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April 27, 2009 [feather]
Six steps to a better higher ed

Columbia religion professor Mark Taylor has long been an innovative and inspiring thinker when it comes to the subject of complexity. Today, in a long but compact op-ed in the New York Times, he takes on that singularly complex institution, higher ed. Focussing specifically on the unconscionable structure of graduate education, Taylor lays out the problem in no uncertain terms:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work "The Conflict of the Faculties," wrote that universities should "handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee."

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

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.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

It's nice to see that sort of honesty emanating from within academia; the truths Taylor lays out for the world to see this morning are the sort that academics will talk openly about among themselves, particularly when they are among the less institutionally privileged (the more privilege you get, the more invested you get in the system, and it's very hard for tenured people to admit that maybe they don't deserve the perk they have, and that maybe they enjoy that perk because of how it facilitates the exploitation of others). Still, it's not news that excessive numbers of ultimately unemployable grad students make the lives of the tenured easier, and that this is more important than, say, ethics. It's not news that in many fields, hyper-specialization has become so ridiculous that you can't make jokes about it because it is already its own parody. It's also not news that self-governance tends to be a synonym for institutional fragmentation, redundancy, and intransigence. Want to get nothing done but have lots of meetings anyway? Be an academic.

What's great about this op-ed, though, is that Taylor is going public with this stuff. He won't make any friends by doing it, and there will be dismissive squawking from the usual quarters. It's unseemly to air dirty linen like that--particularly when it is accompanied by such threatening proposals for change.

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

4. 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. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

For many years, I have told students, "Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it." My hope is that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive.

I like his thinking about how abolishing departments can create more flexible, fluid, collaborative, and lively academic units. And if you've read this blog with any regularity, you know I like his thinking about tenure.

I know it's hard for the folks who have tenure--or who hope to have tenure--to wrap their minds around the utterly vestigial character of an institution that has outlasted whatever limited purpose it might once have served to protect academic freedom in a different era, under different circumstances. But the time has really come for the people who are invested in tenure to conduct the thought experiment proposed by Taylor and others. If they can do that, they will have a fighting chance of preserving academic freedom and self-governance by other means -- and potentially of being part of a long overdue revitalization of the academy. If they don't, they will continue to be a shrinking, defensive, increasingly indefensible group with diminishing claims to authority, respect, autonomy, and, yes, academic freedom.

posted on April 27, 2009 7:22 AM

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Interesting. I'm a little confused about #2, however. It's a good idea to bring together people with differing but complementary specialties (a hydrologist, a public policy expert, and an expert on ecocrit in a program on water, for example), but where does the next generation of scholars with "deep knowledge" of a subject come from? In the absence of departments and disciplines, will such programs, for example, really be able to provide the rigorous training needed to perform sound research in the hard sciences? It seems to me that a student who graduated from such a program would be a great asset in a policy position at the EPA, for example, but would be woefully unequipped to advance scientific knowledge. And without solid up-to-date science, a Water Program would be completely worthless. This proposal seems to suffer from the naive belief (often ascribed to liberals) that the way of dealing with such-and-such an issue is to create a Department (or Program) of Such-and-Such.

An analogy: A Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist is just the thing if you want someone to run your servers. If you're doing the cutting-edge materials science research necessary for the next generation of semi-conductors, you might want physicists and engineers.

Maybe I'm missing something or I'm trapped in old ideas, but it seems to me that this could be a disaster for American science.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 27, 2009 8:45 AM

"The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network"...some form of division of labor is necessary, though...maybe the current departments & subspecialties aren't the right ones, but it's not possible for each individuals to know everything and do everything. Ideas like "webs & complex adaptive networks" can very easily turn into mush.

I agree, for example, that "water" will be an increasingly important issue. But if you want to build dams, someone needs to know structural and hydraulic engineering. If you want to use the water for agriculture, somebody better know something about crops and soils. Also, it's very difficult to predict what's going to be important 20 years, or even 10 years, down the road. How many people went into "computers" at the height of the dot-com bubble? How many of these could have, but didn't, go into petroleum and chemical engineering, leading to the shortage of people with these skills that was plaguing us last year?

Also, isn't a "footnote" merely an early form of a "hyperlink"

Posted by: david foster at April 27, 2009 11:31 AM

Also, just noticed that Neptunus Lex has a post on this article. He is a wise thinker with a good crew of commenters, so it should be interesting to read the developing discussion.

