Monday, April 27, 2009

The Science Factory

An op/ed piece called "End the university as we know it" in today's New York Times , by Mark Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia, has caught people's attention. As it should. He describes a system in which, among other problems, universities train far too many graduate students for the number of available academic jobs, because they need them to work in their labs and teach their classes. While this is certainly true, we would like to add a few more points.

Research universities have become institutions dependent on money brought in by research faculty to cover basic operating expenses, and this naturally leads to emphasis on those aspects of faculty performance. This means that promotions, raises and tenure, not to mention our natural human vanities, depend substantially if not centrally upon research rather than pedagogical prowess. In that sense, universities have become welfare systems, only the faculty are the sales force as well as the protected beneficiaries.

Things differ among fields, however. In the humanities, that even university presidents recognize have at least some value and can't totally be abolished, publication is the coin of the realm. It is not new to say that most of what is published is rarely read by anyone (if you doubt this, check it for yourself--it's true even in the sciences!), yet this research-effort usually comes at the expense of teaching students.

In the humanities, where little money is at stake and work remains mainly at the individual level, students are still largely free to pick the dissertation topic that interests them. But their jobs afterwards are generally to replace their mentors in the system.

In the sciences there are many more jobs, both academically and in industry and the public sector. We've been very lucky in that regard in genetics. But at the same time, science is more of an industrial operation, depending on serfs at the bench who are assigned to do a professor's bidding--work on his/her grant-based projects. There is much less freedom to explore new ideas or the students' own interests. They then go on to further holding areas, called post-docs, before hopefully replacing aging professors or finding a job in industry.

In both cases, however, education is taking an increasing back seat at research universities and even good liberal arts colleges. Lecturers and graduate students teach classes, rather than professors, and there is pressure to develop money-making online courses that are rarely as good as good-old person to person contact. The system has become decidedly lopsided.

Taylor identifies very real problems, but to us, his solutions (eliminate departments and tenure, and train fewer students, among other things) don't address the real root of the problem. As long as universities are so reliant upon overhead money from grants, which they will be for the foreseeable future, universities can't return to education as their first priority.

So long as this is based on a competitive market worldview, as it is today, the growth ethic dominates. One does whatever we need to do to get more. Exponential growth expectations were largely satisfied during the boom time, starting around 40 years ago, as universities expanded (partly because research funding did, enabling faculty to be paid on grants rather than tuition money). Science industries grew. Status for a professor was to train many graduate students. We ourselves have been great beneficiaries of this system!

Understanding the current situation falls well within the topical expertise of anthropology. One class, the professoriate, used the system to expand its power and access to resources. Whether by design or not, a class of subordinates developed. A pyramid of research hierarchy grew, with concentration of resources in larger and wealthier groups, labs, or projects. The peer review system designed to prevent self-perpetuating old-boy networks has been to a considerable extent coopted by the new old boys.

As everyone knows, or should know, exponential growth is not sustainable. If each of us trains many students, and then they do the same, etc., we eventually saturate the system, and that is at least temporarily what is happening now.

What can be done about it, or should be done about it, are not clear. The idea that we'll somehow intentionally change to what Taylor wants seems very unanthropological: we simply don't change in that way as a rule. Cultural systems, of which academia is one, change by evolution in ways that are usually not predictable. At present, there too many vested interests (such as ourselves, protecting our jobs and privileges, etc.). Something will change, but it will be most humane if it's gradual rather than chaotic. Maybe, whether in the ways Taylor suggests or in others, a transition can be undertaken that does not require the system to collapse first.

We'll all just have to stay tuned....

No comments: