"Man, I love college"

By Hua Hsu

Mark Taylor's "End the University as We Know It" has been making the rounds for a couple of weeks now, and it slots nicely into an ongoing debate about the future of higher education in the age of, well, everything: collapsing financial markets/Wikipedia/post 9/11 threats/neoliberalism/hyper-specialization/etc.

First, the obvious: let's consider op-eds the Times would probably reject on principle (that principle being that few people care):

"Rethink University Administration Policies"
"Course Releases: A Modest Proposal"
"Administrators Should Take a Pay Cut!"
"Taking the Contingent out of Contingent Faculty"
"Is the University Already Post-Fordist?"

Taylor had to splash out; the piece needed to be bold and radical and huge and not necessarily true. A generous reading of the piece would point to all the essential suggestions he makes. Moving toward multidisciplinarity or interdepartmental collaboration is imperative (if not already inevitable)--though, the fluid, every-so-often restructuring of divisions imagined by Taylor assumes that academics and administrators are capable of being truly utilitarian. It's one thing to promote more adaptive kinds of scholarship; it's another to expect people to consistently act against their own interests in favor of abstract institutional or civillizational goals. If a roomful of academics can't come to a consensus on curriculum or methods--what are the chances of a division like "Water" or "Mind" emerging without strife?

As David Bell has remarked, it is hard to imagine what Taylor's university would look like or how it would be administred. Further: is the university really in such dire shape? Bell eviscerates Taylor's charges, pointing out that the state of the American university is "the sort of "obsolescence" that Chrysler and The New York Times can only dream of." But these concerns seem so short-sighted and elitist when waged in defense of the academy and all it has come to represent, right? Consider what John Sperling of Phoenix University has to say about his competitors: "Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that 'expand their minds' bullshit." Phoenix is, in a way, a terrific example of Taylor's "problem oriented" model of higher education. The problem in this case being how we can guarantee the existence of a flexible and skilled labor pool.

Taylor's is a kind of snark masquerading as utopianism. Mostly because of all his detractors can't help but sound slightly mean-spirited and out of touch, defending the wayward mind who has devoted his life to an obscurantist study of footnotes while real shit is going on. The point for some is that the university--already a somewhat utopian idea, this four-year shielding from the pressures of adult life, "the bottom line," etc.--has already been compromised enough. For every Taylor, there are countless adjuncts, non-tenured faculty, "contingent faculty" and itinerant lecturers--the problem isn't one of "oversupply." For more on this, check out Marc Bousquet's response to Taylor here; chapters of his How the University Works are available on his site.

Weirdly enough, Gawker has hosted some of the sharpest criticisms of Taylor's piece. As Kate Perkins of N+1 astutely points out, higher education remains a profitable enterprise precisely because of the serious class inequities it exploits, an arrangement Taylor fails to address:

The genuine social utility and social prestige of universities should be based on their institutional independence from The Powers That Be. Taylor's 6 Steps make for relatively useless suggestions, since none of them relieve scholarship from its burden of profit. He's concerned with changing the internal structure of universities, rather than with restructuring the academy's place in the social order. Until that happens, no matter what bureaucratic rearrangements and curricular changes go on, they'll continue to produce the class divisions that make them institutions for the elite, by the elite.

Jeff Chang offers four solutions (and an impassioned defense of Detroit, which Taylor roundaboutly disses). But the key is this: higher education is both a symptom and a cause of greater national (and global) concerns. It is a grave misconception, this idea that universities need to be reformed or extra-scrutinized because they fall outside the jurisdiction of the "real world." As Frank Donoghue argues in The Last Professors, there may have been a moment when that distance did pose a threat to the existing order. No longer, says Donoghue: those possibilities were ceded long ago.

There are still plenty of good reasons to defend the idea of higher education, whether you are a committed humanist, a believer in the expansive, fudgy ideals of "creativity" and "innovation" or merely an employer seeking readymade standards of distinction. But as the recent financial crisis and the sudden evaporation of college and university endowments shows, higher education is not, to paraphrase Perkins, "independent from The Powers That Be." This isn't to say that higher education should be allowed to navel-gaze at a loss, or whatever its critics accuse. But we simply can't neglect the industrial logic at the heart of modern-day higher education, lest we encourage a follow-up op-ed: End the University.

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