Here are a few of my thoughts (& criticisms) in response to the NY Times Op-Ed piece today, "End the University as We Know It
- I agree that Tenure has complicated the job market for many graduate students who want to become professors by keeping slots filled by older, senior faculty members
- I disagree that the primary training of graduate school is to go be a professor (I think it's to be a critical thinker equipped with skills & tools to enable criticism!)
- I also disagree that turnover of senior faculty (or having everyone on seven-year contracts) is desirable. I think good teaching comes with time and mentorship. You only have to look to primary schools to see the negative impacts of high turnover.
- I agree that the peer review process (self-governance) has resulted in "hyper"-specialization and that collaboration across (or within) disciplines is difficult
- I disagree with the idea that "research and publication become (has) more and more about less and less" -- at least in meteorology, which is a relatively new academic discipline (50 or so years) with many relevant and still-unanswered questions (how do tornadoes form? how many hurricanes can we expect in 2050? how does this compare with today? why did it rain 0.73" on May 27, 2008 in Santiago?) However, I've served on the "summer research" committee and reviewed proposals from senior faculty (Physics, Math, Chemistry, & CompSci) for summer funding, and their questions did seem pretty idealized (what is the behavior of Equation X in chaotic environment? How does molecule Y interact with Molecule Z?)... maybe this is the author's point?
- I agree that graduate students are underpaid for the work they do.
- I disagree that "without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations..." We don't have any graduate assistants at USNA and are still expected to publish one paper per year and teach three 20-student classes per semester... and I think we do fine.
- I agree that collaboration should be encouraged amongst disciplines.
- I find it ironic that in the author's "web" example of how departments should be rearranged, his list didn't include one pure or applied science: "religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy" (economics being the only one of that list that incorporates much math). Perhaps he should re-state his claim: "End the Humanities as we know them".
- I agree that application of important questions is desirable.
- I disagree that original discovery (basic science research) need include application. I.e., to answer "how does a tornado form?", one doesn't really need to consider any "important philosophical, religious and ethical issues." Or, more relevant to the article, "how much rainfall should sub-Saharan Chad receive in 2050?" is an important science question that needs scientists trained in the sub-discipline of climate modelling (with a strong synoptic & climate dynamics background)... not an interdisciplinary team of humanists thinking deeply about the question
- I agree that streamlining of Academia is a good thing.
- I disagree that de-personalizing the academic experience is useful. The author's example, "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" implies that a virtual professor is equivalent to the real thing. I disagree. Furthermore, this argument is contradictory to specialization (if you specialize in French, where is your German knowledge?) and for job production: if all college students in the US took an online course in French from Columbia, why have the 1000s of French teachers in other universities? Why not have the "University of French"?? This, again, flies against the idea that "specialization is bad".
- I agree that graduate students should be well-prepared for careers in industry, even more than the should be prepared for academic careers. I think current graduate programs in Engineering and Science already do this well: "the exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations."