Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece by Mark Taylor, chair of Columbia’s religion department, that attempts to offer a blueprint for reforming universities. Some of his ideas are decent, but they’re not necessarily new. Some of them are – well, less bright that I’d have expected from a guy who’s obviously climbed far higher in the academic treehouse than I’ll ever manage.
His core fallacy is that universities can be compared to businesses:
If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps …
Who will do this regulating? Do we want the government dictating programs and policies at universities? How about the trustees? At my university, the trustees are frankly the weakest link, rivaled only by our president. Throughout the country, trustees typically know oodles about business but precious little about education.
Traditionally, the faculty played a major role in governing (not managing!) universities, and by golly, it worked pretty well. The massive cost increases at my institution – and at many others, I’m sure – have gone hand-in-hand with moving toward a business management model and hollowing out faculty self-governance. But Taylor doesn’t trust the kids to maintain order in their own sandbox. Instead, he sees faculty as blocking much-needed change:
The other obstacle to change [in addition to exploitative overreliance on graduate students and adjuncts for instruction, a point that we at Kittywampus fully endorse] is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.
What kind of change does Taylor hope to see? Here are his six steps.
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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. …
Take away the sexy web/network metaphor (which frankly is a little too 1995 to still be sexy), and you’re left with, um, the kind of work I do. We already have women’s studies , Southeast Asian studies, African-American studies, environmental studies, and many other integrative, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural programs. And that’s just here at my university in southeast Ohio, where we’re not known for living on the edge.
2. 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. …
The idea of a problem-focused program is pretty cool. But the sunset clause? Conventional departments and programs already waste spend vast amounts of time justifying their existence; evaluating curricula, programs, and individuals; and scrambling for ever-scarcer resources. The sunset clause is a fabulous idea if you want to halt teaching and research altogether. You could turn the university into a magical administration-only Rube Goldberg device! While this may match the vision of a few high-level administrators, I’m not sure outsiders such as the trustees would notice, unless you also eliminated the football team.
3. 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. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.
Tech-based collaborations are nifty. They’re also time- and resource-intensive. I’m spending far more time on my online Feminist Theory class than I did when I taught it the first time in a traditional classroom. It’s not, technically, a new prep for me, so you’d think I’d be saving time. Hah! The online environment requires a lot more babysitting of the technology. Communication of all sorts requires far more time because every single word has to be typed. Most crucially, while I’m enjoying the class and am determined to make it a success, I’m positive that my students learned more in the bricks-and-mortar classroom. It’s so much easier to redirect an unfocused discussion, for example, when you’re all in the same room at the same time and you can look students in the eye. It’s far easier, too, to sense when they’re not understanding a concept, argument, or entire text.
4. 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. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.
I could see modifying dissertations. In fact, some science and engineering disciplines have already done so, allowing candidates to submit a collection of articles rather than a single monograph. The reason this suggestion won’t catch fire is the same as why publication in a print journal is still far more prestigious than an online journal: Hiring and promotion committees prefer the tangible product – no matter how intangible the subject matter. Thus, any rational dissertator who wants a job will shun radically new forms. And: video games??? (Hmm. I’m thinking of my dissertation on historical experiences of childbearing. The possibilities are endless. Just imagine the animations!)
5. 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. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.
Sure. This is a fine idea. Historians, among others, have been discussing the need for broader-based career preparation since the mid-1980s, when I first began to consider graduate studies. Universities can and should do much better in this realm. The devil’s in the details, though. If broader preparation were easy, it would already be happening.
6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, 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. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.
Speaking as someone who doesn’t have tenure and is not in line for it, I still think this is a lousy idea, even if it’ll play well on Fox News. I know very few faculty who could be described as deadwood. Even after tenure, they virtually all continue to research and serve their students. If the pace drops off somewhat, that’s because many institutions now have such high tenure expectations as to be incompatible with human life. No one can maintain that pace forever. Taylor’s proposal would result in many university’s swapping experienced professors for cheaper recent grads who are existentially scared and thus highly productive.
What does change after tenure? Faculty feel much, much freer to speak out. For every Ward Churchill, there’s probably a hundred professors who use their megaphone responsibly. They’ve been the ones protesting cuts to the core academic budgets while the athletic department swells up like a pufferfish and administrators build grandiose monuments to their fundraising skills.
I’m all in favor of increasing interdisciplinarity and collaboration. I teach in an inherently interdisciplinary program. The course I taught last quarter on religion, gender, and sexuality was cross-listed between religious studies and women’s and gender studies. I’m already walking most of Taylor’s talk – including living without hope of tenure! And so I can attest to the fact that it’s possible to do innovative work under conditions of insecurity. But if my colleagues and I are succeeding, it’s despite that insecurity – not because of it.
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