Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Should Universities Re-Imagine Themselves?

A reader asks for my take on this opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times on the 26th of April. The essence of the piece is that the old organizational structure of the university based on disciplinary integrity is outdated and we should move to an interdisciplinary model driven by important questions. It is written by a religion professor at Columbia University.

There are three main points I want to make. The first is the flaw of logic that is so large you could drive a cruise ship through it. This is the assertion that we need to break down the old disciplinary groupings and focus instead on cross-disciplinary problems. Religious studies scholars should talk to political scientists, for example, to solve the religiously motivated political tensions that exist in the world. The problem here is: where do the religious studies experts and political science experts come from so that they can get together and solve all the worlds problems? Without training in traditional disciplinary programs, there is no expertise, no canonical education that produces precisely the type of expert that Prof. Taylor speaks of. Without the discipline-based education what you would get are students who are knowledgeable in many things but experts in nothing. This is a huge distinction that is lost on many people. As a public policy student I became very knowledgeable and could have been a very useful member of society in applying that knowledge. But it was in the core economics education I received that gives me the expertise to apply economics to public policy questions. It is people like me, in other words, that create the knowledge that the generalists use. I think an inevitable result of breaking down discipline specific programs would be the prevalence of ‘good sounding ideas’ but no real way to study just how good they really are.

This leads to the second point. It may be that religious studies students are studying things of no real use, but this is a problem of religious studies not academics in general. I have a hard time thinking of any research in economics that is not directly relevant and valuable to contemporary real world problems. In fact, economics is often accused of straying too far into other disciplines so you might think we are eager to see these lines blur, but this is wrong. Without the intense core economics education such intrusions in other fields would be useless, it is precisely the economists eye on a psychological problem that adds value (and a psychologists eye on economics as well). Rather than blaming academia as a whole for the failings of religious studies, Prof. Taylor, the chair of the religion department at Columbia, should be focusing on why his own discipline has been so stuck in medieval ways.

The last point is that economics has already responded to the changing marketplace for higher education and research (which is perhaps why economics is so successful). Our dissertations today look nothing like those of medieval dissertations or economics dissertations of thirty years ago. Economics has become flexible and our dissertations are usually just bundles of papers on diverse topics because this avoids precisely the sub-sub field problem described by Prof. Taylor. Our graduates are in high demand and not just for academic jobs, but in government, business, consulting, banking and even journalism. Clearly the training and expertise we provide have a high value precisely because of how applicable they are to real world problems.

Two other more minor points also need to be made. First Prof. Taylor argues for an end to tenure, but without tenure, the incentive is to avoid researching the hard questions and rather focus on areas that are popular, have good funding and are easy to publish in. This is not what you want out of university scholars. Tenure is not job security for life, but it does represent intellectual freedom. It does have incentive problems but the alternative is not attractive. [And, as pointed out on this blog before, tenure is a part of compensation, without it you would likely have to increase faculty pay]

Second, as is pretty clear from my comments, think Prof. Taylor is startlingly myopic – unable to see past the problems of his own field - but yet he is quite ready to generalize his problems to the entire academy. For instance, teaching via teleconference might be effective when you are just delivering a long speech on say, early Christian thought, but trying to teach economics that way is unlikely to be successful as there is a lot you have to do to build mathematical models, draw the resulting graphs, perturb them to make predictions and quiz student to make sure they get it. There is a lot of value added to being in the same room, not to mention all the help faculty provide outside of class.

All of the problems he lists are really problems of fields like religious studies where, essentially, the problem is lack of jobs. Clearly the presence of PhD students for whom there are no jobs in his department is what motivates Prof. Taylor to write this. It can be read as a desperate attempt to say, "religious studies PhDs really are valuable, it is just that the old structure devalues them!" So the answer is: they should be hired by political science departments... But it is not the structure of higher education that has devalues religious studies, but religious studies as a field itself that has done it. If the important questions are about religion and politics, that is where the field should place emphasis.

Fortunately, economics is very responsive to markets and remains a valuable field both in and out of the academy. Almost all economics PhDs in the US have a job in their field within a year of getting their degree. As I have mentioned before, university graduates earn wages that are about 75% higher on average than high school graduates, so universities must be doing something right. But Prof. Taylor never mentions undergraduate education, funny that...


Ralph said...

Mr. Emerson,

"It is people like me, in other words, that create the knowledge that the generalists use."I suggest to you this is the exact problem Mr. Taylor was attempting to address in his Op-Ed article. That in the University environment there are many silos where there is little insight into the silos' contents. Arrogance and peevishness amongst these collectives ensures remoteness. Because you know about public policy you feel you are able to straddle these disciplines. Assume for a moment that someone within your University knows more about public policy that could, as you like to say, add value to your context. Would it not make sense to utilize this resource?

