Conversations About Complex Issues: Intellectual Sovereignty and The New Ontology of the University Part 3

Conversations About Complex Issues: Intellectual Sovereignty and The New Ontology of the University Part 3

“The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been carried through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.”

Robert M. Pirsig, American writer and philosopher

 – Professor Galazhinskiy, now we have come to another important question of our conversations: what should be the ontology as a form of existence (functioning) for University 3.0 which would allow solving all urgent and medium-term tasks and work for the future? Will this problem ever be resolved? And are there any ontological properties of the University that form its “DNA” that can be considered indisputable, and which should be present in any of its models, including 3.0 model?

– Indeed, the problem of the ontology of the University cannot be resolved unambiguously, once and for all. This ontology will be constantly redefined depending on how the ontology of the entire society is redefined in the process of its changes. But, of course, there are also essential properties of the University, which let us recognize it, and be aware we are not dealing with any other kind of organizational structure. In addition to the unity of science and education, as well as the autonomy that Wilhelm von Humboldt defined, there is undeniably the diversity and redundancy noted by many researchers after him. We discussed these properties with, for example, Alexander Asmolov and Oleg Alekseev in past bloposts. I have also always believed that the University is a special institution, differing fr om all others precisely in its diversity and fundamental redundancy, regarding points of view on certain problems, topics of scientific research, presented educational directions, qualifications of scientific and teaching staff, opportunities for professional and creative self-realization and so on. The metaphor “TSU is a whole world” reflects these properties. We may not have fully implemented them yet, but we are eager to do that.

I believe that the ontological properties of the University also include its anthropocentrism or anthropo-commensurability. But, as Alexander Asmolov rightly noted in one of our conversations, man is the measure of all things only because they have no measure. That is, only the immeasurable can be the measure of all things, including the University. An essential feature of the University is its systemic inconsistency, which gives impetus to its self-development (autopoiesis). It manifests itself not only in the presence of a dialectical contradiction between fundamental and applied types of knowledge with which the University must equip students, but also, for example, in the fact that the University is an open and, at the same time, closed system. Openness ensures its connection with the outside world and the influx of necessary energy and resources, and closedness ensures the stability of traditions and organizational identity. There are several ontological properties of the University: being a space for endless communications (including unintended ones), subjecting its foundations to constant critical analysis, producing complexity and teaching how to live in this complexity, which Ronald Barnett spoke about.

In one way or another, all serious conversations about the ontology of the University, albeit with the help of various ontological metaphors, revolve around this. Quite a lot of ontological properties of the University have already been described and justified, which in their synthesis create something different from all other organizational phenomena. And each of these properties plays its role in its basic processes (educational, research, cultural, managerial), as well as in the formation of critical thinking as a key requirement for technological and intellectual sovereignty. Some understanding of the ontology of the University seems to have been developed. But at the same time, those “core” properties and characteristics listed most often, in theory, should be inherent in any real university, at least since the time of Wilhelm von Humboldt. However, such properties do not present a complete image. It still needs to be generated.


And here we return again to the question of what the ontology of the modern University really is, that is, University 3.0. And what ontological metaphor it can be conveyed with so that its mental and, especially, computer visualization becomes possible. It is very important for understanding ontology as a form of existence of University 3.0. Successful visualization of the model allows you to work with it, to carry out certain mental operations with the object reflected by it. But the main thing is that the ontological metaphor visualized in the public consciousness activates the processes of necessary social transformations. That is, when a large number of people begin to draw approximately the same abstract object in their minds, this indicates their readiness for specific actions regarding this object. And the University, if you do not reduce it to a specific building with territories surrounding it, is also an abstract object. So, modern philosophers, sociologists and psychologists have already recognized the relationship between ontological metaphors (visualized and linguistic) and the activation of social changes, but in relation to the University and, especially, to its “3.0” model, this question remains open.

– It seems that this is one of the most difficult and controversial issues. Do you have your own working answer to this?

– Yes, but first I would like to explain wh ere it came fr om. The desired metaphorical image must be such that, on the one hand, it is possible to fit the listed ontological properties of the University into it, and on the other hand, this image must be inscribed in modern ontology as a general picture of the world. Many authoritative researchers and, above all, the Spanish sociologist and philosopher Manuel Castells, believe that the most adequate reflection of today's reality is the concept of a network society. In the network society, people's organizational structures — production, government, consumer and others — are based on interconnected networks operating on the basis of information and communication technologies.

