Whats Wrong w/ Higher Ed in the US? Lots!

Newmark’s Door has a great blog entry offering a compilation of criticisms of higher education in the U.S. Those quoted included professors, entrepreneurs, and . Those targetted include law schools, humanities, and computer science departments. There is something for everyone in this piece. Here are a few snippets and who they are attributed to.

Joel Spolsky (Entrepreneur):

Many universities have managed to convince themselves that the more irrelevant the curriculum is to the real world, the more elite they are. It’s the liberal arts way. Leave it to the technical vocational institutes, the red-brick universities, and the lesser schools endowed with many compass points (“University of Northern Southwest Florida”) to actually produce programmers. The Ivy Leagues of the world want to teach linear algebra and theories of computation and Haskell programming, and all the striver CS departments trying to raise their standards are doing so by eliminating anything practical from the curriculum in favor of more theory.

William O’Neill (Professor Emeritus at Rutgers)

As state support for public universities, who produce the great majority of college graduates, has declined so has the size of the permanent faculty in relation to student enrollments. About half of all undergraduate courses are taught by part time instructors, usually known as adjuncts, who receive pitiful salaries, no benefits and no job security. As the wretched serfs of academic life they have little incentive to teach well and every reason to inflate grades, as most students will forgive a teacher anything so long as they receive at least a B—except for those who seldom show up and never study, who will accept a C, although such low grades are rare. In addition to buying off trouble for doing such a poor job, the entire teaching force, from adjuncts to tenured professors, is tempted to win glowing student evaluations by bribing their classes. Widely derided when first introduced several decades ago, student evaluations have become a standard component of faculty promotions.

Newmark points to a great critique of the humanities by Harvard Professor Louis Menand. The article, The PhD Problem appears in Harvard Magazine this month.

In the sixties, the time-to-degree as a registered student was about 4.5 years in the natural sciences and about six years in the humanities. The current median time to degree in the humanities is nine years. That does not include what is called stop-time, which is when students take a leave or drop out for a semester or longer. And it obviously does not take into account students who never finish. It is not nine years from the receipt of the bachelor’s degree, either; it is nine years as a registered student in a graduate program. The median total time it takes to achieve a degree in the humanities including stop-time is 11.3 years. In the social sciences, it is 10 years, or 7.8 as a registered student. In the natural sciences, time-to-degree as a registered student is just under seven years. If we put all these numbers together, we get the following composite: only about half of the people who enter doctoral programs in English finish them, and only about half of those who finish end up as tenured faculty, the majority of them at institutions that are not research universities. An estimate of the total elapsed time from college graduation to tenure would be somewhere between 15 and 20 years. It is a lengthy apprenticeship. . . .

The effort to reinvent the Ph.D. as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote 10 or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. Professors are not themselves, for the most part, terribly practical people, and practical skills are not what they are trained to teach. They are trained to teach people to do what they do and to know what they know. Those skills and that knowledge are not self-evidently transferable. The ability to analyze Finnegans Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings. . . .

Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own.

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