Posted by: david foster at April 27, 2009 11:39 AM

David and Peter -- Agreed that expertise and depth of study should not be the sacrificial lambs in a necessary re-organizing. I'd add to that essential skills such as writing and numeracy--though it's not as though those would be lost if we disappeared departments. As many studies show, they aren't being taught effectively under the current system.

For what it's worth -- while I am all for reinventing and updating the forms and modes of acceptable academic work, I can also see all too clearly how Taylor's model can be used to justify excusing students from ever having to master essential skills. Making a film might be an interesting supplement to written, researched, carefully reasoned work, but it is not a substitute. (Aside: During my year teaching boarding school, I was able to watch up close a bankrupt college prep curriculum yield to the temptations of new media. Students spent a lot more time learning to take photographs and make movies than they did learning basic math, grammar, science, reading, and writing. Easier for the school, sexier, more fun for all--and it allowed the school's failures with the basics to be simply forgotten.)

So where does that leave us? Do we keep departments--but find a way to dial back on ever narrower specialization? Do we keep some departments in disciplines that really do have inner integrity and really do require systematic, sequential study (those would largely be the sciences) while perhaps treating softer, more humanist fields differently? Other? Depending how you look at what Taylor is saying, his article could be read as either a call to dissolve liberal arts education (through collaborative, boundary-crossing, substance-thinning interdisciplinarity) or a call to reconstitute it in a way that makes sense for the twenty-first century. I suspect he'd say he's arguing for the latter.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at April 27, 2009 11:52 AM

Erin: You raise some tough questions. How, indeed, do we build a university for the 21st century? Unfortunately, it seems that Taylor is going for many of the easy answers: hypertext student research, abolishing departments, distance learning, and (yes) eliminating tenure. It's all a little too "Millennials Rising"/"Digital Natives" for me. (Obviously curriculum reform of some sort and accountability are good ideas.)

Regarding tenure (BTW, is Taylor aware that mandatory retirement is illegal?), the question is rather more complex than it is often portrayed. On the one hand, many countries without tenure do have some kind of "effective" tenure, protected by collective bargaining, civil service protections, or entrenched institutional culture. On the other hand, the American tenure system does not prevent universities from removing faculty for cause or under exigent circumstances. In fact, tenure is not really that different from the job protection accorded to *all* regular employees in many European countries, where layoffs are subject to government oversight. And then of course, it's worth pointing out that fewer and fewer instructors these days are tenured, or even tenure-track.

So I guess that I'm not sure that abolishing tenure is the solution, not necessarily because I'm attached to tenure (though I suppose that I am attached to *my* tenure), but because I'm not sure that it would magically bring accountability and reform. For better or worse, unions would spring up (and indeed there have been many calls for abolishing tenure from the left for precisely this reason) with work rules, etc, and there might well be *decreased* accountability among administrators (whose genuine mischief is often only thwarted by the "conservative" character of academic life). Perhaps we'd all be better off, but I'm not so sure.

You are certainly right, however, to suggest that the discussion about tenure is a good thing. What we need is responsible faculty governance and accountability, and if the threat of abolishing/reconfiguring tenure gets us there, then maybe that's okay. But we shouldn't assume that abolishing tenure is somehow a "silver bullet."

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 27, 2009 12:35 PM

"Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts"...reminds me of a nice passage from Sebastian Haffner's book about his experiences growing up in Germany between the wars (written circa 1939)..

"Is it not said that in peacetime the chiefs of staff always prepare their armies as well as possible--for the previous war? I cannot judge the truth of that, but it is certainly true that conscientious parents always educate their sons for the era that is just over. I had all the intellectual endowments to play a decent part in the bourgeois world of the period before 1914."

Posted by: david foster at April 27, 2009 1:38 PM

Point one: Be aware that when you agree with Taylor, you're agreeing with a deconstructionist theologian who hasn't written about religion since his earliest work and who has championed "new media studies" for the past two decades. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Point two: The issue of hyperspecialization has been a joke since at least *Hedda Gabler* was first performed. And I'm not so sure it's a problem in and of itself. A dissertation or a book must have a clear, specific thesis. That thesis statement must necessarily be focused enough that it can be proven either (a) through a wide survey of texts in a narrow period of history or a specific genre; or (b) through the close analysis of a few texts chosen to map out a genre, a period, a scene of change, etc.

