Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Worth a read: End the University

I'm not really into link-blogging per se, but if you do nothing else productive today, go read this.

Marc C. Taylor, department chair and professor of religion at Columbia, is proposing some old ideas for fixing higher education that we've been talking about for ages. Funnily enough, some of these are the same "solutions" that science curricula/med school departments/NIH program projects already use (with no obvious benefits, I might add).

Allow me to elaborate (after all, it's a blog).

1. Restructure the curriculum to get rid of overspecialization.

Great idea, Marc, but here's why it won't work in the absence of other changes you propose (see below).

The curriculum is not the same as the departments. I didn't understand this fundamental problem until I started looking for a faculty position of my own.

I was trained in a sort of "umbrella" graduate program, as these are becoming the norm in the biomedical sciences. However, departments still don't hire this way. If they can't figure out where to put you, forget about getting a job. So the structure of the university has to change first or in parallel for this suggestion to be of any use.

2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.

Great idea, Marc, but it would have to happen everywhere simultaneously for this to get any traction. Any idea how to make that happen?

Here's the thing. This suggestion suffers from the same problem as suggestion #1 up there, that some schools have already tried to start problem-focused programs as cross-departmental efforts. Again, the employment opportunities for the graduates of these programs rest on the assumption that employers will know what these programs are.

In addition, NIH has been funding problem-directed program projects for years. You know what happens? People apply for the money under the guise of doing something related to the problem at hand, and then they go right on doing what they've been doing.

To put a finer point on it, in the absence of forced retirement and abolishing tenure, as you propose below, this suggestion would amount to nothing more than the renaming of existing departments.

You're also missing a couple of critical points in your Op-Ed, Marc. You say even for undergraduate programs, you want to do this?

Here's the thing. The way education works now, you have to give grades. There is a clear differential between students who pay tuition, and faculty who get paid to teach. What you're proposing isn't going to sit well with people who insist on hierarchies, and who refuse to treat high school graduates as adults rather than children (even though they kinda are, actually, adults already).

What you're really proposing, from what I can tell, is to turn universities into giant think-tank research companies, where students are paying for the privilege of being interns?

Which is not necessarily bad. I'm against grading, personally, but how are you going to standardize evaluations? How are you going to justify it if you have to kick someone out? Are you going to fall back on the established rules and regulations used in industry? In which case, how are you going to avoid corruption from students offering to pay extra to get ahead? Since they're paying to be there anyway, this sets up a dangerous precedent, methinks.

Also, how are you going to distribute the money? Don't you think the departments that work directly on how to generate tangible, marketable products (chemistry, engineering) are going to have a hard time justifying inclusion and payment for departments who don't (like yours)?

3. Marc writes: Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. 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.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Marc. This suggestion is not helpful. Half the staff? Why? Shouldn't we, in the current economy, be looking for ways to GENERATE jobs, rather than cut them?

Your statement about one college having a strong department in one thing, and another in a different area... this already happens. You don't have to codify it.

What's interesting to me is that you're proposing to formalize something that students and postdocs already do: generate collaborations across institutions to get what we need. Even when our PIs/advisors/faculty won't speak to each other, or don't know about each other, we will and we do.

It doesn't mean there have to be fewer jobs. But I really don't see why you're trying to propose that anyway.

I won't claim to know the data on distance learning, but personally I don't really want to do it if I don't have to, and I don't really see why anyone would.

4.Transform the traditional dissertation.

Do it. I absolutely agree with this. Nobody reads them anyway, not even the thesis committees. Might as well make them in a format accessible and useful to the public.

But beware: this might encourage students by giving them a way to actually make a contribution to society!

I'm just sayin'.

5. Marc writes: Expand the range of professional options for 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.

This one cracks me up. He has NO idea how to do this.

What jobs, Marc?

Also, this is something we've been proposing for ages in the sciences, but nobody really listens to us. We've said for a while that there should be different tracks in graduate school for those who want to do science journalism vs. policy vs. product development vs. basic research vs. teaching.

So, great idea Marc. Not original, but always glad to see it mentioned. Wish somebody would start doing it already.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure


Well anyway. Yeah.

But what Marc then proposes is to replace tenure with 7-year renewable contracts.

Guess what that is, Marc? That's soft-money. That's the same thing that medical schools do already.

Do you know what complete lack of job security does to a person? I guess not, because here's what you said about it:This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

Um, yes in theory, but in practice here's what happens instead.

The rich get richer and step on the younger ones trying to make it up the ladder.

The internal politics get so much worse because of these kinds of policies. Just ask around. You have a big med school at Columbia. Ask over there.

Finally, Marc writes: For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.”

Yeah, because it's impossible to tell students that it's a good idea to go to grad school, or that they'll have more than a 1 in 300 chance of getting a faculty position at the end of all of it.


I like that this guy has a conscience, and spoke out in such a public fashion. When I saw this article, there were already >400 comments on it.

Next question: do Op-Ed articles (or blogs) ever really lead to real change? We all wrote tons about Larry Summers, but look where he ended up.

Tell me what you think and how we can put this into action. I think this restructuring education thing could be a good career for me, if the university systems would just hurry up and collapse already.

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At 9:49 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Note added in proof: check out FSP's response on the comments on her post.

I'm really surprised. I guess you never really know a person through their blog.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Economical Chymist said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Marc. This suggestion is not helpful. Half the staff? Why? Shouldn't we, in the current economy, be looking for ways to GENERATE jobs, rather than cut them?By this logic, we should eliminate any labor-saving devices that cut jobs, like automated factories or robots. The fact is that by enhancing efficiency, resources can be deployed more effectively with better returns. So instead of having 2 German teachs and 2 French teachers, you could get away with 1 of each and hire an additional lab tech for someone else.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Joseph Delaney said...

"The rich get richer and step on the younger ones trying to make it up the ladder. "

What is really needed, in my not so humble opinion, is a middle ground between these two extremes. Removing all job security simply creates a very difficult environment for everyone as it becomes impossible to plan for the future (and new researchers are seen as dangerous rivals). I fear that MsPhD is right about the pernicious effects that this policy can have on an institution. It seems to be a major source of (justified) bitterness among trainees.

A soft money model that is tightly linked to seniority seems to alway generate such problems, as far as I can tell. Senior people in industry cannot (easily) rest on the laurels of what they did 15 years ago at a different company. They have their own sets of problems (and a completely different outcome metric) so I doubt we could just steal their model without a series of modifications.

Exactly how to reform such a complex system with so many vested interests is not intuitive to me, however.

The worst part seems to be doing these things at the same time in multiple places. Otherwise, entrenched power structures can ensure that experiments are such dire failures that they are unlikely to be repeated . . .

At 7:46 AM, Anonymous stephen said...

Interesting.. I'll have to think about this some more...

At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best thing of all leave the stupid fucking crappy academia and have fun in the outside world.Once I left this bull shit academia I realized how much fun is there in the outside world and how much I missed it for 9 years. I am enjoying every second. I don't care what happens to this fucking academia. My advise is to all follow my foot steps and leave this crappy field, trust me you all will start enjoying every second of your life

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to think the only way to reform anything is to become a PI so you have some authority to make decisions (although once a PI many people then tend to turn a blind eye to the very system that they were swearing to change for fear of losing their success). Let's face it, PIs have little incentive to want the system to change since they benefit from it the way it is now. So maybe a better way to effect change as an individual is to leave the lab and get into science policy. Either way I now don't think change can come from within because either you are benefitting from it and thus have incentive to keep the status quo, or else you are an underdog who has no political capital.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Bethany said...

Hmm... Interesting stuff here.


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