End the University as We Know It

Any responses to the NY Times piece End the University as We Know It?  Another piece highlighting the concerns of specialization and the slave labor by graduate students in the research universities with diminishing chance of reward after pushing through the system.

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.

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.

What do people on the inside think about Mark Taylor’s, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, assessment of higher education and his proposal of rigorous regulation and complete restructuring?  Does he shake you from your complacency and open academia to a future you cannot conceive, just speak out without proposing viable next steps, or miss the boat for followers of Christ engaged in higher education? 

Note:  I was particularly interested in the transforming the traditional dissertation, providing opportunity for other formats.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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  • Tom Grosh commented on April 28, 2009 Reply

    Thank-you to my friend Steve who pointed out to me on Facebook how well the article lends itself to tracking responses on twitter, http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%22end+of+the+university%22 … hmmm. Twitter, a helpful tool in talking about higher education (or Facebook or even a blog). The End of the University as we know it?

    Other comments which I found on my Facebook posting of the article are given below. What a great way to begin a morning, I’m a morning person ;-) Anyone have more to add?

    1. “Abolishing departments: a good way to kill all sorts of important but low-dollar-value disciplines.

    Making departments problem-based rather than discipline-based: a bad idea for several reasons. Any time we make usefulness the criterion of value, we run the risk of losing important things that don’t look useful to us right now. But history is full of examples of us doing that and then living to regret it.”

    2. “My opinion of the piece is mixed. He recognized the problems with graduating too many students for academia, but I think some of his solutions are unhelpful. I don’t think eliminating tenure is a good idea, for one. Although it can be abused, my old adviser had some unpopular ideas and may not have survived a seven year review term depending on … who reviewed him. I’m less against mandatory retirement, but limits on working age need to be realistic: I don’t hear calls for mandatory retirement in any other field.

    I also think he overestimates the value interdisciplinary research. Eliminating academic departments in favor of task-oriented interdisciplinary problem solving groups is a little too “pie in the sky” for me. It’s unfortunate that his religion department is so fragmented, but in science having different specialties actually promotes collaboration and novel ways of solving problems (i.e. I can use my colleague’s expertise in x to progress my own research in y).”

    3. “I always find it amusing that chairs have all sorts of revolutionary ideas, and then when they become Deans, they just go with the flow…
    In my view, like with the failing auto sector (since Taylor uses mass production metaphor), the problem is not undervalued graduate labor, as much as it is the undervalued lecturer/adjunct labor, the overpaid administrators at the top…as well as all the extra staff, development officers, admins, etc., who get paid as much as I for doing half the work I do… Frankly, I think that being an underpaid and overworked grad student, prepares you nicely for what being on the TT is like, shattering all your illusions… As for the poor quality and value of a university education, that stems from the fact that now everyone is led to believe that they absolutely need a college or university degree to be anybody, and get a job anywhere… My shocking proposal: not everyone should go to university, and certainly pursue graduate school…”

    “In our university, we now have topical colloquia — on such topics as water, potatoes, milk etc…to promote interdisciplinarity, but only a minority of faculty feel included in these artificial projects, which are just as artificial as traditional disciplines… Restructuring depts that way is a joke, it’s just another way to create more units, more paperwork, more admin and staff…”

  • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
    Micheal Hickerson commented on April 28, 2009 Reply

    Great topic, Tom. One of my personal frustrations with my undergraduate education (I was an English major) is that there wasn’t enough “deep reading” into an author or time period. For example, we had plenty of classes in which we read one or two poems by Coleridge and Wordsworth, but I would have preferred to study Lyrical Ballads in its entirety. In the “Water” major that Taylor mentions in his list of ideas for interdisciplinary topics, would The Rime of the Ancient Mariner just be used as a convenient quote (“Water, water everywhere…”), or would there be a study of water imagery in the Western tradition? (Of course, as always, that question comes down to the implementation of the idea, not Taylor’s idea itself.)

  • amywung@gmail.com'
    Amy commented on April 28, 2009 Reply

    Some gut reactions from a lowly graduate student who admittedly can only speculate what the view is like from a tenured faculty’s ivory tower:

    “1. Restructure the curriculum….Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”
    Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage the faculty themselves to pursue interdisciplinary research first? The curriculum will come naturally from that. It’s hard to imagine anything organic happening the other way around.

    “2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.”
    This one turns the stomach of this engineer. For engineering undergrads who want to go out and get a job, by all means a problem-focused program is probably what they’re looking for. For those who want to go into academia, problem-focused programs will never be able to really teach the abstract fundamentals on top of which everything else builds. I see this in my own undergrad education, and I cringe to see it in so many of the undergrads that I interact with now. Everyone thinks their education is “too theoretical” here, but I think it’s not theoretical enough, if they can’t see how important the fundamentals really are.

    “3. Increase collaboration among institutions.”
    Interesting, but more logistically complicated than he makes it seem. I would love to see this happen more often though.

    “4. Transform the traditional dissertation.”

  • kaw@cavesofice.org'
    krippendorf commented on April 28, 2009 Reply

    You have to consider the source of the ideas: Taylor is a humanist. In fact, a lot of the prominent critics of contemporary universities are humanists (see also Stanley Fish). It’s not because they’re more eloquent or better connected, but because the problems Taylor identifies — especially irrelevance and overproduction of PhDs — are rampant in the humanities. And, blame anti-intellectualism or the structure of universities all you want, but part of the blame must rest on humanists themselves for betting the farm on postmodernism and other related nonsense. They lost.