In either case, the dissertation will necessarily be extremely narrow in its focus. In five to nine years of graduate study, no one is really smart enough to make broad gestures. Instead, a person becomes well-read in a field (modernism, say) and very well-read in a subfield (modernist poetry in America).

I see nothing wrong with that. The person with a dissertation on American modernist poets should be able to teach surveys of American modernism, anglophone modernism, antebellum American poetry, introduction to poetry, and so on.

The problem is when the graduate student *only* knows the material in the dissertation. But that's something that any decent graduate program should be testing for (generalist exams, qualifying exams, etc.). It's also something any decent hiring committee should be able to feel out within a few minutes of an interview.

As for the lack of overlap in a department, that's a problem with the department as a whole, not necessarily with overspecialization. A department can establish a unified curriculum, but it can only do so as a body. No "invisible hands" will guide the free market of ideas into establishing a pedagogically sound curriculum. "Water Studies" will be just as fragmented as "English" without good leadership and general agreement across the faculty about the means and ends of the program.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 27, 2009 4:22 PM

Mark Bousquet devastates Taylor, on the facts and on the analysis, over at the Chronicle's blog:


Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 27, 2009 9:32 PM

Several years ago, the noted management consultant Michael Hammer made an interesting suggestion re undergrad education for aspiring executives, which may have broader applicability. He argued that in order to develop his thought processes, a student should study, in depth, one engineering/scientific discipline and one humanities discipline (philosophy, medieval history, theology.) His assertion is that a dual major in, say, aeronautical engineering and theology will have major payoff to a student's mental abilities even if he never does anything career-related in either aviation or religion...that digging into *any* serious subject in great depth has major value.

Programs like "water studies" seem likely to go in the opposite direction...many subjects, but none of them in great depth. (How would one study philosophy and literature in such a program? A special version of Kant's work which explains the categorical imperative in terms of ethical questions about water? Novels in which water plays an important part, like maybe "Mill on the Floss?")

Excerpts from the Hammer essay can be found at my blog by searching "hammer plato theology."

Posted by: david foster at April 28, 2009 5:12 AM

I don't agree that Bousquet's analysis is remotely devastating. It's actually beside the point. As Bousquet notes, we've already ended tenure. There's no going back. What there is, though, is a failure on the part of tenured faculties to acknowledge this fact, and to grapple with what it means, ethically, professionally, pragmatically. Bousquet suggests that there is no oversupply of PhDs--that all that is needed is a change in hiring patterns to solve the problem (presumably he means that those who are currently hired off the tenure track should now be hired onto the tenure track--or that those with fewer qualifications who are doing the work of PhDs be replaced with PhDs). But this is just nonsense. It might be a pleasant fantasy, but it's not going to happen. It can't be paid for. And it won't be.

This brings us full circle: what do you do when you have a majority of college teachers working overtime in underpaid, uninsured, insecure positions so that a small minority can enjoy small teaching loads, preferred course assignments, and protected time--all while shutting their contingent colleagues out of governance? My view on this is that you have a choice: you can continue to pretend that there is no problem, dig in your heels, and scoff at people like Taylor from your tenured perch -- or you can realize that it's time for the tenured faculty to initiate a searching and open discussion about the non-viability of their positions and about how to truly create the kinds of professional equity they claim to be concerned about. If the tenured faculty won't do it, then it's going to be done for them -- it already is. The results are not pleasant, not terribly constructive, and not terribly inspirational.

Academic freedom includes an obligation to take on the difficult work of self-governance--and that would seem to include an obligation to take up the tenure question in a reasonable way that acknowledges realities and is open to the possibility that tenure may have come and gone -- and that now is the time to imagine alternatives that will work better for more people.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at April 28, 2009 7:46 AM

I've thought a lot about tenure, and in reflecting on Ward Churchill came to realize that tenure may well be justified.

If you consider the political and thought uniformity that faculty display in order to get tenure, imagine a system where they never got it.

Would it be more uniform or less? So, the excesses of a Churchill (who really reflects the failure of the vetting process, not the failure of tenure) are the mirror of the excesses one would see were there no tenure.

I also think that the evolution of formal disciplines is a good thing, not a bad one.

That is, assuming I don't accept the analysis that:

As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track
Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at April 28, 2009 8:21 AM


I didn't find Bousquet's analysis nearly as devastating as Dean Dad's:


While Dean Dad would be happy to do away with tenure, he nonetheless describes Taylor's blueprint as a "farce."