That is how it works in the "Real Word"(tm) according to my experience.

Becky Davies said...
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Becky Davies said...

I attend Columbia and will make no defense of some of the university's archaic models of education that mire it in narrow, arguably useless subjects of study. However I think there is merit to Professor Taylor's argument (to note, he only recently joined the Columbia faculty, and so should not be viewed as a representative figure for better or for worse). The problems students face emerging college today are not those faced by our parents or grandparents. Or, perhaps it's not even that the problems are substantially different but rather that our perspectives of them have changed. If universities have been so successful with isolated tracks of study then why has inequality worsened? Why has our environment continued to degrade? And why does our scientific research not translate into sound policy? As a student, I see these failures as partly due to a lack of nuance and innovation in universities. Certainly, different universities and departments have varying levels of relevancy to issues that matter, a debatle topic in itself. However I cannot understand how we can face such crises in inequality and governance and not consider Professor Taylor's call for more innovative educational strategies. Perhaps core development within a discipline followed by more interdiscplinary higher level electives or concentrations would address this problem. My discomfort with the challenges facing my generation--not to mention the cost of college--and the lack of concern among many of my peers convinces me that something desperately needs to change.

Jeff Alworth said...

Interesting take.

What leapt out at me from the article was his desire to see these interdisciplinary departments come together at moments of need and then disolve away. But that's strange: working cross-discipline to solve an issue is valuable, but the resultant department (he offered "water" as an example) would have a host of students with a evanescent knowledge of an ad hoc discipline. What happens to the next generation?

I would like to hear more about your thoughts on tenure. He identifies a real problem: elderly tenured professors clog up university halls and prevent new hires. In grad school, we literally had a senile professor (afflicted with dementia) on staff. Another one, a historian, claimed that the English empire held no colonies and forbade students from using the word "colonial." You offer a rationale for keeping tenure, but it's not clear the medicine isn't worse than the disease.

One thing you didn't mention, but which seems the strongest point, is that the problem Taylor identifies seems less a university problem than a societal one. That we have no place for well-educated Ph.D's in religion isn't exactly the university's fault. We have cultivated a system that depends heavily on private enterprise and we reserve little money for the arts or humanities. That we don't employ people outside the academy with specialized experience is a failure of government and social institutions, not the university system.

(I will say that you took a mighty high tone against religious studies, though, mister. As a proud degree-holder in that fair discipline, I don't truck with that kind of talk. You economists think a mite TOO highly of yourselves, methinks.)

Patrick Emerson said...

I think I came across as dismissing cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary work. This was my mistake and not at all my position. This has always been a weakness of the 'silo' style of university organization. What I was arguing is that doing away with traditional discipline-based departments is not the appropriate response. I was also arguing that the insularity of disciplines is quite varied and it sounds as though religion is particularly so, but many others are not.

That the silos exist and are an impediment to interdisciplinary communication is a loss to society, but loosing the intense focus on a single discipline would be a greater loss, in my view. What can universities and disciplines do to combat the silo-ism? Promote and reward collaboration, reward application to real-world problems and try and foster environments where disciplines can come together.

I think economics does this well, I know of many journals that straddle disciplines that carry lots of weight in econ departments, and right now the surest way to a publication in a top journal is research relevant to the current economic crisis. Already such papers are being published in the top journals. So economics at least is a quite flexible and responsive discipline. I think this is why someone like Steve Levitt is such a success in economics, but may not have been so rewarded in religion.

Becky, do you really think scientific research has not led to better policy. The last eight years aside, do you think that there is a problem with research that is not readily adaptable to an immediate problem? I ask, because I think that research in many areas may not reveal its utility until much later, but judging its worth on its current applicability is a bad way to direct research, I fear.

And as a last defense of economics. The latest winner of the Clark medal in economics is Emmanuel Saez who has studied inequality intensely and we now understand inequality and its evolution much, much better than we ever did before. Thanks to his research, we also understand the link between taxation and inequality better than ever, which is directly relevant to any policy discussion around inequality.

Patrick Emerson said...


I had a feeling you'd mention the religious studies angle. I don't I know anything about religious studies, I was simply reflecting what Prof. Taylor said about it - sounds pretty bad doesn't it?

