I can tell my views about the current state of academia are no mystery by the number of people who’ve told me to take a look at Mark C. Taylor’s piece calling for the reorganization of universities in today’s New York Times.
I do indeed like quite a lot of what Taylor has to say. Let me start with the part I dislike the most. I think he way oversells the degree to which some kind of online instruction can let universities share specialists. Frankly, this works against his first two proposals, in that it speaks to preserving a largely conventional understanding of specialization rather than rethinking what “collaboration” might mean in ways that are more native to online communication and media. Taylor has a long record of enthusiasm for online and distance education in forms that I look on skeptically. He made a presentation at Swarthmore some years ago on behalf of a company called Global Education Network, a company that seemed to me to be long on dot-com hucksterism in its pitch and short on real grounded value. What online collaboration can do is erode some of the apparatus that shields conventional forms of academic expertise from wider forms of skeptical review and inhibits the circulation of knowledge. Online collaboration is less about teaching and more about publication and conversation.
What I like most in Taylor’s proposal is his desire to rethink the administrative and intellectual infrastructure of the department. At a recent meeting on budget issues here, I was trying to push this kind of argument, but I think I got misunderstood as making a more conventional call for the outright elimination of some departments. The useful functions of departments, especially at small institutions, are easily distributed to larger administrative units or completely decentralized to individual faculty. Mostly they’re just barriers, both to teaching and to generative conversation.
I also really like Taylor’s call for short-term programs studying connected problems: I think some large research universities have taken this approach by funding deliberately short-lived research institutes or thematic projects. To be fair, though, I see some big practical problems with “programs” as he describes them. In the real world of academia, when you start trying to put together something like this to capture resources from some kind of common pool, you either tend to have it dominated by a Napoleonic figure who has a strong-person monomania and the charisma to capture resources or you tend to end up with a vague, wishy-washy general umbrella concept which builds a big coalition but has no distinctive identity. What you’d really need is someone with oversight responsibilities who can recognize a real “working-group” after it has formed naturally out of interests and projects which are already ongoing.