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