Ending the University as We Know It

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.

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Comments (7)
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  • Ruth says:

    I think that Uni­ver­si­ties will have no choice but to adapt to the chang­ing times. How can they expect to edu­cate the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers if they don’t rec­og­nize the chal­lenges and changes that young peo­ple will have to deal with? What I don’t see the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of the “ivory tow­er old boys club” want­i­ng to accept is that the scope of change which the new glob­al econ­o­my Randy Charles Epping talks about in The 21st Cen­tu­ry Economy—A Beginner’s Guide is forc­ing on the work­ers of the world is ulti­mate­ly going to shake the foun­da­tions of their esteemed insti­tu­tions as well.

  • Pete says:

    My first thought is, I entered invest­ment bank­ing just in time to watch it die. Now, as I pre­pare for a switch to acad­e­mia, is that going away, too? Of course it’s not; this is a great arti­cle to be writ­ten by a div school dude but the log­i­cal exten­sion shows its fail­ings. Imag­ine if we gave only half a med­ical edu­ca­tion to a group of stu­dents, togeth­er with exten­sive train­ing in his­to­ry and poet­ry. Would they get licensed to prac­tice med­i­cine? Would you want this half-physi­cian to prac­tice on you?

    How about engi­neers? It’s hard enough to cram in all the math and prac­ti­cal knowl­edge required in a Ph.D.‘s course­work. Should we be cut­ting back on that and train­ing mechan­i­cal engi­neers on a lit­tle bit about build­ing bridges and a lit­tle bit about the pol­i­tics of appro­pri­a­tions for bridges? I’d rather see col­lab­o­ra­tion in apply­ing knowl­edge. Would­n’t you rather dri­ve your chil­dren across a bridge designed by engi­neers who were 100% focused on design­ing bridges and who worked with lob­by­ists who were 100% focused on fund­ing them instead of a big team of mixed engi­neer-lob­by­ists?

    I guess they mint wack-a-doos at that Colum­bia place.

  • Nick says:

    Has­n’t neolib­er­al­ism been dis­cred­it­ed. Why do they insist on weak­en­ing work­er pro­tec­tion. Tenure is there in part to ensure aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom.

    There is no cri­sis in the Uni­ver­si­ty (if there is such a sin­gle thing that we can refer to as such — which there isn’t). Our edu­ca­tion sys­tem does not have to become com­pet­i­tive, it needs to edu­cate. Anoth­er exam­ple of dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism ala Nao­mi Klein.

  • Ana says:

    There’s got to be bal­ance. I like the cross dis­ci­pli­nary approach but then there is the issue of being account­able for future endeav­ors, I total­ly agree with Pete. I will nev­er go to a doc­tor who is not focused and expert­ly edu­cat­ed in Med­i­cine. I think there are pro­grams where­in a cross dis­ci­pli­nary approach will work but Med­i­cine, Law,
    Engi­neer­ing, Archi­tec­ture are exact Sci­ences.

    Lit­er­a­ture, Music, Design, …you can mix those stuff.

    Any­thing Dig­i­tal like Pro­gram­ming you can put it in every­thing. I’m say­ing that by expe­ri­ence because I’m an under­grad — Com­put­er Sci­ence.

  • Bob Price says:

    Inter­est­ing com­ments. I see the arti­cle dis­cussing the inter­nal process­es involved in cur­rent edu­ca­tion and less about prob­lems with the qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion.

    I agree that open uni­ver­si­ties will dis­pute the need for redun­dant strengths and, hope­ful­ly, reduce asso­ci­at­ed costs for every­one. The Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion is over.

  • Lindsay says:

    I com­plete­ly agree that Lib­er­al Arts edu­ca­tion should be more inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced. I grad­u­at­ed from Vas­sar in 2008 with a major in Media Stud­ies, one of the few inter­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­grams at the col­lege. The free­dom to build a well-round­ed edu­ca­tion through mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines was what drew me to the pro­gram, and what gave me a stronger edu­ca­tion in the end. We were also giv­en the option to do a tra­di­tion­al the­sis or a mul­ti­me­dia project. I cre­at­ed a web­site along with a sup­ple­men­tary paper, which was much more engag­ing and allowed me to inter­act with my the­sis top­ic in a more cre­ative way. I think more of these pro­grams should be imple­ment­ed in all insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion. Some sub­jects should be sin­gu­lar, such as med­i­cine, but most could ben­e­fit from a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary per­spec­tive that allows stu­dents to broad­en the scope of their edu­ca­tion.

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