The most popular article in yesterday’s New York Times was an Op-Ed calling for a thoroughgoing overhaul of the traditional university. For Mark Taylor (chairman of the religion department at Columbia University), it’s time to get rid of the mass-production university model — the university that builds walls between disciplines, encourages academics to work on often irrelevant topics, and produces an ongoing glut of graduate students, who work as cheap laborers, then have difficulty finding full-time teaching jobs. So what’s the solution? Taylor proposes six ideas: 1) Getting rid of free-standing academic departments and making academic work cross-disciplinary, 2) developing multi-disciplinary programs that focus on “real” problems, 3) increasing collaboration among institutions, partly with the help of the internet, so that universities don’t have to develop redundant strengths, 4) moving away from traditional, citation-packed dissertations and instead having grad students communicate their research in more contemporary digital formats, 5) helping grad students plan for a life beyond scholarship itself, and 6) imposing mandatory retirement and abolishing tenure, essentially in order to keep faculty responsive and productive.
What Taylor is suggesting is not entirely new. These ideas have been floating around for some time. But they’re packaged well, and they drive home the point that universities, like so many other traditional institutions (newspapers, book publishers, fossil fuel-based energy systems, General Motors, etc), are increasingly feeling outdated. Or, put differently, they’re not responding to rapid changes in technology and the global economy. There’s an older generation that likes these institutions pretty much as they are. And that generation now runs them. Then, there’s a younger generation learning to do things in different ways. And we’re left to wonder: How long will it take for these institutions to catch up? Or will they simply get outflanked by something new? As always, love to hear your thoughts.