Mark Taylor of Columbia University takes to the New York Times Op-Ed this morning to ask for the End [of] the University as We Know It. His description of graduate education as “the Detroit of higher learning” is clever but provokes YHB to wonder if graduate education is the outdated auto industry providing unpopular products that devastate the economy and the environment, what is undergraduate education? The financial industry? Producing products that nobody can understand, but we’re all convinced we can’t do without, somehow? Well, anyway. Our graduate system is in crisis and has been for decades, which seems a lot like our auto industry, in that it becomes a trifle difficult to tell what exactly we mean by crisis.
But my point isn’t to mock Mr. Taylor, although can I just say that if the “dirty secret” of higher education is that it’s supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts, then, er, (looks around, gestures, dropping voice to a whisper) somebody already leaked it. I mean, seriously. How many readers of the New York Times can be shocked this morning to learn that higher education is supported by underpaid graduate students and adjuncts? You think it’s just Larry Summers? Seriously, Mr. Taylor reveals that
In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.
Surprise, consternation and alarm! Now everybody will know!
OK, more seriously, Mr. Taylor presents six short-term steps to “make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” or perhaps “rigorously regulated and completely restructured”:
Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. Get rid of hierarchical divisions in favor of webs or networks. Instead of the survey, wide, narrow, narrow, narrowest path to a doctorate (which many of y’all know is a vast oversimplification, but still recognizable), the path to a doctorate will wind through different disciplines and end up with the candidate at the center of a web of influences.
This is a terrific idea. It’s also a lot of work for the candidates and their advisors. Although, I suppose, there will be many fewer candidates. So there’s that.
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. Mr. Taylor suggests that these temporary programs, centered around such ideas as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. ” would be designed for seven years’ duration. Again, I think this is a fantastic idea, and I would love to see a group of colleges attempt it. His example of a Water program, involving religious, cultural, technical, political and economic aspects, would I think lead to magnificent studies and, potentially, a group of students who not only knew a lot about Water, but had a sense of a way to tackle complex issues.
Of course, the logistics are… formidable. I have never been on a curriculum committee myself; my understanding from those who have does not lead me to believe that having most of the school either in the first two or last two years of that process would be feasible without substantially changing the workload of the faculty. Also, the challenges of recruiting an undergraduate student body seem severe. If I were to advise a student to go to a college that had an absolutely monstrously good program on, say, Narrative, but which program was going to expire two years into that undergraduate’s time there, to be replaced by something that might be even better but, then, perhaps not, well, I’m just saying. A big challenge. Including how I would know that the Narrative program was that good when it had only been running five years.
Also, can you imagine the fights over office space?
Increase collaboration among institutions. His example of German at one institution and French at another seems a weak example of a terrific idea. It’s easier for me to imagine an advanced seminar with two professors and eight students from four institutions, able to not only meet via vidphone but study together, collaborate on seminar papers, pass notes, and develop jargon. Intro courses seem (to me) to require more group-in-a-classroom stuff, but then, I’m almost forty. But really, the technical and logistical challenges to this one seem smaller to me than the first suggestions. The problem with the webinars I’ve attended have been that they have been one-offs with very weak levels of commitment. Well, and some weak preparation and fundamental ignorance of principles of change management, but that’s not the fault of the format. Nor, really, is the format responsible for the awfulness of the word webinar.
Transform the traditional dissertation. Whoo hoo! Let’s do it! Can I just ask whether there is anybody left that thinks the traditional dissertation as it’s been implemented in the last two or three decades is either traditional or sustainable? Or helpful, or useful, or has any significant positives that aren’t either (a) outweighed by the negatives by a factor of silly-to-one or (2) positives only in the context of a seriously broken economic structure of higher education?
On the other hand, it still goes on. I mean, seriously, it does. No, really.
Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. This is an odd one. I’m not sure how this would work, or how it would fit in with the other suggestions. Perhaps this is because he’s a religion prof, and people who get Masters or Doctorates in Religious Studies all do so intending to go into academia. This is largely true, I think, of doctoral candidates in the humanities, although I think not so much of Master’s students, and much, much, much less outside the humanities. And getting a Master’s Degree in Water Studies, it seems to me, doesn’t do much to expand the range of professional options, as opposed to getting a degree in Electrical Engineering, say, or my current favorite, the M-SOB, the Master of Science in Organizational Behavior. It is true that, as he says, a really good set of programs such as he is imagining would help individuals trained in them cope with a constantly changing set of circumstances, and would likely decrease the number of people who find themselves with a set of obsolete skills—but would an employer really pay a premium for that long-term benefit over the perceived short-term benefit of the status quo?
There is a multiple-level perception problem going on, and perceptions form reality. Let me put it like this: Employers perceive a particular specialized degree as either preparing you to do a particular job (university professor, Human Resources manager, software architect, sportscaster) or (and this is important) dispreparing you for that job. A Ph.D. in Art History is at a disadvantage in looking for a job teaching Art History to high school students, or for that matter, in writing PR copy for a bank. This is not true for all high schools and banks, of course, so the other problem is that there is a perception that a specialized degree will be a disadvantage for any job other than the one you are being funneled into. So students want the program to excel in that funneling, or at least there is a perception that students want programs to excel in that funneling, and so Universities try to create that perception… Universities aren’t going to be able to implement a series of changes and expand the range of professional options for graduate students. It would take a social revolution.
Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. I hate that Mr. Taylor combined these two, and that he put mandatory retirement first, as if the primary problem with tenure was the difficulty of firing old farts. I haven’t seen that at all; in fact, the primary benefit I’ve seen to tenure is the difficulty of firing old farts. The primary problem I’ve seen with tenure is that a University, faced with making two tenure decisions, each of which is unfathomably expensive (or at least is perceived to be that way by the decision-makers, and I think with good reason), have set up systems for search and tenure committees that are just awful, and lead to all kinds of terrible things for universities—including that secret dependence on underpaid graduate students and adjuncts. Oh, and the tenure system has wound up with a culture that makes the sacrifices of those graduate students and even adjuncts seem to make sense, with the golden potential of being in the Inner Ring dangled in front of them.
I guess what I’m saying is that I think tenure is a terrific thing, but that the tenure review is so awful that it overwhelms the positives of tenure. On the other hand, tenure is largely a protection against Bad Things we don’t see, and like the tiger-repellent rock, it’s a bit difficult to know how bad the Bad Things would be if we got rid of it. Cost-benefit and so on. I can see the damage the tenure system is doing, and I know that the protections are largely against things that are relatively rare (compared to the damage of the tenure system), but then, they are relatively rare because of the tenure system. So, you know. Right now, I think that replacing the tenure system with seven-year contracts sounds great. Fifteen years after the change, I might be furious.
So, a lot of very interesting stuff in there. But a lot of stuff that would be incredibly difficult and expensive to actually do. Mostly, I’m happy that somebody is suggesting this stuff, to get it kicked around.
Oh, and—wouldn’t it have been way, way, way more persuasive if the Op-Ed had come from a collaboration of profs in different departments and institutions?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,