“Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.”

That’s the attention-getting opening line of an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Mark Taylor, chair of Columbia’s religion department. Taylor goes on to itemize the problems and offer some ideas for a radical restructuring of graduate education in the U.S. Whatever you may think of some of his proposals, it’s hard to disagree with many of his criticisms.

13 Responses to “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.”

  1. Jim Gimpel April 27, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    I, for one, think there’s a lot of truth in what this guy writes, though I doubt many of my departmental colleagues would agree.

    Some have predicted the disappearance of tenure within 20 years. Tenure may protect free speech and unconventional thinking, but it’s pretty clear from looking at many academic departments that it also protects sloth.

    Tenure is also very unpopular with the public, and these opinions are directly relevant to the many state funded institutions of higher education. The University of Maryland and other state institutions are facing state legislative pressures for a credible system of post-tenure review. This is not popular with faculty, of course, but it may be the one way to preserve some form of tenure against critics.

  2. Jim Gimpel April 27, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    In response to an email forward of this article, I had an anonymous friend and colleague come back and blast me with both barrels. I asked for permission to post this very pointed reply:


    His ideas for new thematic departments — Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. Only a humanities professor would come up with stuff like this. You could assemble some nice edited books around such themes, if you were a religion professor. But to do any of these subjects well, you need disciplinary grounding in them. Scholars with deep background in medicine, biology, anthropology, etc., might be able to do some interesting interdisciplinary collaborations on, say, “the body” –but nobody can do all these disciplines well at once. It’s the arrogance of a humanities professor to think otherwise.

    Interdisciplinary research only works if people have the knowledge to bring to the collaboration table. “Departments” organized around shifting and faddish questions would sacrifice depth and seriousness of training. It’s not to say that we couldn’t produce knowledge differently than we do — I’m sure we can. However, if we try to reorganize our departments every time some new university administrator wants to make a mark on some sexy question of the day, we would waste ALL our time in university politics, instead of just some of it.

    Can you think of any existing interdisciplinary program/major that has a reputation for rigor or seriousness? Maybe there are some exceptions out there, but most such programs are weak and crappy, no matter how much money is lavished on them by administrators out to reshape the university and “break down the walls.”

    Now that vigorously stated view should generate some discussion.

  3. Jason M April 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    I’m not willing to give him that it’s a problem that we train more PhD students than will get faculty jobs. There are other jobs/careers one can secure with one’s PhD training. Certainly, my friends from grad school who didn’t get academic jobs are doing quite well-in jobs/careers that they wouldn’t have otherwise had without their PhD training.

  4. Lee Sigelman April 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm #


    Yes, but bear in mind that the author is in the humanities, where the placement problem is much more severe than it is even in the social sciences. Lots of newly-minted humanities Ph.D.’s aren’t finding any employment related to their graduate work, academic or otherwise.

  5. philocyclist April 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    I’m sure Taylor is a smart guy, but his reasoning here is typical of an academic. We’re all so anxious to scratch out our parcel of turf that we exaggerate our views to inanity. Tenure leads to abuses in some cases? Abolish it. There are PhD students who can’t find jobs? Change the university structure. Have a head cold? Decapitation is the solution. (That line, btw, was stolen from Jerry Fodor.)

    It seems to me that these problems have much simpler solutions. If there are too many PhD students (and I agree that there are), we can do two things: tell those students who are taking out massive loans, with no support from their departments, that it’s time for them to give up the idea of a career in that field. If departments were honest about this with their students, there would be many fewer students, and by and large those that were left would be those that would have gotten the jobs anyway. Of course, departments are rewarded by their universities for having PhD programs. That sort of incentive is a bad idea. Everybody knows it. Or, from my perspective, everybody in the departments growing graduate programs knows it; I don’t know about the administrators. Somehow, it seems to me, when people become administrators, they forget that it’s silly to reward departments for having grad programs. (Lee?)

    As for tenure … I see (and experience) regularly the advantage of tenure (or rather, the disadvantage of lacking tenure). A junior faculty member who depends on her senior colleagues for renewal is going to be hesitant to point out that their ideas are foolish. Give her tenure and she is now free to speak her mind. That’s a good thing.

