and problems. A larger conception of the relationship of engineering systems to society is needed to address what appears as a fundamental transformation in society primarily enabled by digital technologies that is like the transformation brought on by the Industrial Revolution. It raises such questions as the following: What will be the new roles of workers especially with the increase in teaming with machines, an arrangement that promises to augment human intelligence and abilities? What capacities, capabilities, and competencies need to be designed, developed, and sustained?

Democratizing Higher Education

Deep uncertainty about technical workforce needs over the next 10–20 years highlights the need for strategic analysis and scenario planning to better understand the possible futures of higher education and engineering systems education.

For standalone universities, such an analysis would inform transition plans, which would include new reward, culture, and collaboration practices. The enterprise model for the standalone university may require a restructuring of its processes and systems, which heretofore have resisted change. Clusters of universities that are willing to experiment, especially those that have experimented in scalable online tech, will likely be the first to test and find alternatives to current standalone university models.

As Charles Vest noted, the meta-university may become the dominant form of higher education in the 21st century, rising above the barriers and inertia of existing capacity to become the unifying force for democratizing a quality, accessible, and affordable education. The “new education” will help develop the capacity to understand and resolve the world’s most complex systems problems.


Brandenburger AM, Nalebuff BJ. 1996. Co-opetition. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Vest CM. 2007. The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web: Governments, the Private Sector, and the Emerging Meta-University. Berkeley: University of California Press.

About the Author:Darryl Farber is a professor of engineering at Pennsylvania State University in the School of International Affairs and the College of Engineering. Douglas Melton is program director at the Kern Family Foundation. Monty Alger (NAE) is a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State and president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.