Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, wrote an op-ed
to The New York Times
on Monday which, though cringe-worthy on so many levels, makes one valid point about the purpose of graduate education in the United States. Here's the relevant quote (with one little wrong bit in the middle graciously edited out...no, don't thank me):
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends than it is to hire full-time professors.
Huh. Funny, I was just having a conversation about this very topic a few weeks ago with a professor employed at a famous UK university (one of the two everyone has heard of). He was "checking up" on me, I guess, while on a research-related visit to the US, and we met in a West Village cafe.
During the course of our conversation, he lamented to me the way in which American universities, which typically provide full funding and a stipend to PhD students, often out-compete his institution, which typically expects PhD students to pay their own way, for the brightest talent. The best students, particularly those of UK and American nationality, tend to go to American schools that provide them with funding. He noted that his university has trouble retaining even its own best students from the undergraduate and master's levels--again, those who wish to get their doctoral degree tend to go where the money is. He considers this failure to compete a problem and disparaged his university for being too complacent and spoiled on the wealth of rich foreigners to make substantive change.
Tentatively, I pointed out that the "full funding" is actually a pitiable salary, masking the fact that American universities are just using their graduate students as cheap labor.
Well, apparently the grass is always greener on the other side somehow, even when your "side" is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The professor from the UK emphatically disagreed with me, saying: "You think they wouldn't sack the senior staff, the ones that are making the most, and replace them with graduate students if it would save money? Because they would, you know. But the numbers just don't add up." ("They" of course being the powers that be at his institution.) Anyway, he believed that American schools have a strong institutionalized commitment and sense of obligation to the next generation of scholars and intellectuals. This, he seemed to suggest, does not exist back home and that using graduate student labor doesn't save enough money to make it justifiable.
Of course, what level of savings is "justifiable" is an open question, and probably depends on the context. I've had American professors explain to me exactly how increasing enrollment of new PhD students and then using them as teaching assistants saves money, so arguments against the basic premise are dead in the water. But I readily admit that, on some level, the UK prof may have had a point. Obviously I can't speak for academic culture in the UK generally; all I can say is that this particular professor has always been interested in and supportive of my academic development, even though I never attended his institution. Perhaps he is the exception and not the norm. Who knows? But anyway, American universities and professors really do
, generally speaking, consider cultivating the next generation of scholars to be a worthy goal. There is also symbolic value attached to how many successful new scholars are produced by particular faculty advisors/departments/schools. It is this very idealism and professional pride that then becomes vulnerable to perversion and obsessive cost-cutting measures.
Evidence that the Taylor is a jerk: A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
Gee, I'm so glad I'm not the PhD student whose dissertation is being held up for ridicule in the so-called Paper of Record. And for that matter, can you imagine how said "colleague" feels about having his/her judgment (by implication) and
student ridiculed in public by his/her boss?
Evidence that the Taylor doesn't know what the f*ck his recommendations would actually entail: Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. / A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
Umm...if all departments in the future are interdisciplinary and "problem-centered," who's going to teach the people in the "humanities, social and natural sciences" et al. their respective fields of expertise that he is proposing to bring together? Oh, and what happens when I get a BA in Water and within seven years that "problem" is solved?