Monday, May 25, 2009

The end of the University as we know it

I know, I know, this is a few weeks late - but better late than never :-)

In any case, I was reading this Op-Ed piece on the New York Times. The thesis of this op-ed piece is that:

Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost


I was going to write a long post about the article and the comments I read, however there are about 500 comments (as I write this blog post) and I don't want to write ad nauseum about the subject (my evernote note about this topic is quite long LOL). So in lieu of an extra long post I will respond to some of Taylor's (op-ed writer) main points.


The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.


I agree with this. Having been in a number of degree program I can see the interconnections between the different disciplines. Some bonds are strong, some are weak, but bonds between the topics exist. What I disagree with is that we should abandon siloed and specialized research. Both types of research have merit and interdisciplinary research can't yield results on its own.

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.


OK, now this is simply lunacy. This type of market based education falls under the same lunacy as teaching customer service as a science that I wrote about earlier this year. If we just researched Space Exploration during the Kennedy years when we were racing against the soviets to get a piece of metal into space, we wouldn't have a space program today. If people didn't research networks and computing we wouldn't have personal laptops and the internet. Who dictates what is research worth and what not? This point is just short sighted and idiotic.

Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting.


OK, this is not a bad idea. Distance education needs to be improved, but this is doable. There are universities abroad that specialize in some disciplines and students go there because of that. Of course this would mean that you would need some sort of nationalized standard to make sure that what you take in college A is acceptable in College B.

Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.


I partly agree with this, and partly disagree. This goes hand-in-hand with point #1. There IS need for specialized research, as banal and irrelevant as it may seem to some people, it IS useful to others. This is how knowledge is formed. So what is this guy did his dissertation on footnotes. This may prove to be interconnected to something else in the future that seems more interesting to you! Knowledge is not monolithic, it builds upon many little pieces that need to be present. I do however believe that PhD students should have the option to do an interdisciplinary study and have the option for an interdisciplinary dissertation.

Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education


This is where Taylor REALLY shows that he does not what he is talking about. I am a Graduate Student and I've been one for the last five years. With my MBA I can go find jobs in many places outside of academia. The same with my other three Masters degrees. Here Taylor means PhD students and not Graduate students! PhDs can work outside of academia, they just need to apply themselves. I do agree that the academe can do a better job at preparing people for non academic careers, however, if you want a non-academic career and you want a PhD, why are YOU, the student, not actively thinking about YOUR future? Why would you expect someone else to groom you? You go to school for education, not to be prepared for a job (although that is a nice side-effect)

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. [...] Once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed.


Again, this is a lunacy. I think there are flaws in the tenure system, however you only hear about the bad apples. I know many tenured faculty that do produce a lot. Some do it because they love research, some do it for altruistic reasons and others do it to pat themselves on the back. Research is produced, no doubt about it. Students are advised, and committee work is undertaken. Could they do more? Sure they could, but the current incentives system work on production of research, so that is their main focus. Abolishing tenure isn't going to fix this because are Taylor said his focus is still RESEARCH!


Now as I said there are a TON of comments on this story, all worth reading. There are two things that I wanted to point out to the miffed students on the board that say they wished they had more applicable to the job world and they are happy that they now know that the professors they had tried to mold them into something of a mini-professor.

The first is said eloquently by another commenter:

Despite our frequent attempts to make it so, education is not job training.


The second is that every authority figure tries to mold you into a mini version of themselves. Your dad tried to make you like a mini-version of himself, your high school teachers the same, your college teachers the same, and one day when you get into the working world your immediate managers will do the same. This comes as a surprise?


Anyway - that's it - hope this wasn't too long LOL :-)
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