PSU changemakers reimagine the future of higher education

PSU Panorama


Unlike Harry Potter, most of us can’t claim to have a crystal ball to look into the future.

So how does a university anticipate and prepare for a better future in a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

A team of 28 Portland State University researchers, faculty, staff and students explored this question through a cross-disciplinary study of their university during the 2019-20 academic year. The conclusions they drew hold great promise for not only PSU’s future success, but also for other universities across the nation. 

Sage Journals recently published an article about the study by faculty Melissa Appleyard and Jeanne Enders from The School of Business and five of their PSU faculty, staff and student colleagues* entitled “A Public University Futures Collaboratory: A Case Study in Building Foresightfulness and Community.

“Futures Collaboratory” team members represented a mix of race, gender and other dimensions of identity to ensure diversity in views and approach in the PSU work described in the article. The article details how the team met for one year, learned from guest speakers and each other, participated in futures webinars and conferences and interacted with futurists from around the world.

The Futures Collaboratory group stated its intent was to build “social foresight capacity over a period of time at the institutional level.”

The process entailed centering equity and social justice imperatives while democratizing foresight activities across campus.  Collaboratory members ran experiments throughout the year to strive for a preferable future grounded in “an intentional and evolutionary shift in values, thinking, vision/planning, and action,” the authors wrote.

The researchers concluded there are five areas that PSU’s leadership should explore when implementing change:

  1. Mission: Center the idea of future readiness as a key component of an authentic university identity and purpose. Build the necessary community and structures to make that an explicit reality.
  2. Structures: Revise institutional structures toward the future of work and the future of learning at work.
  3. Equity: Commit to equity work that is pluralistic and liberation-centered to ensure the institution’s ability to fulfill its collective potential.
  4. Pedagogy: Reimagine what teaching, learning and advising might be, and then enact change with courage.
  5. Community: Actively and explicitly engage in the co-creation of the role of urban public universities by inviting and engaging deeper and more creative approaches to dialogue with community partners at all levels.

 The team shared its recommendations with the PSU leadership, which asked the Collaboratory to continue the intensive engagement in futures work this academic year. A number of the founding members rotated off and new members joined in the fall to extend the reach of the learning and diffusion of futures thinking across PSU.

The team also made seven recommendations to other universities that wish to prepare for their future. The advice included:

  • Establish a racially diverse team (with at least one trained futurist) to ensure multiple perspectives,
  • Engage students in the process, and,
  • Provide events afterwards to share your learnings. 

*Note: The article’s co-authors were Laura Nissen from The School of Social Work, Cynthia Gómez from the Cultural Resource Center, Andres Guzman from the College of Education, Sally Strand Mudiamu from the Office of International Affairs and Sheila Mullooly, a Doctoral Candidate in Education Leadership and Policy.


Lead researcher and PSU Assistant Professor of Management Jeanne Enders  shares her insights into work of the “Futures Collaboratory.”

Q) Describe future work in your own words and why it's essential for universities.

A) Futures work is an approach to organizational planning that incorporates tools for thinking well beyond our usual ways of thinking. The Institute for the Future describes how the futures approach offers “practical tools, research, and programs that turn foresight into the critical new insights that ultimately lead to action.” 

Universities have seen a lot of changes in the past few decades. For us, as a public, urban university, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in state funding, changes in enrollments (both up and down) and varieties of opportunities for us to serve the ecosystem in which we operate. As we recognize 2021 as our 75th anniversary as an institution, it gets easier to think about the bigger picture of who we are. 

We were founded in 1946 primarily as an institution to educate veterans returning from WWII, for example. We literally emerged out of a need in the ecosystem. We still serve veterans today and have grown and adapted to add value in many other areas including some internationally recognized research. 

However, there are signals that we are losing relevance. Since universities cost a lot of money, people in the system are looking for alternative ways to achieve the goals where universities once dominated. 

The Futures Thinking approaches help us collaborate with a clearer set of observations about the past, present and future. The exercises and practices of Futures Thinking offer a great way to collaborate and communicate as members of our institution and with stakeholders outside our institution to become more sensitive to the current and future ecosystem in which we operate such that we can continue to serve in highly relevant and valuable ways. 

Q) What would you recommend to other universities looking to develop their own futures-oriented research?

 A) Get deep training. Bring in experts. Practice the frameworks and tools. Make it fun. Go where it is warm (that is, bring in only the people who want to be there and make it easy for them to connect).

 Generate deliverables for the rest of the organization that are compelling, interesting and easy to digest — not just big, long reports or academic papers.

Connect the practices to organizational outcomes and make sure the people investing time can see some results from their work. This requires leaders who support the work, even if they don't completely understand it, and see the need for it. 

Q) What do you hope will be the biggest change to happen due to this research?

A) There are some groups on campus working on the next steps for university strategy and action and I know they have read the article to glean some tips for energizing their work. I hope all of the Futures Collaboratory members and authors of the paper are more able to see a bright future for PSU and contribute with more capacity to the changes that are needed for us to be best situated to serve our communities and stay relevant in a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. The need is just as great as in 1946, if not even greater!