As a historian by first major, I can say that complex network structures based on common values and interests, cultural codes and ideologies are characteristic not only of modern society. They have been known since ancient times. These are, for example, networks of ancient philosophical schools; the mobile “network empires” of Turkic nomads; knightly military orders; Freemasons; and Florentine bankers. The Byzantine Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Venetian Republic, which had their representatives in different parts of the world, had a network identity. In fact, modern networks differ from them only in a more advanced method of communication, which provides new opportunities for joint activities (including intellectual ones) and scaling to global proportions.


A lot has been written about networks, and I do not want to repeat myself. I will only focus on the following: There is no doubt that modern universities, which largely determine the strategies for the development of social consciousness, belong to the key social structures “organized around the networks of electronic communications” that Castells wrote about. But we live not only in the era of networking, but also digitalization, as well as the advent of artificial intelligence in society. Therefore, when we talk about the ontology of University 3.0, we need to talk not only about a network ontology, but also a hybrid one, combining the properties of the real and virtual, analog and digital worlds, human and artificial intelligence. Based on this, one of the possible METAPHORICAL images of the modern University 3.0 is a kind of multidimensional and multifaceted neural network, which is the Community of Mind.

Despite the fact that the network has been studied for a long time, in my opinion, it still remains underestimated. For some reason, many still consider it only as a relatively simple “flat” structure consisting of homogeneous elements connected by homogeneous bonds. However, Castells very convincingly showed that networks can be very different: both homogeneous and partially or completely multidimensional; not only horizontal, but also vertical and hierarchical. The outstanding Hungarian-American physicist Albert-László Barabási considers the network to be the “skeleton of complexity.”[1]


In our case, the network is understood as a unique volumetric fractal (self-similar), self-organizing and self-developing structure, growing in any direction, which, due to its flexibility, adaptability, mobility, scalability and ability to recover from breaks, is one of the most tenacious structures. Its architecture changes every moment! When we talk about the ontology of University 3.0 as a multidimensional and multifaceted neural network, we mean that there are different worlds and ecosystems layered on top of each other (as in the “ecological university” according to Barnett) in it, both parallel and intersecting: science, education, culture and entrepreneurship; technology and innovation; management and self-government; offline and online; analog and digital; fundamental and applied; disciplinary and interdisciplinary and so on. It turns out that this is a super complex network that unites many other networks.

Among them, intellectual and creative networks, which the American sociologist and philosopher Randall Collins wrote about, are of particular importance for achieving true technological and intellectual sovereignty of both the University and the country as a whole. They, in turn, connect professors and their students — undergraduate and graduate — through mentoring and creative interactions. This is how scientific schools are formed as generational networks — communities that ensure continuity and the emergence of outstanding scientists. In relation to intellectual sovereignty, the importance of these networks cannot be overestimated.

Speaking about University 3.0, it is impossible to overestimate the networks of scientific and engineering laboratories in which innovative technologies and products are directly developed, as well as experimental production lines for their subsequent transfer to the relevant industries; networks of investors, external experts and partners; network collaborations with other universities and corporations. But University 3.0 is also a network of informal and relatively short-term value networks that function on the basis of common interests and values. However, these networks can also create new values in the sense of new knowledge, technologies and traditions, which is also very important from the point of view of intellectual sovereignty. Due to the common traditions and values cultivated by these and other internal networks, the cultural identity of the University is largely maintained. The structural stability of such a super complex network as the modern University 3.0 is given by nodes, which are individuals (professors, students, administrators) and various groups of people (departments, laboratories, service offices, university startups), and mobility and flexibility — interactions between them. University 3.0, open to external networks (partners, stakeholders, alumni) and connected to them by communications of various types, becomes a “network of networks” that is periodically expanded. When these connections cease for one reason or another, new ones arise, and so it goes ad infinitum. Thus, University 3.0 is a network hub for the implementation of a wide variety of technological projects, which is part of the network of the common market of innovative technologies. At the same time, one must always keep in mind the following: the network is an ontological structural characteristic of a modern university, but this alone is not enough to understand its true essence. What content (mission, values, ideas, goals) this network is filled with is important.


