Sunday, May 17, 2009


by Mark C. Taylor, Chairman of Religion department at Columbia University
"If higher education is to thrive, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured."

As my first official post, I would like to comment on this article recently published in the New York Times as it is something near and dear to my heart (and pocketbook) - it's on the increasingly defunct and suspiciously unethical factory system of higher education.  As the introductory sentence of the article states, "Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning."  Of course, Detroit and the fall of the Big Three (as in the autocompanies Chrysler, GM, Ford) is also near and dear to my heart since I lived in the Detroit metro area for four years of undergrad and many of my friends and their families are currently enduring the brunt of Detroit's demise.  It's interesting that Taylor connects two very poignant current event issues - the fall of Wall Street and Detroit - with what I consider to be the fallacy of higher education.  Of course, what isn't told to you is that graduate degrees are increasingly becoming a dime a dozen and university's are pumping these degrees because it's their big money maker.  You fund their PhD students, who in turn perform essential functions in higher education - like lecturing, TA'ing, researching - so they don't have to pay big money for those who already have PhD's.  Their's the conundrum folks, the downsizing of professorships and the tenureship of baby boomers (some of whom are now old farts) have greatly diminished the need for job-seekers with PhD's.  Yet universities are pumping in graduate students and pumping out over-qualified for entry-level and under-qualified for anything that pays the student loan bills.  

The second argument that Taylor makes is that the university system - with it's departmental systems and professors specializing in sub-fields of sub-fields of sub-fields - is a compartmentalized system that is often counterproductive to solving real, tangible problems facing society.  I wholeheartedly agree.  Although I'm sure there are those making expressed efforts to counter this compartmentalization and bridge the divide between disciplines, I don't believe this to be the norm (and neither does Taylor).  Rather, problems seem to get tackled in piecemeal fashion and with little discourse and idea-sharing across disciplines.  Taylor instead suggests 'departments' that engage experts from a broad range of disciplines and specialties to tackle real, tangible problems - so for instance, the increasingly relevant issue of water rights.  For those that live in the developing world or even in arid parts of the United States like Phoenix or Las Vegas, water is an increasingly scarce resource with a majority of the fresh water of the world being controlled by a limited number of actors.  In my home state of Ohio, we are increasingly reading in the local news about water being 'purchased' and pumped for use in other parts of the United States, and when I visited family in Arizona was horrified to see that people water their grassed lawns (which is really just sod on top of sand!).  This sign of prestige in Arizona (that you can afford to landscape sod on top of sand and that you can pay extra for water and it's upkeep) is also using scarce water resources in a state that's 'at war' with neighboring states over who 'owns' the Colorado River.  (My opinion?  The Indians do.)  So as Taylor explains in the article, water is an important societal issue and one that must have a multi-faceted problem-solving approach - this is not just work for biologists, environmental engineers and planners, or public health experts, but also for urban planners and policy wonks and even religious experts (as throughout the world water has religious connotations).  Without this multi-faceted approach, we continue to risk public policy disasters (for another day, my friends) a la urban public housing development of the '40's & '50's or even the current economic crisis.  And it would seem an understatement to say it's in society's best interest to avoid a repeat of the latter. 

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