Some days all I have time for is “the most emailed” section of the NY Times. Today, #1 is an op-ed by Mark C. Taylor, distinguished professor and chair of Religion at Columbia, formerly of Williams college, and author of many fascinating books ranging from deeply penetrating to faddishly impenetrable. I personally like some of Taylor’s work, but this op-ed sucks. It proposes to abolish the university as we know it, and it reads like a plank out of the dying republican party’s tattered playbook. I’m no defender of the university, and certainly not of the current publishing and reward structure, but this op ed won’t help me. It’s more like dynamite stashed somewhere for the adolescent delight of administrators who think that blowing up the institutions we’ve spent centuries building is the best way to build new ones.
Among its unfortunately pedantic suggestions are: get rid of tenure (okay, but do you really want academics chasing after bonuses like Wall Street does?), abolish departments (sounds good, let’s abolish what little pedagogy we have as well), use distance education instead of teaching people directly (oh, come on, have we not been through this before?), and give grad students training for other careers besides research and teaching (fries with that?).
Look, I really want to agree with Taylor. I just took a very good job in exactly the kind of entity Taylor is suggesting we develop to replace departments and transform academia (The Center for Society and Genetics at UCLA), and I think it is the bees’ knees. I absolutely agree that we should have more such centers, focused on timely problems, bringing experts together from multiple disciplines. But we can’t do it over night: that “from multiple disciplines” part? It kind of needs to continue for a while for these centers to make sense. What’s more, the only way the center I’m part of could have recruited me or anyone else it employs was by constituting itself as a department, with that same stability and autonomy that current departments have. And frankly, if such entities are successful, they might create new disciplines, or successors to whatever a discipline is.
Howver, the stuff Taylor is talking is pure ressentiment: administrators across the country love it when stooges like Taylor say this kind of shit, because it gives them the right and high horse upon which to justify the destruction of academic job security, autonomous decision making by faculty and the definition of what counts as a timely or important problem by the people who actually have to do the work. And I suspect I hardly need to tell anyone that it isn’t places like UCLA or Columbia that will suffer even if his suggestions are taken seriously, but those underfunded state schools looking for any excuse to expand the number of adjuncts, diminish the autonomy of faculty, exploit graduate students even further (by claiming that they need to “expand their skills”), and so on.
To be honest, I agree that there are a lot of places to cut in a university. But a “dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations” is not it. I’ll bet that dissertation is fascinating, and I’ll also bet that the person writing it has a hundred other marketable skills as well. The luxury of being able to focus on such a thing for five years of one’s life is a treasure we absolutely should not sacrifice; especially not to the economistic drive to justify every cent begrudgingly spent on research libraries or language education without giving a second thought to the half million a year it spends on its football coach or its battery of consultants who fail to improve the communications or IT infrastructure of the university.
Seriously though, the problem we face is not that we are blindly clinging to some outdated model of medieval education–the problem we face is that we are desperately trying to avoid engulfing the university in the flames of change. Yes we need a new model of research. Yes we need graduate students with flexible skills and more career options. Yes we need problem-focused research… but we don’t need any of these things if it means further accelerating the cycle of hype and promise that researchers are already trapped in, or making it even more impossible to spend longer than 6 months on a hard problem, or demanding that we fill out even more forms and click more buttons in order to account for and justify our worth from day to day. Universities should serve their function: protecting those who devote their lives to thinking from have to think about every instant of their lives. If we sacrifice that , we really don’t need universities anymore.