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(newspapers, book publishers, fossil fuel-based energy systems, General Motors, etc), are increasingly feeling outdated.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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