Mark Taylor: End the University as We Know It

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

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.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchEducation

19 Comments
Posted April 27, 2009 at 12:30 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I never wanted to pursue a Ph.D. I think I would enjoy doing the thesis research and writing, but the allure of slave labor as a grad student, the endless busy work pre-thesis “comps,” and the idea of amassing a huge debt so that I might get a low paying professorship job just never appealed to me.

April 27, 12:45 pm | [comment link]
2. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

That’s a brilliant quote by the way…

April 27, 12:46 pm | [comment link]
3. Franz wrote:

I’m with you, #1.  For me, the thought of teaching was alluring, but the endless grind of writing more and more about less and less ultimately made academia unappealling.

April 27, 1:23 pm | [comment link]
4. Andrew717 wrote:

Pretty much mirrors my own thought process, Archer.  I’ve known several people who got caught in this trap and I feel for them.

April 27, 1:24 pm | [comment link]
5. Terry Tee wrote:

Like quite a few people I know I went back to university part-time in my late middle age and did a Master’s and a PhD.  It was incredibly satisfying and seemed in some mysterious way to help the writing and researching skills that I wanted to develop.  Help considerably, in fact.  But ultimately it was for personal enrichment, and for a sense of completion of study, not for career.  The writer of the article is, sadly, correct:  the vast majority of those who do doctorates will have to look for employment in non-academic fields.  Some already know this.  One choir director I know is looking to law school after completing his music doctorate.  A friend who did a D.Phil at Oxford (trust Oxford to be different and not call their degrees Ph.D) in philosophy became an accountant with a big international consultancy firm.  He said that his background helped him in the recruitment process - they said they were looking for well-rounded characters, people with good outside interests.

April 27, 1:29 pm | [comment link]
6. TheOldHundredth wrote:

I started grad school directly after I finished my BA, assuming I wanted ultimately to get my PhD and do serious research and writing, and as little teaching as possible, at university level. I took what I thought would be a one-year break after getting my master’s, and got an adjunct position at a local community college. I found I loved the classroom more than I could have imagined.

It’s fifteen years later, and I’ve never gone back to school. I find it hard to justify the years and the debt that would be required for me to pursue a degree I don’t need to get a job that might not exist doing something I don’t think I want to do anymore.

The conditions, economic and cultural, that Taylor describes in the article are realities that must be faced by anyone contemplating the pursuit of a PhD.

John E.

April 27, 1:44 pm | [comment link]
7. Sidney wrote:

The article does well at diagnosing the problems; terribly at prescribing solutions.

He’s right about the problems of narrow scholarship, cloning, oversupply of the market, problems with tenure, and diconnection between what the grad schools supply and what the employers want.  He does not address the problems of research funding wasted on stupid programs.

Solution #1 is a postmodern joke.  Division of labor makes lots of sense; people cannot be experts at everything.  What would make sense is to have *students* at the graduate level taking more classes outside their own departments.  ‘Cross-discinplinary and cross-cultural’ are just the latest buzzwords.

A program in ‘Water’?  Sounds like a great way to remake universities as machines to promote political agendas.  Besides, has this guy ever heard of desalination?  Yes, it will be more expensive than our currently practically free water, but coming conflicts over water are greatly exaggerated.  There is a logic to having universities teaching in the abstract instead of to contemporary issues; it cultivates independent thinking and allows students to make their own conclusions about the problems of modern life.

I don’t think abolishing tenure is necessary.  There are plenty of ways of making life miserable for a bad professor (eg, not letting them teach courses they are bad at; stop giving them raises; making them teach more; regulating their exam-writing; overruling them on their grades); it just that universities seem unwilling to take these measures.

The author fails to address key problems of higher education: the scandal of tuition rising in the face of government scholarships, and the scandal of government subsidies wasted on meaningless research (eg, the entire US Department of Education.)  The extent to which the ability to get money to do things has led universities to waste energy on nonsense is not well understood in the public.

I’d give Professor Taylor a C+ on this one.

April 27, 2:01 pm | [comment link]
8. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

The figure of $5,000 a course made me laugh. I wonder what planet the author is on. Over the past year, I’ve been paid between $2,250 and $2,500 a course. $5,000 a course (plus benefits) is what starting full-time faculty get (assuming a 4 course load for both semesters). 

Catholic and Reformed

April 27, 2:19 pm | [comment link]
9. Chris Taylor wrote:

Not at Columbia Jeremy!  That’s the planet he’s on!

April 27, 2:34 pm | [comment link]
10. robroy wrote:

The first and second tier schools, in general, produce enough PhD’s for academia. PhD’s from most large state schools (the ones that want a lot of graduate assistants) are pretty much worthless in the given field. (But you could end up presiding bishop.)

April 27, 2:45 pm | [comment link]
11. Sidney wrote:

robroy #10,

I certainly agree with you numbers-wise, but it’s not at all clear that most schools want what the first and second tier schools supply.  I know some really weak students who got PhDs at weak places who have gotten very good jobs at liberal arts colleges - even in this tough econony.  That’s because they brought things other than being great researchers to the table.  (I might add that all of these weak students were females, which I suspect was a major factor in their hiring.  They were also not your typical geeks.)