As I said above, in terms of complexity, the ideal University 3.0 could only be compared to a large-scale and pulsating hybrid neural network as a Community of Mind, uniting human and artificial intelligences, together creating technological and intellectual sovereignty. This Community of Mind is a kind of field of forces within which individuals, groups, and artificial intelligence operate, think and act. Thanks to this, new elements arise within the network, for example, the positions of technostarters, which Johan Wissema wrote about in his book Towards the Third Generation University: Managing the University in Transition. As in a nuclear reactor, a fission chain reaction occurs, accompanied by the release of energy. In this case — creative and intellectual energy. At each moment of time, depending on the nature of ongoing scientific, educational, managerial, technological and other interactions between individuals, their groups and artificial intelligence, the architecture of this hybrid neural network changes to one degree or another. It is difficult to imagine a more dynamic and, at the same time, stable structure.

– Nevertheless, you talked about the importance of visualizing the model image. But is it possible to visualize such a super complex image not only mentally?

– In principle, yes, but only with the help of the most modern methods. Moreover, our Tomsk State University even took the first step in this direction. From December 2021 to January 2022, TSU conducted an organizational and network analysis of informal interactions among university employees based on a massive online survey, which resulted in computer visualizations of the current state of these informal connections. The purpose of this analysis was to identify the real picture of relations between employees and departments during the period of the university’s forced transition during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was important to find structural breaks in the interactions between them; identify factors that prevent employees from working comfortably and productively; give recommendations to managers at different levels on modernizing management processes. We also hoped to identify real scientific teams-networks working at that time; determine which employees are especially valued by their colleagues; find out in a timely manner which of them was in a situation of social isolation or risk due to the volume of incoming information and tasks, and so on. About 40% of TSU employees participated in the survey, representing all TSU departments and receiving their personal identifiers (ID). fakultety.png

Thanks to the this computer visualizations, reflecting the holistic geometry of intra-university networks, it became possible to see what is usually difficult to see in individual fragments: the real number of such node networks, their composition, connections with other “nodes” — groups and individual employees, their density and balance, intensity and so on. Each participant could monitor and evaluate their own communication skills, its scope and boundaries.

Of course, this is a very simplified version of what could have happened if absolutely all university employees had participated in the study and if it had been conducted for other reasons. For example, educational activities, research, design and engineering, creative, volunteer, and so on. Each time it would be clear who is collaborating closely with whom, on what and how closely. And if we added big data from other open sources, in particular social networks, the picture would be even more complete. This suggests that the ontology of modern University 3.0 can be described in similar categories. Taking into account the factor of artificial intelligence, which has entered our lives in the form of electronic search engines, voice assistants, ChatGPT, we can characterize university ontology as hybrid. Gradually, this characteristic will only intensify. And someday, upon entering the main building of TSU, above the main staircase, perhaps we will see a large multicolor pulsating hologram of its neural network as a real-time reflection of the work of the collective university Mind.

– Sounds beautiful! And yet, how is the ontological metaphor of University 3.0 “a hybrid neural network as a Community of Mind” fundamentally different from the ontological metaphors of universities 1.0 and 2.0?

– It seems to me that the previous metaphors reflected the ontologies of Universities 1.0 and 2.0 within the framework of already established paradigms — tradition, modernity and postmodernity. And the neural network, as a metaphor for the ontology of University 3.0, reflects the breakdown of existing thinking paradigms and the birth of a new one, which does not even have a generally accepted name: post-postmodern, metamodern, or digimodern. In other words, the proposed metaphor can accommodate both what we already know today and what we do not know yet. It involves a combination of both very urgent tasks and tasks for designing the future.

– If we proceed from the neural network ontology of the modern University 3.0 and the need for our country to acquire full intellectual sovereignty, then what aspects of the basic processes carried out by the university should be paid special attention in the current circumstances?

