Life without universities

Students posted about it on their Facebook pages;  faculty sent links back and forth;  at Saybrook’s San Francisco offices, administrators asked one another about it.  Everyone in the community, it seems, has an opinion about last week’s New York Times op-ed by Mark Taylor, “End of the university as we know it.”

In it, Taylor suggests scrapping traditional fields of study in favor of real-world problem solving clusters;  abolishing tenure and replacing it with seven year, renewable, teaching contracts;  replacing academic papers, and even dissertations, with scholarly multi-media presentations;  and training academics for careers outside of teaching.

It’s not the first time the death of the modern university has come up (link), but this time it’s engaged the Saybrook community like no other.

Here are some student and faculty reactions.  Please continue the conversation by leaving your own responses in the comments section.

Eugene Taylor:

Psychology faculty Eugene Taylor found the document “Orwellian” – and product of the very type of thinking it wishes would end.  

“(Mark Taylor) might be more optimistic if he were more person-centered. The very thing all his emphatic points miss is the spiritual side of learning.” Eugene Taylor wrote. 

“Greek centers of learning were the meeting of minds between wise elders and students who had dedicated themselves to self-knowledge. This was the same in Vedic culture during the Darshanic periods of the Six Schools in Hinduism; or the classic relation between Confucius and his disciples. Confucius was considered too dangerous a thinker to be given a real job, but the various warring Kings knew that the way to get around the corruption of their own officials was to hire Confucius’s students, who were scrupulously honest because they were trained in ‘chuntze,’ ‘gentlemanliness based on strength of character rather than on hereditary feudal acquisition.’”
“Learning in Greece depended on the teacher-student relationship and for the past 400 hundred years of graduate learning in the West provided capital for the Socratic Method–questions and answers traded between teacher and student–to advance a student’s learning in both content and character, as well as assessment. Mark Taylor’s vision of higher education is a march toward mechanism and conformity. He does not know freedom of thought and the benefits of transmitting this experience to the next generation. He thinks higher education is going to be all iPods and wireless communication, when true learning is always between minds and hearts and really has nothing to do with technology.”

“Higher education should mean for us not preparation for a job working for someone else, but the experience of a higher level of expanded consciousness, which is the only way to create a world of new possibilities.”


John Adams:

John Adams, a Organizational Systems faculty member, notes that Saybrook is already engaged in cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural scholarship … just the way Taylor wants.  “Most programs have only a few requirements (with a  few notable exceptions), and that allows interested students to range across the entire curriculum,” he says.  We’ve got that covered. 

Saybrook has also been actively engaged in attempts to partner with outside institutions – keeping the ivory tower open to the real world.  LIOS, The Center for Mind Body Medicine, TRANSCEND Peace University, and the good government group Public Citizen are just a few of the new affiliations of one kind or another that Saybrook has entered recently. 

“In OS, we are preparing our students primarily for careers other than academic teaching,” he points out.  “Our graduates are executives, researchers, and consultants and well as faculty members.”

But the notion of abolishing departments, whatever its merits academically, runs into one immediate problem:  we have no reason to think students want that.

“It’s an interesting idea – but does anyone anywhere have any idea how easy such programs are to sell to prospective students who are still living within the nine dots that the author is criticizing?” Adams asks. 

Adams is much more enthusiastic, however, about the idea of transforming the traditional academic papers “with more footnotes than text” into scholarly multimedia projects that reflect contemporary popular technology. 

“I would love to see this happen,” he says. 

Likewise, for him, the idea of replacing traditional tenure with shorter term contracts that can be terminated or renewed has real advantages, allowing universities to recruit faculty who are directly engaged in relevant outside pursuits. 

“I agree completely,” he said, referencing that section of the piece. 


John Vodonick

Vodonick, a PhD student in Organizational Systems, says that in many respects, Mark Taylor is speaking truth to power.

“Mark Taylor tells it like it is.  Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning,” Vodonick says.  “The analogy is a few layers deep.  Like Detroit, graduate education has as its purpose the creation of a product.  Detroit’s product is the motor vehicle; graduate education’s product is the candidate for a teaching position.  Like Detroit, graduate education is going bankrupt.  Graduate education has simply failed to adapt to a changing world.  I have had the great good fortune to have been able to experience a number of secondary educational institutions.  Community college, state university, private law school, private graduate school of the brick and mortar-old-school-type and most recently, private graduate school of the non brick and mortar-school in transition type.  Saybrook is the latter; all of my prior institutions are the former.  Saybrook is in transition and is headed in the right direction but is not there yet.”

“Taylor has a number of suggestions that he offers as a fix for the system of graduate education.  I agree with some but not all of them.  I am suspicious of his notion of tossing tenure into the dustbin.  Frankly that does not solve the problem; rather it just replaces one teacher with another teacher, a null-sum game.  The solution to the problem is to understand that the purpose of graduate education should be to advance human flourishing.   Once we adopt human flourishing as the goal of graduate education we open the floodgates of opportunity to those people who are willing to invest part of their lives and most of their resources in the graduate experience.   Once we make human flourishing the telos of graduate education the notion of an issue oriented curricula becomes a no-brainer; the lack of justification of continual atomization of departments and disciplines becomes patent as does the common sense of co-location and the sharing of limited resources.”

“I don’t have a lot of optimism for most graduate institutions; they are simply too entrenched into a paradigm that no longer exists.  I suspect that most of them will go the way as most of the Detroit institutions are going.  Bankrupt.  I don’t share that pessimism about Saybrook.” 


Your insights are welcomed below. 

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