April 27, 3:38 pm | [comment link]
12. Kubla wrote:

Robroy #10,

In many fields, there is a big demand for Ph.D.s in industry.  I am a faculty member in the college of agriculture at a land grant university.  Most of our Ph.D. graduates go to work for private companies.  The usual researcher with a Ph.D. working for an agribusiness or chemical company operates in an environment quite a bit like Taylor’s proposal #6, actually, although with less job security.  Seven-year contracts are not the norm in industry. 

I should also add that my university does have a post-tenure review program.  If a faculty member receives two consecutive unsatisfactory annual reviews from the department head, it triggers probation and a full-scale peer review of that person’s program.  If they don’t shape up, dismissal is a possibility, even for tenured full professors.  It’s new (and met resistance) and it’s yet to be seen if any dead weight will be either forced to become productive or jettisoned by this program.  But it is a realization that tenure is not a license to snooze for the next 20 years.

April 27, 4:29 pm | [comment link]
13. Crackers wrote:

Good. Close them all.

These universities take good kids hostage for four years, steal $150,000 ransom directly from your checking account, and send your children home changed, corrupted, and without any job prospects.

Higher education, with its overpaid lazy faculty, who themselves are most to be found on sabbatical, is one of the biggest scams in America today.

That is why you need a master’s degree to finally get the education you didn’t get in the first place.

April 27, 5:49 pm | [comment link]
14. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Well, I’m afraid that Mark Taylor’s thesis that our grad schools produce far too many candidates for the few job openings that are out there is especially true in my field, biblical studies.  There are over 5,000 of us in America with Ph.D.s in either Old or New Testament, and believe me, there aren’t anywhere remotely close to 1,000 academic jobs for biblical scholars, much less 5,000.

Many of us, myself included, got our doctorate out of sheer love for the Bible and because we wanted to improve our skill in teaching and preaching its incomparable message.  But the fact remains that Ph.D. programs are very, very expensive, both in terms of the investment of time as well as money, for the meager and uncertain career dividends you get in return.  And for theologically conservative Anglo males like me, the prospects of ever finding a teaching position are somewhere between nil and nonexistent.

And that’s too bad, because the Church really needs all the highly trained and competent experts at biblical interpretation that it can get.  Alas, due to the hostile takeover of religion departments in most secular schools by non-believers, it’s understandable that much of the Christian Church is highly suspicious of people with doctorates in biblical studies.  With good reason.  But the need remains, despite the fact that it’s not widely recognized.  Lord, have mercy.

David Handy+

David Handy+

April 27, 11:15 pm | [comment link]
15. Alice Linsley wrote:

I’m happy teaching 4 or 5 courses a years at the local college.  I’m glad for the money, but I’d do it without pay because I’m free to teach from my 30+ years of research and the students seem truly to appreciate learning what they wouldn’t be exposed to elsewhere.

April 28, 5:47 am | [comment link]
16. Andrew717 wrote:

While I am sad it is the case, I must admit David+ is correct.  When I see that someone is an academic theologian I take anything they say with a very large grain of salt, and remain wary until they are proven innocent, so to speak.  All too often a phd is a badge of indoctrination, not knowledge, much less wisdom.

April 28, 10:44 am | [comment link]
17. Andrew717 wrote:

Bless you Alice.  Professors who love to teach (and are good at it) are pearls without price.  I learned more from three such souls (one in only a single semester-long course) than the couple dozen other professors I encountered over three institutions.

April 28, 10:48 am | [comment link]
18. Dr. William Tighe wrote:

I do not think much of this piece (full disclosure: I have a Ph.D. and I am a History professor).  In the first place, the author displays egregious ignorance when he writes:

“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.”

The “medieval dissertation?”  What medieval dissertation?  All medieval degrees, bachelor’s, master’s and the doctorate, were granted after and as a result of a public oral no-holds-barred “disputation” on a subject, or series of subjects, related to the subject-matter which the holder of a doctorate was expected to “profess.”  The dissertation was a 19th-Century German innovation which American universities picked up from the 1860s onwards, and British universities barely a century ago.  So we see that a wide pool of ignorance lies below the glittering surface of this proposal.

Worse than its ignorance, though, is the faux “revolutionary” nature of the proposal.  Since the 1960s (if not the 1940s) there has been a great tendency from the top universities on downwards to the most marginal college to try to sell a college education by stressing how it “opens doors” to “rewarding careers,” and with this comes a proliferation of professional- and commerce-oriented Majors and Minors.  In other words, they have flung themselves into the world of pretentious “vocational training” masquerading as “liberal education” or “higher learning.”  Taylor’s article is simply one more “daring proposal” to do what his employees and fellow-workers have been doing for the better part of the last half century.

Those who praise his article would, no doubt, have fallen for P. T. Barnum’s sign “To the egress,” thinking it some sort of exotic floral or faunal specimen.  “La Trahison des Clercs” also comes to mind.

April 28, 11:26 am | [comment link]
19. cjjdnc wrote:

“A program in ‘Water’?  Sounds like a great way to remake universities as machines to promote political agendas.”

I think Taylor, in the midst of a free market rant, stumbles on a pretty good idea: networked departments oriented toward social problems.  As long as those departments *complemented* existing ones, that could be quite beneficial.  Basically, it all depends on how it’s organized.

I wrote an essay reaction to his piece here:

http://www.whyweworry.com/blog/2009/06/25/restructuring-humanities/

June 25, 5:46 pm | [comment link]
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