    As for Jim Gimpel’s anonymous friend: s/he’s tarring us humanities types with too broad a brush. My first reaction to Taylor’s proposal was exactly his/her’s: disciplinary depth is a necessary asset in addressing the academic studies Taylor identifies. As is the ability to continue working on these problems even when they fall out of fashion.

  6. Rich C April 27, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    I agree with your anonymous friend that there is something inconsistent in the “temporary” departments proposal. Taylor seems to be presupposing that these thematic programs would be interdisciplinary, but that in turn requires that there has already been some disciplinary training. Without some prior development of discipline specific methods and knowledge, its not really clear what an “interdisciplinary” approach would even be. That said, the creation of the thematic programs he recommends could have some salutary effects, provided they don’t entail a complete abolition of “core” methods where relevant: for one thing, there is already a lot of overlap among the various social sciences in terms of the research projects grad students and professors undertake, and in terms of the substantive (meaning not just methods training) seminars that get offered. For another, the putatively low quality of interdisciplinary programs may reflect their second-class status. Once work narrowly within the discipline is not favored over interdisciplinary work, then the incentives facing potential participants will change, and may lead to increased quality.

    Moreover, I think Taylor is correct to recognize that technological changes are going to eventually force very big changes on universities. Increased connectivity will very likely increase university-level specialization, just as it creates opportunities for teacher-less teaching. I very much like the idea of doing away with the traditional social science/humanities dissertation. And while I think the seven-year contract does not really get at the core problems with tenure, its a start.

  7. Rich C April 27, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    philocyclist says:

    I see (and experience) regularly the advantage of tenure (or rather, the disadvantage of lacking tenure). A junior faculty member who depends on her senior colleagues for renewal is going to be hesitant to point out that their ideas are foolish.

    But that’s really the problem: tenure exists at exactly the time you don’t need it. Younger people have a very long history of thinking that their older colleagues have foolish ideas, but as they age they tend to be much less willing to hear parallel criticism from their still-younger colleagues. By placing tenure review power in the hands of the incumbent tenured, the current institution gives too little power to those who need it most, and too much to those who should wield the least. Moreover, its unclear to me why all faculty can’t be given employment contracts that prohibit firing in the absence of some specified “just causes” (failure to meet minimum publication and service requirements, harassing behavior, etc.), which in turn could be evaluated by outsiders. If you had that as the default set up, why would you need tenure?

  8. Jim Gimpel April 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    A reply to the Taylor piece here:


  9. Matt Jarvis April 27, 2009 at 7:25 pm #

    Put me in the “agree with the problems, not with the solutions” camp.

    A lot of scholarship is WAY too narrow, tenure does reward/encourage sloth, and I think we produce too many PhDs (particularly in the humanities). But, Taylor’s throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  10. Betor April 28, 2009 at 12:52 am #

    One glaring omission from Taylor’s critique: the proliferation of contingent labor in higher ed.

  11. yurek April 28, 2009 at 2:23 am #

    I agree with Professor Taylor that most Schools and Departments of Religion are far too ethereal, lack interdisciplinary contact and are inappropriate for Universities of higher or specialist learning. They produce too few jobs and little worthwhile scholarship and therefore should remain as subfields within other Departments such as Philosophy, Law, Social Sciences, Anthropology and History. Let the dedicated religious teachers and scholars remain tenured or untenured in their “tax-free” churches and preach “fee-free” to interested community groups. Let the real teaching in universities on subjects like Science (Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Geology, Chemistry), Law, Language, History, Politics, Geography, Philosophy, etc continue unabated with both tenured and untenured specialists and scholars who love to teach about their own and their colleagues research and understanding of humanity and the universe.

  12. Dubi April 28, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Philocyclist – about the too many grad students, you’re forgetting Taylor’s point that universities need these grad students because they are cheap labour that the institutions will otherwise have to pay an actual salary for.

  13. Dubi April 28, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    I think Taylor is way too focused on the policy side of things, so he ignores the actual “production and accumulation of knowledge” part, for which disciplines are particularly useful.

    But policy IS important, and I do think that it might be prudent to institute some reforms that force professors (and maybe even grad students) to engage more outside of their own departments and faculties. I’m not sure how to go about it, though.