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 28, 2009 9:52 AM

Hi Peter -- I saw that too. He's right, of course, about the impracticality of staffing viable interdisciplinary programs without also ensuring that those programs are able to draw on discipline-specific expertise of a range of kinds. We rehearsed all that here yesterday. He also has good points about too much institutional malleability creating chaos when it comes to self-governance and peer review (though I would counter that self-governance and peer review aren't doing too well under the current arrangement, either).

But I have to believe that Taylor is not as stupid as his opponents are making him out to be on that front: we should be wary of efforts on the part of status quoers to turn him into a strawman and then then take misplaced potshots at him (not that this is what Dean Dad is doing -- but it is what some prominent academic bloggers are doing).

One last thing I find intriguing about Taylor's article: it's definitely gotten a reaction, which means it has started the beginning of a discussion. And along the way, even those who dislike all or some of Taylor's argument are conceding major points that have long needed to be publicly conceded. Dean Dad, as you say, is wide open to getting rid of tenure. He also notes that much of grad education in the humanities and social sciences is a pyramid scheme.

Timothy Burke, to take another example, has an interesting post and comment thread on the utility of some of Taylor's ideas about moving beyond the limitations of departments, which, he notes, are "just barriers, both to teaching and to generative conversation": http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=805.

And at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan notes that "tenure has wedged into place senior professors who may value nothing but older models of print publication. These professors review junior professors who look more and more like Taylor’s mixed modern model."

All have big problems with Taylor's piece, but all find traction in it at certain points. And in each instance, the implications of that traction are pretty dramatic to think about.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at April 28, 2009 10:21 AM

Hi Erin--I try not engage in hyperbole, but I really do find Taylor's piece preposterous, not because of the tenure thing, but because his proposal is illogical, incoherent, and impractical. (As I read it, I imagined what I would write in the margins of a student paper.) I'm sure he means well, but if I wanted to get rid of tenure, or use distance learning to streamline departments, I would keep this guy at arm's length. It has nothing to do with ideology; the whole thing just fails the "sniff test." I agree that he can't be stupid, but I'm at a loss to find another explanation. (Prank? Provocation gone wrong?)

As for why the piece has attracted so much attention: it was published in the New York Times.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 28, 2009 10:58 AM

While I'd consider each of Taylor's recommendations separately for greater scrutiny, he's surely right about an oversupply of PhDs in most of the humanities and the necessity to end tenure: the situation at most PhD-granting institutions does resemble a seedy grad-school shakedown racket feeding a pyramid scheme run for the benefit of the tenured-anointed. Bousquet's blustering and clownish attack on Taylor (and on the NYT for even publishing Taylor's article) makes little sense, but quite a lot of noise.

Posted by: mavprof at April 28, 2009 12:07 PM

I think that it's important to consider the argument as a whole if we are to appreciate its originality and its flaws. The oversupply of PhD's is hardly news and the abolition of tenure is not a particularly original idea. As far as I can tell, Taylor adds little to the existing discourse/knowledge on these subjects. What he offers, I suppose, is a vision (albeit a rather incoherent one) of a reinvented academy, transformed by the magic of "change," and committed to solving the problems of the world. Not a bad goal, but it's undermined by the lack of any plausible alternative to the status quo.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 28, 2009 3:26 PM

I too have reservations about Taylor's apparent slighting of original research or contribution to scholarship, but I've seen enough "dissertations" in the humanities on, say, frivolous pop culture topics, or "body studies," or "the Other," replete overlaid with pretentious and stultifyingly babylonish jargon to suggest that Taylor's perhaps got a point.

Bousquet's vision of academia seems to me the true candidate for retrograde thinking in his whole 1930s-style left-labor agitation rants.

Posted by: mavprof at April 28, 2009 6:35 PM

Excerpt from a letter in today's WSJ:

"A few years after retirement I had a chat with an eager young fellow a month away from his MBA in finance at the Wharton School. I asked what appealed to him about finance. "It is so scientific," he replied. I then asked him what he thought about Long-Term Capital Management. "Never heard of it," was his answer."

(LTCM being the hedge fund managed supposedly according to the best, Nobel-prize-winning quantitative economic thinking)

Now, maybe the guy was just a bozo and had been sleeping in class. OTOH, maybe the people teaching Wharton's finance program were so enamoured of their elegant quantitative models that they neglected to deal with what they would probably have considered the mere "anecdotal evidence" concerning the actual performance of these models in the real world.

