A few weeks ago the Catholic Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the historical effort promoted by John XXIII in 1962 to renew and unite the Church and foster the dialogue of the Church with the contemporary world. At that time, the idea of Vatican II was to find a new form of ecumenism for the Church to meet the needs of a world that had drastically changed and continue to thrive in its mission.

Earlier this year, Rafael Reif, the new president of MIT, delivered a powerful inauguration speech focusing on the epic challenge and opportunity that higher education and research face at a juncture when technological change makes education more accessible and cheaper. This challenges the residential campus model and puts the traditional university under pressure.

“Scherza coi fanti ma lascia stare i santi” (Play with soldiers, but leave the saints in peace), goes a traditional proverb. However, having made clear we are respectfully talking in different spheres of truth, a degree of similarity between the Church and the university as organizations exists. Both are very ancient, hierarchical organizations that have been thriving for centuries, actually for millennia, influencing individuals, other organizations and society at large.

In 1962, about 2,500 people joined the Second Vatican Council in Rome, including cardinals and bishops the world over along with leaders from other churches as well as the public. Perhaps it is time for a similar Concilium for the university.

Imagine then, if you will, a first “University Council” to make higher education and research thrive in the 21st century. Such a council should jump on the opportunity – rather than face the risk – of the ICT revolution to update and change the institution. Creators and disseminators of knowledge worldwide – the powerful North American universities, the traditional ones in the United Kingdom and the best of continental Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa – could meet to discuss the most fundamental issues. New players like online education providers and corporate universities would also be invited to the council, along with key representatives from the public and the private sector.

Forcing the comparison, even the outline of Vatican II may be a useful reference. The Council’s commission for liturgy would become the commission on the class, likely addressing the blend of offline and online, as well as new approaches to teaching and the campus experience. The equivalent of a theological commission would address fundamental issues of knowledge creation and dissemination, including who is a legitimate knowledge provider. And just as the Church looked at governance, so should such a University Council to discuss a code of conduct of academics, the role of non-academics in the university community, policy-makers, employers, etc.

Ultimately, such a University Council should provide an opportunity to promote an ecumenism and an agenda as they relate to pursuing scientific truth, disseminating knowledge, promoting peace, economic development and ultimately freedom.

Author: Michele Petochi is Director of Academic Networks at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Profile of students taking their seats for the diploma ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge REUTERS/Brian Snyder