Monday, April 27, 2009

The Future of Universities

Mark Taylor writes in the NY Times today about how to restructure universities. I agree with much of what he says, especially the point that graduate education as currently practiced is a bad deal for most grad students in the arts and sciences--who receive low pay and, absent a tuition waiver, a mountain of debt, but frequently have no realistic chance of eventually landing tenure-track positions (which was the justification for this apprenticeship model in the old days).

Taylor also points to (familiar) flaws in the institution of tenure, although he does not reckon its benefits or the consequences for free inquiry were it abolished. Likewise, Taylor makes a case for replacing sub-sub-specialization within departments with inter-disciplinarity and project-based organization. Here the basic model is something on the order of a team of superheroes, each with his or her own special skills (e.g., a biologist, a climatologist, a physicist, a guy who shoots laser beams from his eyes) all coming together to solve a problem. That too has advantages, although Taylor does not explain how the individual members of each team are supposed to develop their particular expertise once the departments that teach their specialties have been abolished.

I'd also like to note here how miraculous it is that universities as we know them exist at all. What makes a great university great is primarily the quality of the research performed by its faculty. In principle and in practice, that research has little connection to the quality of teaching, and indeed, there may be a negative correlation, as the very top researchers often receive teaching breaks and, even when they teach a full load, are not necessarily any better than (or even as good as) less luminary instructors, at explaining the underlying material to students. Accordingly, one might think that a prospective student trying to decide whether to attend super-prestigious Great Research University or middle-of-the-pack Liberal Arts College would prefer LAC if the quality of instruction is higher than at GRU (as it may well be). But in fact, the value of the degree from GRU is greater than the degree from LAC (putting aside first-rate liberal arts colleges, whose faculty are drawn from more or less the same pool as those of the research universities), and so it's rational to pick GRU.

So long as there is a positive association between GRU's research faculty quality and the value of the degrees it confers on students, most top students will continue to go to the GRUs of the world and give them piles of money when some of them become wealthy alumni. However, the relationship is fragile; a break in the association could lead to a spiral in which prospective students shop for a higher education based on price and what they expect to learn, rather than prestige of research faculty. And a shock--such as the current recession--could cause that break.

Will that happen? I think probably not right now, partly because the logical place for squeezed families to send their kids is to a state university or college, and they've got tighter budgets than ever right now, while middle-of-the-pack liberal arts colleges are also in a tough spot. So higher education across the board is likely to suffer somewhat in the short run.

The question that remains for the long run--quite apart from the concerns raised by Taylor's essay--is whether there is a future for institutions that combine teaching and research. As someone who lives and works inside (and loves the very idea of) universities, I certainly hope so. I even think I could make the case for the logic of associating a university's research with its value for students (provided substantial attention is paid to teaching.) But there's no guarantee that universities as we know them will survive.

Posted by Mike Dorf


C.E. Petit said...

I was somewhat amused by the NYT opinion piece... from a humanities scholar. He's engaging in one of the classic logical fallacies: The experience in my department is necessarily congruent to the entire university, to the same degree.

His prescription is indefensible for several reasons:

(1) There's no problem with the structure in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Although there aren't as many teaching jobs out there as one would like, there are viable noneducational jobs that actually require and use the skills picked up in those graduate programs. That counsels a change in proportions, not a change in structure.

(2) Just where, exactly, does one expect to get the expertise necessary to those interdisciplinary groups? That's as much a function of the necessary interaction within departments, but outside of subspecialties, that one gets during a graduate education as it is of anything else.

(3) How does one define a "problem" in the natural sciences? Oh, I get it: As a religion scholar, he just doesn't like disproof of religious postulates. (Last comment only slightly sarcastic.) Actually, he does raise one good point: The natural sciences could stand more interdisciplinary work... but at the graduate level, not undergraduate level, as the undergrads just don't know enough yet to engage in interdisciplinary analysis that is really meaninful. The same goes for engineering.

As an aside, I hold an AB in chemistry from a top research institution... and the amount of cross-department dialog among the faculty and graduate students, and even undergraduates, thirty years ago would have no doubt seemed satisfactory. For example, the basic class in biochemistry was team-taught across the biology, chemistry, and medicine faculties, and many lab groups crossed departments.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the esteemed professor of religion has no idea what his colleagues in the sciences actually do with their time (when not applying for research grants), or how they teach their courses.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I think that the Dorf Model of student institution choice is somewhat lacking.

In my experience, students are utterly indifferent to how much research is conducted at a school in selecting it.

The first cut is whether a student can afford to go private (or the equivalent, an out of state public school), or must attend an in state public university or college.

The next is selectivity -- students rationally exclude schools that will not accept them, and often try to go to a school with the most academically able peers that will accept them.

The GRU v. LAC determination is a third priority (at most) item, and focuses not so much on teaching or research, but on "getting lost and overwhelmed and taught by graduate students" v. "having personal attention and small class sizes in classes taught by professors". The GRU frequently loses when the question comes down to that point.

The main edge that the GRU has over the LAC is that state bureaucracies being what they are, bigger tends to be viewed as better, so there are far more public GRU slots than there are public LAC slots.

It is rare for students to care about GRU v. LAC capacity to produce research prior to graduate school when applicants plan on researching and want to tie themselves to the stars of promising fellow researchers, and notably, many top GRU's have a high ratio of grad students to undergraduates.

The GRU are as common as they are simply because public higher education was formed on the model of institutional rather than scholarship based support, and then controlled by their most sustained and intensely constituents, the faculty. This created slack to allow faculty to do what faculty want to do, which is research.