Rethinking the University

Mark Taylor, the chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has some harsh words for today’s university. In his op-ed “End the University as We Know It,” he writes:

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Taylor concludes that the university must change in six ways:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. He wants to design majors and programs around common problems and create interdisciplinary faculties made up of scholars working on solutions to these problems. (My concern is that such programs would mean that students do not get thorough training in a specific discipline. For example, historical thinking is vital and essential to a liberal arts education and offers a way of understanding the world that other disciplines do not offer).

2. Similarly, Taylor calls for the end of traditional departments and a restructuring of those department around common problems. He asks us, for example, to consider a Water Program. (I like this idea, but I have the same concerns as above).

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. Not every university has to be strong in every discipline or field.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. They are too arcane and no one wants to read them. When they are published as books they do not sell. (This makes sense to me–but only in certain fields. For example, in history the dissertation, though it may not be publishable, does reveal whether a graduate student is prepared to function as a member of the discipline. It shows that he or she can make an original argument based upon original research, no matter what they decide to do with their degree).

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Universities need to prepare students for careers outside the academy. (Yes!).

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Taylor favors seven year contracts. (I am with Taylor on this. Messiah College has a term-tenure policy that has been effective in weeding out some of the dead wood. Faculty are up for review every seven years. When I first came to Messiah I was skeptical about this system, but the longer I am here the more I see it as a means of preserving excellence among the faculty).