Mark C. Taylor is the Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and a leading figure in postmodern theory and criticism. He has written on topics of philosophy, religion, literature, art and architecture, incorporating themes of modern science, technology, media and popular culture. In 2010, he published Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities as an extension of the argument raised in his 2009 New York Times op-ed article, “End the University As We Know It”
In 2009, you wrote an op-ed article in the NYTimes entitled “End the University As We Know It” (view article), in which you proposed six steps by which to restructure higher education including, most controversially, to end tenure. Your recent book, Crisis on Campus, further elaborates on these proposals. At the time the article was published, it generated quite a reaction. Now, three years later - when student loan debt has reached unprecedented heights, universities are facing more critical budget cuts than ever before and the majority of unemployed people have some college education - do you think our society is more open to overhauling the education system? What are the symptoms of this? What are the greatest obstacles?
Much has happened in the past few years but little fundamental has changed. As you have noted, the financial situation for institutions and students has gotten much worse. Public as well as private institutions are under increasing pressure. The demise of the California university system is a precursor of things to come. These problems are exacerbated at the federal level by the failure of the government to take any effective action.
I think there is a growing awareness that things cannot continue on the current trajectory but there are very few creative initiatives. In part, this is due to the failure of leadership on the part of boards of trustees, administrators and faculty members. The magnitude of the problem so far exceeds the capacity of people to envision solutions that I remain pessimistic about the prospects for significant change.
The problems are systemic and are not limited to individual institutions. It is essential to move from competition to cooperation among institutions. Technology now makes it possible for institutions anywhere in the world to cooperate in ways that increase efficiency while at the same time broadening educational opportunities for students.
To remain competitive in the 21st century, institutions and faculties must become much more flexible, adaptive and innovative. This will require the abolition of tenure, the imposition of mandatory retirement, the reassessment of the balance between teaching and research and the restructuring of the curriculum and, by extension, departments and programs. As a lifelong faculty member, it pains me to say that the greatest obstacle to the kind of change that is needed remains faculty members. There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions, but in my experience far too many faculty members remain satisfied with business as usual and have little or no concern for the future of their students.
In 1998, you partnered with a leading investment banker to found Global Education Network, a company with the mission of making high-quality academic courses available for purchase to the public via the internet, which ultimately failed largely because universities would not agree to involve their curricula in a for-profit business venture. Now that many acclaimed academic institutions, that are facing massive financial debt, are offering free courses online, do you see a missed opportunity for a network-based education system like GEN? Is the climate better or worse for an inter-institutional academic model?
In the past ten years, the vision we had at GEN has begun to become a reality. It is ironic that many of the universities that told us that what we were proposing would never succeed are not doing what they rejected. It is becoming perfectly clear that the line between not-for profit and for-profit enterprises in virtually non-existent. Universities are investing huge sums of money in the expectation of significant financial returns from licenses, patents, etc. My own university, Columbia, has been one of the most aggressive in pursuing these potential revenue streams.
My greatest concern is for the liberal arts and humanities, which are under siege everywhere. I saw this coming in 1995 and it was one of my primary motivations in launching Global Education Network. I knew the humanities would face severe financial pressure and realized that what we have to sell is content. Though faculty members refuse to admit it, that is what we do in our classes. GEN was a way of extending the walls of the classroom in ways that were beneficial to society as a whole and financially beneficial to colleges and universities. But the project was sabotaged by he very faculty members who most needed it. Their jobs are now disappearing and they have nobody but themselves to blame for it.
In principle, the climate should be better for institutional cooperation now because of growing financial pressures and improving technologies. And, in fact, there is some evidence of the kind of cooperation we were trying to encourage with GEN. Harvard and MIT as well a Princeton, Yale and Stanford have launched joint programs for online education. Though they have not made their intentions clear, I suspect this is a move to establish a global brand that will dominate the market. In the short term, this might help some smaller, less affluent institutions by providing an opportunity for students to take courses the school cannot offer. In the long run, however, effective online education from leading universities will be disastrous for many colleges. Why pay $50,000 a year at a second or third rate college when you can take accredited courses from Harvard, Yale and Stanford for much less.
As online education becomes more popular and more effective, there will be a crisis of accediation in which colleges and universities will have to figure out whether the value added for place-based education is worth upwards of one-third of a million dollars.
Your argument promotes breaking down the compartimentalisation of university departments into interconnected webs between academia and real world networks, while still maintaining academic integrity. What is an ivory tower without walls?
Hypespecialization and excessive professionalization are plagues in today’s university. Much research and publication is of little or no value. When the job market dried up in 1970 everybody started demanding publication. This led to journals, book series, conferences, etc. whose primary purpose was to provide outlets for people who need to publish but often have little to say. This work usually has little to contribute to teaching and if it enters the classroom, it often has a deleterious effect.
It is important to note that there are all kinds of expertise. The problem today is not only that people don’t know how to connect the dots, they don’t even know what the dots are to connect. We need experts who know how to bring together work being done in various areas of specialization in creative and productive ways. Specialization in the traditional sense remains necessary but no longer sufficient.
By working at the intersection of various fields and subfields, we will be able to address another major issue - the practicality or utility of higher education. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a luxury we can no longer afford. We need to give students an education that will prepare them for life and work in the 21st century. It is important not to confuse practical with vocational. I would insist that the liberal arts have never been more important than in a globalized world. If the arts and humanities are to survive, they must make a utilitarian argument. The refusal to buy into practicality and utility was the reason so many faculty members opposed GEN.
You suggest partnerships between universities and businesses through corporate sponsorships that would simulate contracts currently held between universities and the federal government. Is there a role for the government in this proposal, and what do you foresee would be the outcome of this shift?
Yes, there definitely is an important role for government. Unfortunately, government support is decreasing at the local, state and federal level. That is the reason I have argued for more inventive partnerships with the private sector. But there are limitations to what businesses can and should do. I think state and federal government should be significant increasing support for students and institutions. I also think that new programs should be developed that provide opportunities for students to bring together theoretical and practical interests.
Finally, it is essential to recognize the extraordinarily important role research universities play in the global economy. This will increase in the future and we limit R&D funding at our own peril.