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03/05/2005

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David Thomson

Larry Summers can be seen as attempting an incremental shift in university structure toward the business model.

One can only hope that this business model is no longer modeled after the Mafia. How bad is the corruption at Harvard University? On page 117 of Ross Gregory Douhats book he cites a professor as saying If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons of the administration. What more needs to be added? The elites make sure to protect their own. The burglar rightfully goes to jail---while the Harvard graduate enters the halls of power and earns a fabulous income.

Paul Deignan

Please take a moment to survey some of the literature published by the IEEE, ASME, or any other engineering discipline. (Agriculture and life sciences are also game).

What percentage of the papers has a faculty member as the lead author?

Now, do the liberal arts bring funding into the university on net or do they absorb funding?

How long does the average PhD student attend a university? Why do universities now seek to claim intellectual property created by students as their own?

Birds of passage? The ostrich is also a bird.

RSA

There is room for experimentation with tightening university control over departments. . .


There's also room for analysis: I don't have figures, but I'd bet that there are hundreds of university departments like my own, in which a department head is appointed, and who "serves at the pleasure of the dean." Certainly faculty input is taken into account, but the dean has the final say. Are such departments better than their counterparts in which a department chair is elected? It would be hard to make a fair comparison, but no harder than judging whether improvements in a department could be attributed to tightening controls.

David

"university faculties--to be blunt--contain not only a fair proportion of social misfits (for academia places little value on interpersonal skills), but have become so specialized that most academics know and care only about their own, often very narrow, field of research."

This is a fair point; the same is true in the legal profession. Many terrific lawyers and academics become notoriously bad administrators when they are "promoted." An interesting question is whether administrators should be chosen based on non-administrative (for instance, academic or legal) merit. The reward for a stellar academic career might be a department chairmanship or a deanship, which the professor might not have the skils to perform in such a stellar fasion. Maybe a better system would reward the academic stars with a different set of promotions/inducements and leave the administrative jobs to those who excel at that type of task.

Yevgeny Vilensky

In both the Yale and NYU math departments, Chairmanship is not awarded as a result of distinguished research. At Yale, it was done on a rotating basis in six-year cycles. I am not sure how it works at NYU, but certainly not by academic distinction.

It is also not uncommon in some departments for the department chair to be an associate professor rather than a full professor. For example, NYU Journalism is headed by Jay Rosen even though he is just an associate professor.

I think that Judge Posner hits the nail right on the head with the three problems that the universities need to solve. I think that all of them would be solved (or at least partially solved) by moving to a business model.

Intellectual diversity of faculty -- Students who feel they are indoctrinated are likely to leave embittered and not want to donate money. For example, Pres. Bush has had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Yale. He was very much alienated by the Yale of the late 60's. The Bass Grant scandal at Yale also shows the alienation of powerful alumni when the faculty decide to embrace multi-culturalism at the expense of Western Civilization. A university run more like a business is likely to care more about these monetary issues and not keep its head in the sand and pretend like the academic choices it makes are done for academics' sake.

Neglected Teaching by Academic Stars -- again, alienation of students who are potential donors is the big problem here. Also, a business makes employees accountable to their job description. A professor's job is to teach (among some other things... but a necessary component is teaching). If he does not fulfill those duties in good faith, he ought to be disciplined, tenure or not. A business model has a good chance to solve this problem.

Increasing specialization -- this makes fundraising very very hard since alumni would be willing to give money to study Plato, Jefferson, Hamilton, Burke, Marx, Hegel, etc. as opposed to the effects of mass penguin migration on the transgendered natives of southeastern brazil. Alumni are more likely to give money to things they understand as non-experts and to things that might have an effect on their lives or something relevant to them (e.g. the widower of someone who died of cancer giving money to start a cancer institute). Specialization in the humanities usually has a tradeoff with relevance.

Yevgeny Vilensky

A Caveat:

While in certain cases, a model resembling a business is good for a university, in some areas it is not. I think one big problem with universities in America is their trend to nickle and dime their students. I think it is unconscionable when an urban university in the most expensive housing market in America charges its students market rents in buildings it owns (forcing many to move far away from the university... sometimes to unsafe neighborhoods).

