Monday, April 27, 2009

Higher Education Reform

The current economic crisis has brought to light the problems that have plagued higher education for years. Immediately, everybody decided to propose their own plan for the reform of higher education. Today, The New York Times published an article by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia. The title of the article is "End the University as We Know It," although a more appropriate title would have been simply "End the University."

Here are some of the author's suggestions:

1. Universities must be "rigorously regulated" by trustees and administrations. According to Taylor, "many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments." The funny thing is that he then proceeds to decry the narrow specialization that plagues academia. Evidently, Taylor hasn't been able to avoid this problem himself, since he so blatantly disregards any differences that might exist between the world of finance and academia. According to Taylor, if we can regulate one area of our existence, then why not the other? I wonder why he doesn't insist on bringing the practices of the criminal justice system to the academia. Let's establish jail sentences for any infraction within the college system. That would make our world easy to understand and keep under control.

2. The second brilliant suggestion is to "abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs." These programs should be organized around "practical problems." Of course, if you can't make your field of research "practical" enough, then who needs you? Evidently, as a chairman of the religion department, Taylor doesn't believe that teaching students to reason, analyze, and express their opinions is practical enough.

3. The next suggestion is so weird that I can't even paraphrase it: "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." The only reason any one would make such an idiotic proposition is because they need to really suck up to the administration of their educational institution. How is this going to happen in practical terms (which should be so near and dear to Taylor)? Who will decide which college deserves to have a French department and which doesn't?

Notice, also, that he immediately goes after modern languages and literatures. Taylor never comes close to suggesting that the departments of religion (such as his own) might only be needed in one college out of 20. But languages are totally dispensable, aren't they? On the other hand, we (the people in modern languages departments) should be honored that pseudo-intellectual charlatans of Taylor's caliber would find us so dangerous.

4. Taylor also wants to help the 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." Observe how there is no attempt to analyze why "most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained." Maybe it's because of the proliferation of the horribly exploitative postdoc and non-tenure-track positions? Maybe if we stopped the horrible practice of hiring people without the possibility of tenure, with very low pay, and without any benefits, there would be more good tenure-track positions for graduate students to look forward to?

5. This ridiculous piece of intellectual ass-licking ends with the expected suggestion to abolish tenure. Without it, Taylor would have never felt that he had thrust his tongue deep enough into the anuses of his bosses.

Here is the link to this exercise in brown-nosing to the administration:


Anonymous said...

Overall it seems indeed that academia is drifting towards a more business-like mode of functioning. In the fields where there is not much money circulating anyway it may not be that apparent... But many top universities already function in a business investment mode with respect to tenure-track faculty in sciences: within five years of your tenure track you have to bring more money in the form of research grants than you got as a start-up, or you are out. Even my place, which is not the best, fires people who do not get any grant within first two years. The best universities fire you if you did not bring the start-up money back in two or three first years, not five... Some knowingly hire several tenure-track faculty for every future tenured position to increase competition between them.
From this viewpoint, removing tenure system altogether seems very logical, even though not very pleasant to us.
Also, tenure system exists due to a)tradition, and b)certain agreement within the society. If society decides that (re)creating a meritocratic caste of ultra-secure people funded by taxpayers' money is not in its best interests any more - tenure indeed may be abolished...
But I agree - for a professor of such a profitable subject as religious studies it is very strange to have the views Taylor has. :)

Clarissa said...

"Some knowingly hire several tenure-track faculty for every future tenured position to increase competition between them."

-Are you serious?? I have never heard about this. Wow!

"a meritocratic caste of ultra-secure people funded by taxpayers' money"

-I totally agree that tax shelters should be immediately removed from all educational institutions that don't spend a significant amount of their enndowment on education per se. If this isn't happening, it is SO not the professors' fault, though.

Anonymous said...

I did not mean tax shelters. Didn't even know there are any in academia. I meant us, in the future, hopefully tenured, and enjoying ourselves (ever heard that science is satisfying one's curiosity with taxpayer's money? ;) ) being protected by tenure.

Several tenure-track people for one tenured position - heard that about MIT. It is relatively common knowledge - everywhere I went for interview they told me - "we are decent people who cherish our new faculty, so we do not do that"...
The up side of it - anybody who remained sane after this rat race can find a position in a decent university even after being fired by MIT.

Clarissa said...

I got rejected by MIT last year. So thank you for making me feel really good about that. :-)

I have yet to work for a place where the taxpayers would pay for me in a direct way. So I really don't feel indebted to any one for anything. Nor do i think that my profession is a luxury that I should be grateful for.

I'm currently teaching my English-speaking students how to write well in their own language. This is a practical skill they will need in pretty much any profession. So I'm definitely not anybody's charity case.

I never cared much about tenure. Only I'm seeing right now how I will never be able to express my opinions openly - in class or anywhere else - without it.