    If graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning, the humanities are the General Motors. Make cars that don’t make any sense, and no one will buy them. That doesn’t mean you restructure Detroit (although a few stimulus dollars won’t hurt), it means that you allow some companies to get smaller, or maybe even disappear.

  • dwsnoke@comcast.net'
    Dave Snoke commented on April 29, 2009 Reply

    I am a prof in hard sciences, so some of my perspective may be different from humanities, but I want to comment on academia in general, including those fields.
    1) I always counsel students that the only reason to get a Ph.D. is because you love the subject and are so darn curious about it that you can’t stand the idea of living the rest of your life only knowing half of the story, having to take someone else’s word for it. If anyone thinks that it is a good way to get a higher salary, statistical studies have shown that is almost never the case– although Ph.D.’s have a higher pay scale, they are starting 5-7 years later in the work force. If you think that it will make you famous, the odds are real low for that, like making it in professional sports. Most people’s research will satisfy only their own curiosity and be obscure to almost everyone else. If you think that it will get you into a particular mission field, probably there is an easier way, and life is too short to spend 5-7 years doing something you don’t like to get somewhere else.
    2) I have very little sympathy with people who say the pay scale is too low. This is a case where the law of supply and demand holds supreme. One might argue that in some cases where people are geographically trapped, a low pay scale can oppress people who have no other options (e.g. the Grapes of Wrath) but people in academia have more career choices than anyone else. Pay scales are low because there are thousands of people willing to work for those wages, and more wanting to get in. No one is forced to work for those wages; grad students are highly educated and highly mobile and have lots of other job options. Why is it so appealing to so many people? On one hand, the wages are low, but on the other hand, you get half your time to set your own hours and work on just what you like to work on. There are very few other jobs where you can pick up a book from the library and kick back at your desk and read it all afternoon, and call it work.
    3) There is perennially a call for more interdisciplinary research, but it usually comes to nothing, with a few notable exceptions. The reason why departments are important is that it is important to have groups with a common language and common procedures. If everyone has to debate constantly over what is even the right model of research and what the language means, it is hard to get anything done. A department can determine what its core requirements for all students are, which gives them all a common language. It also means that someone is doing quality checks according to defined standards.

  • elliottgarms@gmail.com'
    Elliott commented on May 28, 2009 Reply

    I think that there is so much truth behind this article its scary! The American dream however you look at it is solely based around money! So why are we forcing our “professionals to be” to spend the most alive and innovative time of their lives in an institution where they can’t make money? It’s irrelevant lets train our youth to work for grades, them throw them into this scarce economy with no real world experience, JUST GRADES??

    I wrote an article on my blog pertaining to the same topic. I would really appreciate any comments or feedback anyone would provide. check it out at http://bit.ly/QLX3P.

    All the best and Be well!!!


  • clint@unc.edu'
    Clint commented on June 25, 2009 Reply

    Hello. Recent graduate from UNC (undergrad), thinking about making the jump to grad school at some point.

    I think Taylor has a good point when he discusses the value of turning departments into networks oriented around problems, but I don’t think they need to replace existing departments.

    Also, I found his entire argument too deeply based in free market ideology (it’s basically a structural adjustment program).

    I wrote an essay about it here:

  • Kevin Birth commented on August 19, 2010 Reply

    First, I would take any discussion of the future of higher ed that comes from Columbia University with a grain of salt. Those places have a culture all their own, and the positions they debate are as shaped by their idiosyncrasies as by general trends in higher ed. Columbia consists of several distinct institutions (Columbia, Barnard, Teachers’ College, Union Theological Seminary) that have parallel departments each training their own graduate students. Many of the concerns expressed in this article reflect the fragmentation within Columbia itself.

    Second, many of the recommendations have been tried before. For instance, departments have been abolished only reform because administrators find that they cannot manage a college without departments. So separate from any issue of the intellectual merits of departments is simply the issue of running a university bureaucracy. Without departments, the faculty form a very large herd of cats. The restructuring of curriculum is as old as the hills–probably the first known instance was Socrates drinking hemlock and his student, Plato, choosing to write everything down rather than rely on conversations with his pupils. We now talk about “liberal arts” whereas our medieval predecessors debated the “quadrivium.” There are institutions that have done away with tenure and have not reaped any benefit other than administrators having the ability to restrict academic freedom (not something that we, as Christians, should wish for in the secular academy). Not too long ago, many systems had mandatory retirement ages and having witnessed brilliant scholar-teachers put out to pasture simply because of their age was heartbreaking. Finally, the regulation of faculty has been tried before in the Soviet Union and mainland China. I see some evidence of this in my own classroom when I get Chinese students who are angry at me when I use my own research for examples in class rather than parrot the textbook. I am not sure that is what we want for American higher ed.

    Finally, from what I have witnessed, the issue with the education of graduate students is a lack of mentoring–too many of them are told to disappear until their disseration is finished, and never receive guidance, encouragement, or criticism until it is too late. Yet, graduate students are crucial to the political economy of many institutions, even though some faculty do not want to take any responsibility for graduate students. If we only admitted the number of students that we felt we could effectively teach, it would be far fewer than the numbers the institution requires to pay the bills and staff the courses. That is a hard one to solve.

    So I guess my general response to the NY Times article is that all of the recommendations have been tried before or are being tried currently with equivocal results. In debates about higher ed, it really feels like there is nothing new under the sun.

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on August 19, 2010 Reply

    Kevin, As you may have noticed, more from Columbia’s Mark Taylor is highlighed in “End of Philosophy,” http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2010/08/end-of-philosophy/ … really appreciate the “inside perspective” which you bring “to the table.”

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