What if more finance classes had been taught by people--even guest lecturers--who were old, experienced traders or fund managers? Might it have helped in avoiding the current banking situation?

Theoretical knowledge is essential, but I worry that we have created a world in which even bad theory, even pseudo-theory, too often drive out experience and intuition.

Posted by: david foster at April 29, 2009 1:58 PM

What if more finance classes had been taught by people--even guest lecturers--who were old, experienced traders or fund managers?

I went to the Wharton School website to see if the faculty had such "real world" experience. I started at the top of the list and discovered that Andrew B. Abel has been a member of the Long-Term Modeling Group of the Congressional Budget Office since 2001.

Well, OK, that's government work. But the second professor on the list, Franklin Allen, has been the director of the Glenmede Fund (an "independent investment and wealth management firm") since 1991.

In other words, I didn't have to go very far down the list of Wharton's 250+ faculty to find what looks to be some significant long-term experience in private-sector fund management. I'm guessing Wharton is not strictly ivory tower.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 29, 2009 2:40 PM

ES...good research. But is this real-world experience reflected in the course content? The WSJ letter would suggest that it's possible to get Wharton MBA without knowledge of an event that one should certainly be aware of if one is developing strategies for investing other people's money. (or, for that matter, one's own money)

In their article "how the busines schools lost their way" (HRB 05), Warren Bennis & James O'Toole assert that practical business experience is not highly valued in today's B-school environment. While once, many years ago, the course in production management at MIT was taught by the manager of a nearby General Motors assembly plant, "Virtually none of today's top-ranked business schools would hire, let alone promote, a tenure track professor whose primary qualification is managing an assembly plant, no matter how distinguished his or her performance." Indeed, they remark that "Today it is posible to find tenured professors of management who have never set foot inside a real business, except at customers."


"Why have business schools embraced the scientific model of physicists and economists rather than the professional model of doctors and lawyers? Althought few B school faculty memers would admit it, professors like it that way. This model gives scientific respectability to the research they enjoy doing and eliminates the vocational stigma that business school professors once bore. In short, the model advances the careers and satisfies the egos of the professoriat. And, frankly, it makes things easier: though scientific research techniques may require considerable skill in statistics or experimental design, they call for little insight into complex social and human factors and minimal time in the field discovering the actual problems facing managers."

Posted by: david foster at April 29, 2009 3:23 PM

I think Taylor makes a number of good suggestions, except the one to abolish departments. No doubt, some should be abolished, but massive bureaucratic mischief would surely ensue if all departments were to be destroyed and later reconstituted with other units to become "problem-focused" programs. I've seen it happen where departments have been combined into "institutes," the titles of which sometimes sound like massage parlors or yoga studios. A colleague of mine told me recently that a new cognitive science/psychology combo unit on our campus has a silly title and could as easily have been called "Above the Neck Studies." I was reminded of that reading the part where Taylor imagines the new, interdisciplinary units in which "a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water."

On a limited scale, OK. As a cornerstone concept for reforming higher ed? I don't believe the destruction of all traditional departments would be a good path to take.

Posted by: TG at April 29, 2009 3:58 PM

David and Eveningsun,

It strikes me that a distinction might be made between finance and management. As recent experience has taught us, the high-flying world of finance has become as out-of -ouch with reality as academia. (Indeed some have argued that academia is at fault for the financial mess: http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doc_id=686 . I find the argument pretty far fetched, myself.) I wonder if real-world experience in management is as well represented at Wharton as experience in the world of finance. Unfortunately, I'm too lazy to check. Eveningsun?

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 29, 2009 4:42 PM


Very interesting piece. We're revisiting our entire curriculum at the moment, and this is going to make me rethink what I'm advocating. Two points:

(1) $5,000 a course to adjunct? What planet is he on. Try $2,000 or less.

(2) His ideas about new 'departments' or at least concentrations is interesting, but ultimately threatens to be twisted by fashion. Instead, think about skill sets and the liberal arts. Read Clausewitz, On War, Book 2, Chapter Two, sections 27 and 45 (they are very brief).

Posted by: Armitage at April 29, 2009 6:18 PM

$4000 is common where I work.

Posted by: TG at April 29, 2009 11:36 PM