As far as tenure, the fallacy is that it is job security no matter what. There are lots of reasons I can be fired - if I don't fulfill my duties, engage in misconduct, am unable to perform my duties (like your demented professor - though he should simply retire).

And by the way, Ralph, I didn't intend to sound arrogant when I said that I create knowledge and others use it. It is quite likely that the users and implementers of knowledge do a lot more for society than I do, but there needs to be people out there doing both. I started in public policy, but found that I was more drawn by the research side not because this is more important. the stuff I figure out about child labor, for example, is driven by the questions of policy maker. The Brazilian minister of education wants to know what are the best things she can do to improve human capital accumulation, so I research the effect of child labor on aptitude scores to see if keeping kids from working is and effective way to address the issue. But it is the resulting policy that has the real impact and no matter what I find, a policy that tries to address it can be good or bad and the difference has huge effects on Brazilian families. So I have not great illusion about my role in this whole thing.

This raises another question: if we are 'problem driven' in our focus, who decides what are the big problems? Do the problems of the poor in developing countries get subjugated to the problems of climate change or water in high income countries because this is where the grant money is? We already face this problem in academics, I fear such a focus would make it much worse.

Jeff Alworth said...

Patrick, you touch on something valuable in your last comment--this bit about producer and user of knowledge. As someone who dabbles in politics, I know how critically important good knowledge is. To craft public policy that works, you need someone doing the painstaking, often multi-year research that will inform policy. If our university scholars aren't doing this, who is? Partisans in think tanks?

A religious studies side note. The discipline looks at the internal structure of religion--what the theology, rituals, and practices mean within the context of the religion. It's much like philosophy that way. Taylor's right, too, that the US government should be relying more heavily on religion scholars to inform their decisions when they're trying to figure out countries like China, India, and the Middle East. No less than in America, decision makers in these countries have oriented their worldviews around specific religious beliefs and assumptions. Obviously, they're not the same as ours.

Dennis said...

Dean Dad - as usual - has a good response:

Personally, I thought Taylor was pretty far off the mark. While granting that going through grad school without the prospects of an academic job is kind of terrible, I want to say that there is still plenty of value in graduate education aside from a T-T job.


"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."Adjuncts at my uni get less than $3k per course. At this point in the column, I'm starting to get the sense that it is Taylor who is in a bit of a silo. (His larger point about enrolling grads to cover classes and do basic research being absolutely correct notwithstanding.)

Other than that, Taylor provides an odd mix of useful proposals - more interdisciplinary work is certainly a good thing - and useless proposals, like the now-pilloried elimination of all academic departments.

Patrick Emerson said...


I noticed the salary part too. Most places I know of (the poorer state Us) pay much less than that.

Grad students are a blessing and a curse, I liken it to going to a medical school to get care. You want to talk to the expert but you also have to accept the fact that they are trying to create the future experts. I think teaching is a way for students to learn how to be educators. It is not always a great experience for undergrads (though it is just as often as it is not) but it is part of the plusses and minuses in coming to a research university.

I think my students at Cornell were very happy with my performance relative to regular faculty in lower division courses, and were very happy to have those experts teach them in upper division courses. But there were other TAs that the students disliked immensely (often just because they spoke with an accent).

Dennis said...

You know, one obvious solution to making grads better teachers is.... training them to teach. At all. I don't see a lot of that happening.

Becky Davies said...

I'm less interested in Taylor's problem-based vision of academia than his overall statement that the university is not taking enough of an active, adaptive role in education. I don't see a need to dispel the current disciplines as they are, and I agree that specialization and a degree of insulation are necessary for advancing important research.

I should note that my political consciousness doesn't extend much farther back than eight years, but I am refreshed by the appreciation for science and research demonstrated by the current U.S. administration. However, I do not see enough research translating into university policy, let alone outside the university walls. If so, I would think there would be more progressive institutional behaviors at universities in how they relate to students and the people who support them. Maybe I'm overly idealistic and over-generalizing from my limited experience with a few schools. Nonetheless, I also feel that opportunities to consider the real value of academic work in a tangible way are lacking for undergraduates. When one has the opportunity to express or apply their research to a broader (non-academic) audience, they understand the true value of their study.

Regarding educational inequality, I'm mainly considering access. I spend a lot of time working with youth in public housing and in prisons and I find the discrepancies between my opportunities at the university and the education they receive staggering. I wish educational institutions made a greater effort to share their intellectual wealth with those who don't have the luxury of debating specialization vs. integration.

If nothing else, Prof. Taylor deserves praise for provoking thoughtful discussion and self-reflection, which is one of the university's greatest gifts to its beneficiaries.