David

Nickel & diming over housing is nothing compared to the $30K per year tuition price tag. What about all those students who can't afford the Ivy League and who are not willing to mortgage their futures to pay for 4 years of college? Yet another reason to have a strong system of good, subsidized public universities..

Peter Konefal

I agree with Posner conditionally on one sub-topic;

SOME political correctness is stifling to free and open academic debate.

But, on the other hand

-postcolonial studies
-gender/feminist studies
-ethnography/anthropology

debates since the 1950s,70s have contributed enormously to our recognition of how "backward" the west was in its attitudes and common-sense understandings of our role in the world and with respect to the south and/or minorities and women.

As a legacy of these vital debates, political correctness is more than a lamentable aphorisim: it is connected to the lives and felt-oppression of millions of people and is not something to be dismissed as a silly or inconsequential trend, where all that counts is 'good rhetoric'.

Yevgeny Vilensky

David,

I disagree with you on the price tag issue.

First, colleges aren't making money off of tuition. Most private universities spend way more to educate each student than they charge in tuition. The rest comes out of alumni giving.

Second, most private universities, especially the Ivy Leagues, give very generous financial aid. I was a recipient of this aid at Yale. In my experience, many of the parents who claim that they can't afford to pay for college say so because they choose not to. I know people who spent money on a boat to make it seem like they have no assets to game the financial aid system. The formulas for need at most of the Ivy League schools are quite good. And they will usually match the offers made at other equally good places.

Third, taking out a loan to pay for one's education makes you more responsible for it. The fact that I had to take out a loan and knowing that my parents were sacrificing for college, made me more responsible about it.

Fourth, student loans can hardly be called mortgaging one's future if one goes to an Ivy League school as opposed to a public university. Also, what if you live in Nebraska, Rhode Island, New York, or some other state that has terrible public universities? On balance, it would be a bad economic decision to go to one of those rather than an Ivy League even with all of the loans. As for going to another state school out of state, the price tag is quite high as well for out-of-state residents.

Fifth, the way public universities can even remotely match the educations of private universities is by having strong athletics. Think of the best public universities: UC-Berkeley, Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, and North Carolina. All are very strong athletically. I would venture to guess that the amount of money they get (especially at UCLA and Michigan) from athletics is quite significant.

Sixth, it is simply wrong to argue that one's college experience at the University of Connecticut would be the same as that at Yale, Swarthmore, WIlliams, etc. There are too few public liberal arts schools. And since athletics and major research funding from DOD, DOE, NIH, NSF, etc. provide a huge portion of public university budgets, to have a good corps of public liberal arts colleges would be too much of a strain on the tax payers.

Yevgeny Vilensky

Peter K.,

Yes, certainly some debates in women's/gender studies, postcolonial studies, etc. have contributed to our knowledge. But you have no evidence that these contributions would not have happened if those departments did not exist. Remember, the things that our society absorbs from academia is much much more moderate politically than the actual papers, etc. that are published every day. I would have to argue that anthropology is more useful but that's mostly because it is not dominated by Marxist or proto-Marxist ideology.

Most of the stuff in those departments is pretty much crap.

Peter Konefal

Well, without offering any evidence about a correlation between departments on post-colonial studies, gender etc and papers produced by researchers affiliated with those departments, I can atleast argue that the null hypothesis here is the least credible explanation at face value.

In any case, it's irrelevant whether these debates would have emerged without a prerequisite debate in academia - they have, and they are important and valuable.

As to society performing a moderating function on academia, it does in some cases and not in others - its relative depending on an almost infinite number of factors, issues and history.

As to the continuing relevance of marx to virtually all disciplines - that much is not in serious debate. Few scholars would argue that Marx did not make an invaluable contribution to economics (or as it was called then political-economy along with Adam Smith, etc), and on many other disciplines that can benefit from his theses on technology, materialism, dialectics etc. Few disciplines exclude Marx's influence, and none do so with profit to their overall theoretical robustness.

"Most of the stuff in those departments is pretty much crap."

Its fine to joke around, and make fun particular disciplines - who doesn't? but this is obviously not intended in a serious way.

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