– I think that the metaphor of a hybrid neural network producing high-quality and unique innovative intellectual products, without which it is impossible to imagine real intellectual sovereignty, suggests the following: We need to nourish and train this neural network, develop patterns of critical thinking inside of the network, motivate and encourage its self-development by building more and more synapses with internal and external nodes offering it difficult but interesting tasks, send it periodically into free flight and not forget to take “MRI images” of it. In practice, it means that University 3.0 must be provided with all necessary and high-quality resources, including human ones. This security is achieved not only through external resources, in particular government ones, but also, to a large extent, through internal resources produced by the university ecosystem. Actually, one of the main missions of University 3.0 is to become an independent agent of socio-economic change.

The university should develop and implement appropriate network (interdisciplinary, interfaculty, interuniversity, international) educational programs with a focus on the development of independent, creative and entrepreneurial thinking, and cognitive abilities in general. Much attention should be paid to networking as a social and professional competence for building internal and external intellectual, value and partner networks. Thus, the university must be constantly immersed in a variety of network project activities of an educational, scientific, creative, engineering and social nature, including the use of artificial intelligence technologies. All of this should be reflected in the current comprehensive network analysis, which allows us to see emerging gaps in time and prevent them. In general, in a certain sense, the network is our everything. The social and mental histories of mankind show that this is the structure that allows us to respond to a variety of existential challenges, including the acquisition of national technological and intellectual sovereignty. It allows us to survive and win. From that we can assume that the neural network ontological properties of University 3.0 are the key to both its adaptability and effectiveness as a Community of Mind.

– The topic of the latter conversations turned out to be perhaps the most difficult of all. How would you like to sum it up?

– In the search for a new model of the University, we must remember that any model of it is a reduction, capturing only certain, albeit very important features. In real life, the implementation of each model appears to be an extremely complex and time-consuming process. It took Tomsk State University decades to integrate science into education and become one of the leading research universities in Russia. During this time, its own scientific schools and a special type of people who served science by vocation appeared; research competencies of the highest level have been formed. Today we are talking about the need to install an ecosystem approach and focus on the development and transfer of innovative technologies at a research university, the emergence of another special type of people — technostarters, the development of entrepreneurial competencies among students, researchers and professors.

It turns out that each period of society's development and a certain historical situation require its own model of the University and that each of its new models, as it were, includes the previous one. But the main idea of this book is that the true classical University is much more complex and multidimensional than all these schemes. In addition to characteristics that are in tune with specific times, it is also characterized by timeless characteristics, thanks to which it has existed for almost a thousand years. Of course, now the state expects practical results from the University in achieving the technological and intellectual sovereignty of the country in the immediate and medium term, and we, of course, must meet these expectations. But, on the other hand, the University is one of the few institutions, and perhaps the only one, designed by the fact of its existence not only to keep society in a state of balance in a situation of turbulence, but also to generate the future. You need to look beyond the horizon and try to see what will be relevant tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Yes, today new knowledge, technology, and sovereignty are strategic tasks. But at the same time, we must not forget about values, ecology, and quality of life. All together, these dimensions create the integrity that we must maintain.

The most accurate ontological metaphor reflecting the essence of the modern University, all its complexity and dynamics, may not yet have been found yet. The verbalizations of its new model is now beginning to come about as is the case with the naming of modern society which came about over the course of several decades as philosophers and scientists understood certain of its characteristics. It was and is called differently: post-industrial, post-civilization, post-capitalist, post-economic, post-modern, society of symbolic capital, risk society, information, network, digital, and so on. Something similar is happening in relation to the emerging modern University: The general direction in its understanding is already being grasped, but a specific picture has not yet emerged. We feel that a modern University is not just a synthesis of some models and elements. This is the embodiment of something completely new while maintaining what has always been the core of the University as a special institution. The most difficult thing is to describe this emerging entity. And for now, we can only express hypotheses regarding the network ontology of the University, relying on the metaphor of a hybrid neural network as a Community of Mind, wh ere Mind appears in the Kantian meaning as rationality aimed at goodness and morality. I am confident that such guidelines will not allow us to stray from the right path.

Eduard Galazhinskiy, TSU Rector,

Member of the Presidential Council for Science and Education

The conversation is recorded by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan

  1. Barabasi A.-L. Linked : How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life / A.-L. Barabasi. – New York: Basic Books, 2014.


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