What’s wrong with the academy – and how do we fix it?

April 27th, 2009 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

I’ve been watching many of my friends post links to Mark Taylor’s piece in today’s NYT, where he identifies problems with the structure of the academy and proposes some solutions. I find the piece terribly problematic.

“Expand the range of professional options for graduate students” he says – but offers no suggestions as to how to go about this process, or what (other than ‘not teaching’) those roles might include. “Abolish tenure” he adds, suggesting that it will allow institutions to reward “productivity” – without any problematizing of that concept.

And if you’re going to abolish tenure in the hope of creating space for young faculty – first, you’re going to need to “expand the range of professional options” not only of grads, but of faculty deemed no longer relevant; second, you’re going to dissuade many sensible people from entering academia. After all, if you no longer even have the illusory promise of a tenure-track position, who’s going to rack up so much debt?

His approach to distance learning is pedagogically impaired. He casts it almost entirely as a cost-saving measure (teach courses at half the cost), and aimed at real-time instruction. Compared to this, Joe White’s ‘global campus’ at the U of I seems almost progressive.

His emphasis on an inter-disciplinary academia reflects what is an evolving consensus, though his proposal to abolish departments is novel. Think this through though: instead of having essentially permanent mini-institutions within the university, we would have a rush every seven years to push for *my* recasting to triumph, or for each mini-institution to continue. The bureaucratic and administrative overhead would be far higher than for mere re-accreditation. First, each unit would not just have to meet the standard set by an accreditation body, but have to defend itself against every other proposed recasting, which might threaten to steal personnel and resources from it.

Further, what happens if the top choices for ‘centers’ are not mutually compatible – if two proposals each require the same faculty members or labs? Cue a complicated mediation process. And note that it’s not as simple as splitting percentage appointments between units – there’s also labs, seminar spaces, etc. What happens to a grad student who’s thinking of entering grad school 5 years into a seven-year cycle, uncertain if their grad program will exist (and be supported) 2 yers into the future? Universities spend far too much time on realignments as it is. Doing so across the institution every seven years is just crazy.

[Note one: I should note that Taylor’s article seems to jump between the arts and the academy as a whole at several points, without acknowledging the fact that situations may differ across the academy. He seems to be generalizing his own experience to the academy as a whole without providing sufficient justification. Not that some of his critiques don’t carry over, but his approach is clearly skewed by his own situation.]

[Note two: at the U of I we already have units, institutes and programs that operate *across* department and disciplinary lines. This makes far more sense to me – and in some cases (as with the ICR, within which I study) over time an inter-program Institute will evolve into a more permanent entity.]

Finally, for now, the author opens by seeming to lament the exploitation of grad students – but none of his solutions address this problem, and indeed several will work to heighten the prospects for exploitation of both grads and other staff (including faculty). The author proposes ‘radical’ solutions to appear visionary and open-minded, but instead exposes his own lack of understanding of the actual issues at play.

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