Is it time to end the university as we know it?

BlogHer Original Post

This past weekend, I considered a critique of universities as abusive employers and suggested that American universities are, in some ways, profoundly broken. Mark Taylor, chair of the religious studies department at Columbia University, takes this critique to its (il)logical conclusion, calling for us to "End the University as We Know It." He begins with this analogy:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. 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 (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Taylor is a fan of interdisciplinarity. He calls for universities to

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.

Among his other recommendations:

  • Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs.
  • Increase collaboration among institutions.
  • Transform the traditional dissertation.
  • Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.
  • Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

Click through to the article to read the reasons behind his recommendations, which attracted 437 comments before the editors closed the comment thread. Some comments were appreciative, while others--not so much. Quipped one reader, "Go abolish your own department."

A discussion broke out among readers as to the extent universities should be responsive to market forces, and particularly those of industries that want undergraduates prepared with the skills necessary to join their particular workforces. In my view, universities are where undergraduates develop their critical and creative thinking skills. Undergraduates may enter college thinking they're training for a particular industry, but universities must prepare them instead for work in any industry. Universities should be treating graduate students much the same way; all too often, graduate students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are trained to be faculty. They hone their skills for a job market that is beyond competitive--it is brutal, with hundreds of applicants sometimes jockeying for the same position.

Bloggers of course have had plenty to say. (As do I, but I'm going to let a round-up stand in for my own still-garbled thinking on Taylor's suggestions.)

Marc Bousquet offers perhaps the most searing critique of the op-ed:

The piece is hilariously out of touch — noting the rise of adjunct labor, the Columbia philosopher of religion and author of 20 books wrings his hands that per-course pay is “as low as” $5,000 dollars a class.

BWAAA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

Reality? Annual income for many adjuncts is about $5,000 dollars a year. On pay that can be lower than a grand per class.

They’re on food stamps.

But sure, you’re right. The problem is that we need to end tenure. When we end tenure, the market will insure that these folks are paid fairly, that persons with Ph.D.’s will be able to work for those wages.

Oh, crap, wait. As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

Dean Dad brings an administrator's perspective to the article:

Yes, the existing structures are clunky and overtaxed and frequently asinine. They survive because they address certain problems. The way around them is not to wish those problems away or to postulate a world in which every college is modeled on a graduate seminar at Columbia. It's to come up with alternatives that solve those problems better. Prof. Taylor's model could be a lot of fun on a very small scale, like a think tank. But as a blueprint for higher ed across America, it's a farce.

The reality of higher ed in America is mobility. People move from one institution to another all the time. We've developed an admittedly frustrating common language to make that kind of movement possible. Replacing that common language with a babel of tongues is not a serious answer, and replacing what little common knowledge that clusters of scholars share – canons or classics or traditions – with whatever seems convenient at the time would only make matters worse. Disciplines are arbitrary and flawed, but random fads are even worse. And incompatible random fads at different institutions would be disastrous.

Laura Blankenship (AKA Geeky Mom) of Emerging Technologies Consulting sees some possibility in Taylor's vision of interdisciplinary undergraduate collaborations:

I also see what a fabulous learning experience this was for students. I could envision parallel systems here, where students are required to take courses that are interdisciplinary, but still have majors. And these courses could be centered around a common theme, so that there’s a common language for the students, but it would be good to have the math majors talking to the English majors.

Cathy Davidson of he Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) sees Taylor's piece as short-sighted, but only in that he lacks a sense of recent history:

My one regret is that it is a bit Rip Van Winklish in not recognizing that HASTAC and many other organizations dedicated to changing institutions of learning have been working on this for decades. Change is happening everywhere around him--although, sadly, not so much in the elite humanities departments that he is familiar with.

Michael Campana points out other collaborations envisioned by Taylor that are already taking place within water resources programs at universities around the U.S.

Joseph Shahadi takes issue with Taylor's call to abolish tenure and impose mandatory retirement:

While impossible-to-fire tenured Professors are easy targets, the cost to students incurred by forcing their most experienced professors into retirement would be incalculable. Perhaps my judgment is colored by my arguably atypical experience, but rather than withdrawing into their academic dotage the tenured professors I studied with were dynamically involved with their students and passionate about teaching.

After reading the Taylor article and others of its ilk, Historiann wonders if members of any other industry as regularly ridicule their profession in the pages of the New York Times. She comments,

Taylor sure sounds like a department chair bucking for dean: most of his suggestions will cost universities almost nothing because they depend mostly on–wait for it!–volunteer faculty labor. Who else is going to “restructure the curriculum,” “increase collaboration among institutions,” “transform the traditional dissertation,” and “expand the range of professional options for graduate students?” Good luck getting faculty to do that after you abolish tenure–most of us are going to be sure to look out for Number One when that happens, so you can kiss all of our committee work good-bye! (Won’t you miss all of those senior faculty then? “Old farts” with tenure sure are useful for lots and lots of committee work.) But, whoever does the work, Taylor’s suggestions are just collections of fashionable buzzwords about “the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches,” and preparing students “to adapt to a constantly changing world.”

I heart Historiann.

After reading her comments, I suspect Oona Eisenstadt will also become a new favorite of mine:

An enormously successful academic, aged 64, Taylor wants to abolish the academy at exactly the point where he’s got from it everything he can get. He is, like, sooo over the university; therefore the university is, like, sooo over. Ego anyone? But there’s more. Because in one instance only might Taylor not quite be finished with the academy, namely if it falls. If the called for apocalypse does take place, Taylor will be one of its high priests. He’s setting himself up for real power here. Already vastly famous within the power structure that exists, he can spring to further fame only on its ruins.

[...]

If Taylor had told the university to go to hell when he was a rising academic of 35, I might have given him some respect.

Bobba Lynx of Cranky in Academe takes issue with both Taylor and Erin O'Connor's praise of his article:

I give higher ed more credit: it is a smart animal and can transform itself without the pseudo-radical provocation from the likes of Prof. Taylor. It is here that institutions themselves must be more flexible, and open to the scholarship and kinds of classes they make possible; this may be generational, and seems to already be happening. Shi[f]t happens, and before Profs. O'Connor and Taylor and their ilk go scrambling in peri-apocalyptic survival mode, offering human sacrifices in hopes of appeasing forces over which they sense only minimal ---if any--- control, let's really get at that thought experiment: the larger questions that are diminished by the defensive mentality exhibited in Taylor's piece. The idea that only some radical reconfiguring will save us still has academia stranded on its on island, trying to build its own boat in order to land on the same shore. The larger and more compelling issues are the ones that become demonic forces in O&T species' mind (think of their initials as standing for "zero tenure"): in what kind of a society do we want to live ? If the academy becomes merely reactive instead of constructive, it will ---or has--- lost a great deal of its function in society.

Michael Bérubé uses the Taylor article as an excuse to write, very thoughtfully I think, about the difference between disciplines and departments:

[T]he next time someone complains about the constraints imposed by disciplines, ask yourself (or them!) whether they’re not really complaining about the constraints of departments. And the next time someone claims to be post-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary, ask yourself (but probably not them!) what it would sound like to be “post-intellectual traditions” or “anti-intellectual traditions.”

Natalia Cicere takes this critique a step further, saying bluntly that Taylor "confuses interdisciplinarity with adisciplinarity."

Your thoughts? Which of Taylor's suggestions, if any, speak to you? Which are the crackpot divagations of, to borrow Historiann's term, an old fart?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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