Several readers have e-mailed me about this piece. The author is Columbia religion professor Mark C. Taylor (yes, the Derrida apologist and postmodern "theorist"). Here's a taste of the careless rhetoric:
GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and 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).
In fact, many graduate programs produce PhD graduates who secure tenure-track teaching positions, and many of whom (the majority of whom?) do so without acquiring any debt. There are "Chrysler" PhD programs that should close, but that's no basis for smearing all graduate programs--though perhaps Professor Taylor is inadvertently telling us something about his department (I hope the Columbia Provost takes note!).
Professor Taylor goes on to lament specialization (one can understand why pomo intellectual tourists might do so), though he would do well to read Weber. But he is certainly correct that the size of many graduate programs is dictated more by the needs of universities for cheap labor than by academic considerations:
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.
Professor Taylor concludes with the following recommendations, that range from the juvenile to the perhaps worth experimenting with to the naive and dangerous:
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural....
2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water....
3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. 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. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.
4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.
5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. 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. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.
6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.
Part of what underlies this is the fact that Taylor has no specialty or discipline of his own, and so would like every other unit to follow suit, and "specialize" in intellectual superficiality across many topics. But the proposal regarding tenure is really reckless and naive. Tenure means faculty can be termined only "for cause." Universities are undoubtedly too timid in initiating termination proceedings where they would, in fact, be justified, but the remedy for that problem is not the elimination of tenure, which does, indeed, protect academic freedom (and the First Amendment rights of state university professors), but also acts as an essential form of non-monetary compensation for faculty.
Thoughts from readers on Professor Taylor's article and his proposals? Signed comments only: full name and e-mail address.