Thursday, June 19, 2008

Land Grant Universities and the Liberal Arts and Sciences

I have spent all of my graduate school at three land grant institutions: University of Cal – Davis, University of Wisconsin – Madison and Cornell University. Never had I encountered the opinion that because the university is a land grant, not only should we accept mediocrity in the core liberal arts and sciences, but in fact, we should actively seek it lest we sacrifice the strengths of the other units, such as agriculture, until I came to Oregon State. There is some sense to this logic – the core arts and sciences are expensive in that they tend not to bring in as much grant funding as the more applied areas, but the problem with this logic is that it is the core arts and sciences that make up the heart of the undergraduate education. In fact the quality of the core arts and sciences are in large part what determine the reputation and the overall quality of the university. Is it any wonder then, that the three universities I mention above are considered exceptional while Oregon State is ranked in the third tier of the US News university rankings? In fact, it is the only Pac 10 school in the third tier.

Though it may seem a good strategy in response to a resource poor environment, this subjugation of the core arts and sciences at OSU is not a good long term strategy. OSU has a shockingly low undergraduate retention rate, a poor academic reputation, low undergraduate morale and a very big need for quality in-state as well as the high price paying out-of-state students. It is not going to attract these students with big grants to the forestry college. In fact the course that OSU is on will lead it right back to where it started – a four year vocational college. It is also not a zero-sum game. Strength in the core arts and sciences would help other units and especially the interdisciplinary programs OSU's administration is so hot on. I don't think you build strong interdisciplinary programs on top of poor discipline specific programs. Strong interdisciplinary programs come from strong discipline specific programs.

I am constantly dumbfounded and wonder where this attitude that a Land Grant university has no business being strong in the core arts and sciences comes from. Let’s look at the College of Liberal Arts and compare the departments at OSU with key departments at the three universities I mention. Here are the US News rankings of departments at Cornell, Wisconsin and Davis (in that order) in Economics: 12, 38, 42; English: 17, 11, 28; History: 11, 11, 26; Political Science: 18, 16, 29; Psychology: 16, 9, 47; and Sociology: 14, 1, 29. Where is OSU in all of this? In most of these disciplines, OSU doesn’t even have PhD programs, so they don’t qualify to be ranked, the couple that do (Econ and History – sort of, History's program is in the history of science and is mostly moribund) are too low to rank. The point is this good universities, land grant or not, excel in the core arts and sciences. So this idea that OSU has no business trying to be strong in those areas is completely baseless. By neglecting the core arts and sciences, OSU is not just a poor university, but it is getting worse.

I think that part of this attitude springs from a shockingly (to this outsider at least) insular culture at OSU. Much of the administration has started out as students here, spent their entire careers here, and have very little perspective. I often hear expressed the attitude that OSU is ‘different’ as if this is a point of pride. Well I have news for the OSU cognoscenti: OSU is competing in an increasingly international market for talent, it needs to stop being ‘different’ and start being ‘competitive.’

So why this lengthy diatribe? Well in addition to the cutting of language arts, which has received a little attention, starting this year, if you wish to pursue a graduate degree in economics, don’t bother applying to OSU - the administration has shut us down. This leaves the College of Liberal Arts with exactly zero legitimate PhD programs. Good luck trying to get good faculty in economics now - I, for one, would not have come here without a PhD program. This is an interesting decision at a time when Economics is one of the most popular undergraduate majors across the country and is the most popular major at schools such as Harvard, Duke and NYU. To abolish econ when it was the only legitimate PhD program in the entire College of Liberal Arts is truly dumbfounding and sends a very bad signal about the future of the University.


Fred Thompson said...

This is dismaying news indeed. You were building a first rate niche program at OSU, which made a vital contribution to your MPP program as well. What was the justification for this decision? Does it affect the PHD program in agricultural and resource economics? Is there any chance the decision could be reversed? Can you move economics to the College of Science?

Patrick Emerson said...


It is long and complicated, but essentially there will be an 'applied econ' program (as many ag. econ pregrams have re-branded themselves due to big dropoffs in ag. econ departments, faculties and programs) joint with three departments - but ag. econ will be the major player in what is essentially an ag. econ program. Econ will play a supporting role that has yet to be ironed out.

Fred Thompson said...

Applied economics is a good thing, indeed that is OSU's strength. But this is one area where names matter and, in this instance, unfavorably. Calling a degree an applied economics PHD rather than an economics degree might create some opportunities for recipients, but would almost certainly cost them more.

Patrick Emerson said...

I see the applied econ program as great and an asset to OSU - it certainly does make a lot of sense at OSU. I just don't see it as a subsititute for an econ grad program. I think the two are strong complements, but unfortuately, that was not the view of the administration.

My point here is that growing the College of LA is important for OSU and instead we are moving backward.