Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Detroit of higher learning

In the NYT this past Sunday, Mark Taylor coins a provocative phrase, and reminds everybody that the crisis in graduate education has been going on almost as long as Detroit has been building bad cars. He makes a good case that tenure itself is part of the problem, and not just because it results in fewer job openings. Tenured faculty (not all, mind you, but a good portion of them) tend to produce clones of themselves in their grad students, so succeeding generations become ever more specialized and atomized. Taylor proposes abolishing tenure, an idea I hesitate to endorse. For all the problems it causes, I can't think of another way to safeguard academic freedom. If professors' contracts are renewed every seven years, market forces--by which I mean external market forces--will drive their work much more powerfully. On the other hand, a little exposure to the elements might be good. One thing's for sure: universities could not function without the cheap labor of graduate students, and those who sign up for grad school need to know this going in.

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