Friday, April 25, 2014

Another view of the academic 'problem'

Many of us are harping on the corrosion or corruption (or just change, depending on your point of view) of universities and their missions.  The tuition costs keep rising, many students find themselves deeply in debt upon graduation, and yet the benefits in terms of courses taught by actual tenure track professors, breadth and depth of education, and job opportunities at the end, are shrinking.  In essence, much of what has happened is that universities have grown to become institutions that charge customers (students) but are structured largely to serve their  (the faculty's and administrators') own interests.   At least this is the short-run picture and it has grown palpably at a seemingly accelerated pace in recent decades.

Here is a good statement of the issues written by an agricultural economist, Robert Taylor, at Auburn.  We generally agree with what he says.  But what if we take a broader view?

Is this just the 'good old days' phenomenon?
As we've asked in some recent posts on this timely topic, are these sentiments accurate or is this just the old and disgruntled complaining because they're being left behind?  The people in the linked article and its attached video are all apparently successful (based on their titles, at least).  This is clearly the case for the article's author, Bob Taylor, whom we happen to know.  In a recent interview, Nobel prizewinner Sydney Brenner, not just a soured loser, says much the same.  In our more modest way, we ourselves have enjoyed essentially unbroken funding for about 40 years.  We had ample funding from the major organizations, and our resulting papers have been published.  I personally have held a 'distinguished' and then the major endowed professorship here at  Penn State.  Which is all to say that my feelings about academia today are not at all due bitterness after an unsuccessful career.

Well, you might say, even successful old people tend to gripe about change, and perhaps because they were successful they get the idea that others want to hear what they have to say, that it somehow gives them a disinterested view of things.  But they may just be nostalgic grumps anyway.

Those struggling for employment today, as surveys show to be a higher fraction than in the past, can answer whether the system is doing what it should.  Those younger faculty who can't get a grant might have a view.  Lowly-paid instructors might want to say whether this is just nostalgia or is real.  Is the system broken?  Were they exploited or are they being left behind in a way that their mentors could have foretold?

On the other hand, as we've recently said, one could ask whether maybe our culture is just evolving at present into a more cruel and inequitable form not so different as prevailed for most of human history, in which there was a small elite, large lower class, and less in the middle than we've recently seen.  Maybe the post-WWII era was an historical anomaly and we are just settling into a different way of doing things, feeling surprised or stunned by it, because it doesn't currently jibe with our mythology (that we are all equal, that we live in an effective democracy, that higher education will benefit everyone, that research is all about the public good, etc.).

In a similar vein, perhaps, from the point of view of science itself, we may be seeing a struggle, a building of an elitist research hierarchy with resources coalescing into ever-greater power centers, but one that will eventually generate more ultimate public good than what has led up to it.

Only the future will tell whether we are pouring funds into low-payoff science the way we poured our national treasury onto Viet Nam in the 1960s and '70's (or you can easily identify your favorite government or industrial wasteful aspect of our culture).

But whether or not this might be a good way for long-term societal gains, say in health, it is not going well for many people today.  They are actual flesh and blood, not an abstraction such as our 'culture'. Similar things can be said about the current widespread response (or lack of it) to societal needs related to climate and agricultural sustainability:  like the pyramids long ago, the broader monumental industrial structure, being built by the few on the many backs of the nameless.


Manoj Samanta said...

Maybe some comparative data will help in understanding where things stand.

The second chart is downright scary and it does show that something changed recently.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, yes, and not to mention the lowering of standards as universities do their best to lure students because of the dorm luxury, entertainment and sports culture and the like.

Because, in part, as the Taylor article shows, we are now more and more here for us, not them, and we want their funds to pay for our own self-interests.

Manoj Samanta said...

When a system is not sustainable, it fails and collapses. The question is what will replace the system, and I think the new technologies with the internet can easily fill the gap to build a new system. It is hard to know how that will look like, but the potential is there given what the Khan Academy guy achieved for school kids.

Ken Weiss said...

I tend to agree in principle, and we have urged our administrators,friends, graduate students, post-docs and colleagues to help push for change. We try of course to use our blog to further such ends. But whether the gravitational black hole of big institutions will pull the action back remains to be seen.