Universities in Crisis? From Compartmentalization to Collaboration

06/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the last several days there has been a flurry of articles bemoaning the condition of American higher education. Two stand out. In the New York Times religion professor Mark C. Taylor enjoyed comparing American graduate education to the US automotive industry. Ouch. It was small relief that he seemed to be thinking mainly about a handful of humanities disciplines. In the New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco traced the steady erosion of the American promise of social mobility through post-secondary education. In the wake of a financial crisis that has drained endowments and led to decreased public support for higher ed, Delbanco wonders how America can prevent its best universities from becoming finishing schools for the rich. In this post I will comment on Taylor's view, and in a future post I'll write about access and social mobility.

Taylor's complaints about the American university really have nothing to do with the current economic crisis -- but by now we know that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. So, Taylor uses analogies to Detroit and to Wall Street to call for more regulation of academia and to deplore the exploitation of graduate students who at larger universities work for low wages and few benefits. It's no news that financially it stinks to be a grad student -- especially if you are paying tuition or commuting to several schools as an adjunct to offer classes at less than decent wages. But if you go to graduate school to continue your education, and if you are able to teach subjects (or work on experiments) about which you are passionate -- then graduate study as a form of labor is far better than many entry level jobs in our economy. By the same token, if the "entry level" of grad student teaching is the only level available to grad students for many years... then Taylor is absolutely right to emphasize the inequities in the adjunct teaching sector of education.

The main complaint that Mark Taylor has with the American university is that it is inflexibly compartmentalized in disciplines and departments. This breeds specialization that stifles innovation among researchers and promotes parochialism in the curriculum. Taylor is certainly onto something here: it's a danger that was already looming in the early 1900s when the sociologist Max Weber warned of "specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart". Departments often protect the weakest elements of their disciplines and create "trade barriers" that inhibit productive collaboration. Religion and political science , for example, need to be brought together to examine contemporary issues of weapons and violence in the Middle East, or, for that matter, in the United States. To successfully confront the challenges we face in providing clean water to people in need (another of Taylor's examples), we will require expertise from such diverse fields as economics and geology, political science and chemistry.

I am very sympathetic to Taylor's call for collaboration and his aversion to over-specialization. Perhaps we are both influenced by having been undergrads at Wesleyan University -- Taylor graduating in 1968 and I a decade later. Wesleyan had taken a stand against departments and the overspecialization of education in the late 1950s by creating the College of Letters and the College of Social Studies. For the last fifty years these programs have b0een exploring cross-disciplinary frontiers and fighting against narrowing professionalism. Soon Wesleyan plans to begin the College of the Environment with the same goal of organizing a curriculum in response to problems and opportunities rather than in response to departmental "coverage." Perhaps our heady undergraduate days gave Prof. Taylor and me a taste for an education that inspired students to expand their intellectual horizons in the service of effective idealism rather than to shrink them in the service of disciplinary "progress." But obviously, I am biased!

Despite my agreement with Taylor about the need for collaboration and the curricular reform that goes with it, I do not share his call for increased regulation (who would do the regulating?) or for the abolition of tenure. Tenure is surely an imperfect system, but I haven't found an alternative that provides sufficient protection of academic freedom. And although I think it important not to let disciplines rule the curriculum, it is quixotic simply to call for the abolition of departments. As David Bell pointed out in the New Republic, it doesn't make sense to call for cross-disciplinary programs if there are no disciplines. Expertise does matter in the humanities and in the sciences. From language training to quantitative competency, there are skills that can't be suddenly wished into existence when it comes time to share them with collaborators

Our universities continue to attract students from around the world in ways that break down the analogy to the automobile industry. At the same time, if we are going to provide a stellar post-secondary education experience in the future, our colleges and universities must find a way to promote forms of creative specialization not threatened by collaboration. Taylor is quite right to call for opening up our schools to more flexible networks of research and learning.

The mission of American universities should include providing students with specialized skills that include a thirst and capacity for innovative collaboration beyond the disciplines and departments that taught the skills in the first place. Fulfilling this mission will sustain higher education, but more importantly it will shape the culture of the future.

Next time: access to higher education and social mobility