On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, Mark C. Taylor, has called for the end of the university as we know it largely because he is displeased with PhD programs. He claims that the “dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.”
In serving my department on the committee to select prospective graduate students, we certainly recognize that students are accepted in part to help teach courses. State research universities, as they are currently configured, could not enroll the high numbers of undergraduates they have without the assistance of either graduate students or instructors in teaching, given the expectation of a high level of faculty research productivity and fund-raising for research. In addition to innovative research, state research universities provide relatively inexpensive education as well as broad opportunities for undergraduates. These universities serve their states well in educating the population and, as state populations grow and more diverse facets of the population seek the opportunities of education, pressures to enroll high numbers of students are likely to continue.
While Professor Taylor calls for an end to the university as we know it, he fails to provide a new model to address how enrollment pressures will be handled. Do we abandon the large, research university model and leave thousands of students without educational opportunities? Do we tell these abandoned students to go to smaller private schools where they will be paying 20 to 30 times as much for their education?
Taylor claims that we encourage students to enroll in doctoral programs under “the illusory promise of faculty appointments.” In my time as a university faculty member and a mentor for doctoral students, I don’t recall ever promising any student that a faculty position would be waiting when he or she completed a Ph.D.; indeed, I have discussed with doctoral students the difficulties of finding and the stresses of having university faculty positions. Many students may apply to PhD programs because they are enamored with an image of academic ‘life.’ Most applicants to PhD programs may want to be professors and many want especially to teach in a college (because they don’t want to teach in the horrors of our K-12 education), but they also tend to be students who are very curious and are drawn to the opportunity to explore. Despite Professor Taylor’s claim that faculty appointments are illusory, most of the students who finish PhDs in our biology program succeed in landing faculty jobs in colleges or universities.
The illusions may belong to Professor Taylor, who seems to believe that a PhD is a means to a faculty position and nothing else. In training PhD students, I have never thought the objective was to provide them with faculty jobs in universities. The objectives are to develop their investigative, reasoning, and reporting skills. I like to think that a student takes the skills that he or she develops as a graduate student to apply them in creative, interesting ways in life and society. Those opportunities might lie in a university but they could also lie in some other venue.
What is meant by Professor Taylor’s call for universities to “expand the range of professional opportunities for graduate students”? Professional opportunities lie not narrowly in universities but broadly in society. A PhD in the sciences can offer many job opportunities, although if breadth of opportunities is the goal, then I would never encourage anyone to seek a PhD. There are not vast numbers of jobs outside of academia that require a PhD, but getting the degree may enhance skills that can be applied exceptionally well in various jobs. Doctoral programs develop skills that are applied in journalism, industrial research, biotechnology, and in resource management.
Let me suggest to Dr. Taylor that students choose to work toward a PhD because they want the degree and the research/scholarship experience, not because they were seduced by illusions of a professorship. We can, however, learn from Professor Taylor’s critique and suggest that universities emphasize to prospective PhD students that doctoral study is a means to develop skills and not automatically the final step into the professorate.
Another of the changes requested by Professor Taylor is the transformation of the traditional dissertation. His concerns apply especially to graduate programs in the arts and humanities, in which dissertations are ‘books.’ In the sciences, the tradition of the dissertation has changed over time. Dissertations in the biological sciences, for example, consist of studies that are prepared for publication in scientific journals. Each of the studies of a dissertation addresses specific questions and consists of distinctive sets of experiments, with details of design, hypotheses, results, and discussion. Dissertations in the biological sciences are largely ready for dissemination to the scientific community (and to any others who wish to read research journals) when a student finishes his or her doctoral study.
We should be cautious, I think, about accepting Professor Taylor’s assertion that a “traditional dissertation” exists. Dissertations differ among scholarly disciplines, and they have been changing over time. Calling for the transformation of the dissertation, as Taylor has done, leaves much to be addressed. We need to ask what will replace the dissertation and how universities will determine whether the ‘new dissertation’ meets criteria for scholarship and demonstration of intellectual accomplishment.
Professor Taylor wants to dissolve tenure and turn academic appointments into seven year terms. He offers these proposals as means to reward those who continue “to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.” Tenure has been a means of distributing power and allowing many voices to be heard in universities (and society). Abolishing tenure will shift more power into the hands of a few administrators, such as department chairs like Professor Taylor. It will also serve to silence dissenting voices—those who might have the most creative ideas and those who might disrupt the gross group-think of administrators and politicians.
Although a few tenured faculty become ‘nonproductive,’ I suspect this is uncommon. Most of the senior faculty I’ve known at research universities have been productive throughout their careers. Indeed, a majority may continue to produce new research into the early years of retirement. An advantage of tenure is that it allows a faculty member to attempt less secure avenues of research. When the security of one’s job does not depend on every study producing positive results and easy publications, a researcher can explore less conventional ideas and design more difficult projects. These may be exactly the kinds of projects that we want to have centered in universities because they will be unlikely in industrial settings.
Faculty at Professor Taylor’s model university would not be centered in departments; instead, they would be part of “constantly evolving programs.” It’s unclear who would choose these programs and what selective forces would cause their evolution. In the absence of tenure, we can assume that the faculty would be beholden to department chairs and deans, and it is likely to be a small set of these kinds of administrators who would select the programs and force their evolution. One can easily envision Professor Taylor’s university in the control of an elite few, whose favoritism would be curried.
As an example, an administrator at our university recently told my department we didn’t bring in sufficient funds from our research grants. Although we have more grants than comparable departments within our university, our grants are worth less. Our administrator suggested that we should consider making future hires in disciplines that provided more lucrative grants, such as those from the National Institutes of Health. Here was a clear case of an administrator trying to evolve our program toward greater fund raising, which would increase the overhead dollars available to manage the college and the university, but it would mean shifting the focus of our biology department away from the disciplines of ecology and evolutionary biology in which we have strengths. The research in our department on invasive species, crashing amphibian populations, effects of climate change, genetic diversity of rare organisms, and many other areas may be quite important to provide the knowledge necessary to manage resources and conserve the Earth, but it does not result in the large federal research grants that provide the overhead funds that university administrators want for their programs. In the absence of tenure, administrators will be able to “evolve” programs to maximize funding objectives, but those administrators might not have broad enough vision to design programs or retain faculty that help us to manage resources and conserve humanity.
While Professor Taylor’s call to end the university as we know it is provocative, it is not clear that his model will create either a better educational environment or result in better research to address social and environmental problems. The six major steps that he proposes in his Op-Ed essay could be dangerous missteps.