Monday, April 27, 2009

How (not) to reform the University system

"End the University as we know it" implores Mark Taylor in a NYT Op-Ed, wherein he, chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, suggests that Universities should abolish traditional departments and only consider multi-disciplinary short-term projects (he generously suggests renewals based on evaluation every seven years) that have "practical" use.

If you've just choked on your coffee at a call by a religious studies scholar for Universities to focus only on practical problems you're not alone. For a moment I thought this was an April Fools day joke, but sadly it is not. Note that Taylor is not advocating getting rid of himself, for

These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
Seeing as we're only allowed to consider "practical" research I look forward to seeing religious studies' aid in producing improved anti-HIV drugs, a cure for cancer, improved climate models and practical nuclear fusion.

Now there are one or two truths within the Op-Ed. There are problems with the way graduate students are used, and whether their apprenticeships adequately or fairly serve their long-term career interests (at least, in astrophysics we seem to think there are such problems, see e.g. see Williams et al, arXiv:0904.2571 [ps, pdf, other], but see below). But its hard to imagine a set solutions, less practical, less realistic or more myopic than those Taylor proposes.

When Taylor resigns his tenure, convinces all of his colleagues to do the same, reorganizes (nay, completely dissolves) the organization structure of his department while still producing a number practical solutions to World problems by following his suggested pseudo-libertarian course of action, then we might consider evaluating whether we should implement some of his reforms or not.

Go read the editorial to see exactly what he is proposing.

[Updated: 3:40pm. Michael Bérubé points out this response by Marc Bousquet. Interestingly Bousquet argues that the "Universities produce more grad students than they can employ" is a myth, at least if you sent them all to teaching colleges. That may be true, but it is a somewhat disingenuous counter argument as not everyone wants a pure teaching position - many people enter academia because they want to do a fair bit of research. There is more to his rebuttal than just that, so go read it too.]

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