Detroit of Higher Education

In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, Mark Taylor, Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, called for a major restructuring of graduate programs in this country. Because graduate education plays such a central role in the intellectual life of our country, his concerns deserve to be considered. Professor Taylor considers graduate education “the Detroit of higher education.

He writes “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research…publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).”

Taylor does not only criticize. In addition, he proposes a complete overhaul of graduate and, in turn, undergraduate studies tailored for the 21st century.

1. Replace the obsolete departmental structure with an integrated, interdisciplinary network of disciplines. “Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”

2. Create problem focused programs around a broad range of topics such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time Media, Money, Life and Water.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. Taylor comments: “With these tools [teleconferencing and the Internet], I have recently team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.”

4. Transform the traditional dissertation modeled on the medieval dissertation, into analytic treatments from hypertext and Web sites to films and other theses formats.

5. Expand the professional options for students since “Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained.”

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure with seven-year renewable contracts. This will avoid the current situation in which there is little turnover among professor with many “impervious to change.

Taylor writes “For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with what I could never imagine doing…” He concludes: “My hope is that colleagues and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academic to a future we cannot conceive.”

For one not far removed the academic fray, I can only affirm the merits of Taylor’s portrait of graduate programs and the need for their radical restructuring. It was only after I began teaching that I learned anything about my discipline and it was only after I began teaching that I realized the great value of interdisciplinary, problem focused, courses. I taught better and the students learned more when I could offer them. And along the way they gave rise to research programs in which both my students and I learned a great deal and even nudged forward a little bit the areas we investigated.

I might add that I turned down the offer of indefinite tenure hoping to replace it with a renewable contract subject to periodic evaluation. I was duly informed that I could not remain at the college under those conditions. Since the college was in my mind a little Utopia, I had to settle for a permanent arrangement. However, in the end I departed from the college long before it was necessary, so in reality it wasn’t very permanent at all.