New York Times contributor: End the university as we know it

Photo of Columbia Universitys Minerva sculpture, Alma Mater, by wallyg.
Photo of Columbia University's Minerva sculpture, Alma Mater, by wallyg.

Mark Taylor, the chairman of Columbia’s religion department, has published a New York Times opinion piece that’s sure to cause a splash. “End the University as We Know It” argues that the university’s current incarnation  is obsolete and irrelevant.

Taylor advocates getting rid of the “division of labor” model of academic departments, in favor of “problem-based” ad-hoc departments like “Water” and “Life”; increasing collaboration among institutions; encouraging grad students to produce works other than dissertations (Taylor mentions, oddly, video games); training grad students for jobs other than faculty positions; and abolishing tenure.

I can’t say I disagree with Taylor’s observations regarding the extreme specialization of disciplines and the problem of deadwood, and I especially agree with this paragraph:

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

Ahem. Yes. I don’t think one can stress this enough. However, Taylor’s reforms amount to orienting the university more fully toward the marketplace (“problem-based” departments?). I don’t want this and I don’t think it’s good for academia. The bizarre things people choose to study now may seem nutty, but who knows? We’ve seen in the last year that what the market likes in the short-term (credit-default swaps!) is not necessarily what’s good for society in the long term.

Taylor gives his argument a timely ring by comparing the university to a dysfunctional factory: “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” But I thought we settled this in the ’90s: business is not a good model for education. It just doesn’t make sense, even as an analogy.

I’ve thought for a long time that the growing cry to abolish tenure hinges, basically, on a false choice: the notion that universities can either afford to have a few tenured positions or a bunch of transient positions. This is not true. Universities need to be encouraged — or, better yet, forced, via unionization — to spend, if necessary, a larger portion of their endowments on good, stable, tenure-track positions, rather than hiring a bunch of adjuncts.

Heaven knows the university needs reform, but, if you ask me, it needs to be shielded from, rather than exposed to, the pressures of the marketplace.

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