A Not-So-Bold Plan

Jason Fertig

Is higher education at that proverbial tipping point where large scale change is imminent?  If the number of recent books on that topic is any indication, look out below.  As Peter Sacks stated in opening his recent essay at Minding the Campus, “College bashing is very much in vogue.”

One of the latest books in the critical higher education genre is Professor Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities.  The book received a lukewarm review in the Wall Street Journal on August 31, although it comes on the heels of Taylor’s powerful op-ed in the New York Times last year – “End the University as We Know it.”  As an academic reading this book, I acknowledge and agree with many of Taylor’s recommendations for change.  However, many of the suggestions are not necessarily bold – they are more in the realm of improvement – and he misreads the academic motivation of many who enter college education in the 21st century.  Perhaps a better way of viewing the message in this book is to change the subtext to the more fitting “Reengineering the University.” 

Among his better points, Taylor proposes curricular reform that aims to remove departmental silos.  He cites how the current university departmental structure promotes extremely narrow streams of research, which in turn produce irrelevant classes that do not develop a proper understanding of key issues or required skills.   In place of the current “functional structures,” Taylor suggests a cross-disciplinary approach that allows each field to give input to a common line of inquiry (e.g. Mind, Law, Media, etc.). 

While there is value in keeping some classical disciplines intact (math, physics, biology, etc), I have firsthand experience with the detrimental effects of a lack of integration.  I place a huge premium on reading comprehension and written communication in my courses.  Yet, my ability to influence my students is only as strong as the standards that are held in other courses that they take.  For example, students in my course realize that developing a thought on paper is essential for a high grade, while in other courses, they can achieve the same grade with less coherence in their written work.  In essence, I’m the grammar Nazi for students that semester.  With a better, more organized curriculum, the same standards would apply throughout students’ college careers.  As a teacher, I could expect more from my senior students if I could rely on the instructors in introductory classes to stick to a program that integrates with the curriculum as a whole.

Taylor also advocates the elimination of tenure – a message also pushed in the recently released Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.  Taylor presents the familiar argument that tenure makes teaching stale and research deficient.  Instead of the current practice of lifetime employment (revocable for those who commit a felony or dare to oppose the theory of man-made global warming), Taylor argues for renewable seven-year contracts based on acceptable levels of productivity.

Unfortunately, the focus on performance evaluation that Taylor advocates is at odds with his acknowledgement of the overabundance of worthless publications earlier in the same chapter.  Taylor notes the rise in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of using publications as a way of holding higher standards for academic job applicants due to the overabundance of qualified candidates in a down job market.  He also rightly states that while many publications are not meaningful contributions to knowledge, they are prominent in tenure and promotion decisions.  Because the evaluations of research and teaching quality are usually subjective, advocating replacing tenure with “performance-based” reappointment needs a qualifier on how to measure performance.  Eliminating tenure without rethinking performance evaluation will only further encourage the “publish (anything) or perish” mentality. 

Tenure may be abolished at some point, but in the near term, a more rational change would be what Bob Samuels recently proposed in the Huffington Post - the development of three categories of professors: those who teach, those who do research, and those who do both.  This suggestion falls in line with my Aikido-based mindset of working with transmitted energy vs. fighting it – if productive researchers want out of the classroom, there should be an opportunity for them to do so in order to focus on more research.  Similarly, truly outstanding teachers who want to develop new courses and innovative teaching methods in place of a certain number of publications should be able to do so as well.  If a college faculty were a baseball team, such a division of labor would be called playing to strengths.  A light-hitting infielder is not expected to hit 50 home runs and a power-hitting designated hitter is not expected to drop a sacrifice bunt with runners on base.  Yet, both roles are needed for a successful team.  Why should educating our children be any different?

A third piece of “bold” reform advocated by Taylor is summed up in the following excerpt from Crisis on Campus:

Last week a junior major in religion at Columbia came to my office and said, “I’d like to do a documentary film on Muslims in Southern Russia rather than write a fifty-page paper for my senior thesis.  I responded, “Then do it; but make sure your ideas are well thought out and rigorously developed and your work is carefully crafted to shed new light on the questions you probe.”  I was delightfully surprised when the department approved her proposal.

I agree with the idea that students should be trained to leverage new technology, but such training cannot substitute for the fundamentals of reading and writing.  For students who have already mastered the basics of the written word, the multimedia option is beneficial for expanding their portfolio of skills.  However, from experience, telling the average undergraduate student to “make sure your ideas are well thought out and rigorously developed and your work is carefully crafted to shed new light on the questions you probe” means the same to many of them as saying “toaster fork pen up carpet window car sidewalk Starbucks dandruff poppy seed.”

Student apathy towards academic work is a growing problem in American education.  Many of my (stronger and weaker) students readily admit that they do not read anything outside of assigned work, and they disclose that information without a twinge of embarrassment. They don’t see that such intellectual apathy is unacceptable for a truly college educated person.  For them, college is now for “getting a job” and “hands-on training,” not book learning.  Hence, Taylor’s recommendations for alternative technology-based assignments and more student autonomy in determining a major field of study is feasible only for the most motivated students. 

Ultimately, the reforms presented in Crisis on Campus lead to the question, “Are all students educable at the college-level?”  Taylor’s proposals require a presupposition that students in general want to absorb knowledge like a sponge but are held back by a stultifying curriculum. That’s no more than a half truth. The stultification comes from students too.  A true bold plan would take into account all student motivations by eliminating the one-size-fits-all degree and replacing it with options for two- or three-year degrees and certificate programs, along with a reformed four-year degree and graduate school options.  Such options would present a credential for students simply seeking a measure of employability, while allowing the four-year degree and graduate programs to retain only those students interested in the life of the mind. 

Readers interested in opposing angles on college reform would benefit from reading Taylor’s book in conjunction with Charles Murray’s Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality.  In the spirit of evaluating all viewpoints, ascertaining the similarities and difference between the two books will make for interesting policy discussion.  

In the end, Crisis on Campus is worth reading, as it contains some worthy points in both the assessment of the state of higher education and in the recommendations for change, but much of this book is not as “bold” as the title suggests.  I was expecting KC Masterpiece, but instead I got a mild store-brand blend. 

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