End the University as We Know It: My Commentary

Mark C. Taylor is quickly becoming famous for his New York Times piece End the University as We Know It. 

The paper makes some good points:

  • Universities rely on graduate students as cheap labor. Graduate students accept their fate on the illusion that they will become professors. Unfortunately, most of them will never achieve their goals. They will have to settle for jobs they could have done just as well without a Ph.D. (Yes professor Mitzenmacher, this includes Computer Science Ph.D.s!) We can do better! Either train fewer people for research, or create more government and industry research jobs.
  • We should rely more on online learning. We need to dramatically scale up the broadcasting abilities of our teachers. This revolution is coming up. (If you doubt me, watch professor Mitzenmacher teach, online, now.)

Unfortunately, it falls short on other criticisms and proposals:

  • Universities are overspecialized? Ever tried to hire a biologist when you are a Computer Scientist? It is not fun! We need clusters of specialists so that they can review each other. Multidisciplinary programs are great, but a multidisciplinary professor is like a greased pig. He may taste great, but you first have to catch it!
  • Do away with tenure? Tenure is a great way to save money on salaries. In Computer Science, it would entice the best professors to move off to industry. You cannot do away with tenure in all fields without fundamentally changing the university job market, and it would not all be for the benefit of students and universities.

Further reading: See Vellino’s commentary and Mitzenmacher’s rebuttal.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

12 thoughts on “End the University as We Know It: My Commentary”

  1. What is the main reason tenure-track professors have sought that profession? Freedom? Money? Prestige? Teaching? Parents?

  2. @Bossy I have no idea why students do what they do. However, I became a professor because I like research and the necessary freedom that comes with it. I have always fiercely defended my professional freedom.

  3. @David

    Who do you think pay for these students? Hint 1: who pays for the science funding agencies? Hint 2: the government!

    The current system of government-funded science is exactly what is leading us into this Ph.D. overproduction.

    If the system were a free market, nobody would borrow $500k so he could have a 5% chance of becoming a professor at a fraction of the salary of an engineer.

    But the current system makes it artificially cheap to get a Ph.D. We are massively subsidizing graduate students and leading them into dead ends.

  4. “””Either train fewer people for research, or create more government and industry research jobs.”””

    What that mean: one phd job for each phd? Sounds like communism.

    I mean, it makes no sense. In order to have ‘good’ professors and researchers, we need to train a huge lot of students and promote the best ones. The remainder will find their way elsewhere and they’ll probably have a edge by the knowlegde and skills they gain during the 3+ years of the phd…

  5. Taylor’s critiques are more relevant to the humanities than they are to the social sciences or sciences. Indeed, you can put him in a long line of humanists who, faced with the declining relevance of their own fields, lash out at the university system as a whole. (See also any essay by Stanley Fish.) IMO, irrelevance is the just desserts of embracing postmodernism and other such nonsense.

  6. @Daniel PhD overproduction? I have a PhD and I feel like an alien. People look at me weirdly when they learn I did that much studies. I really feel like an outlier.

    500k per PhD? Sounds impressive but how it compares to training a soldier? training a musician? etc.

    In a total free market who’d borrow to become a soldier and go to war or become a musician and have a fraction of 1% of success?

  7. Daniel —

    Most CS PhDs do not become professors. But most CS PhDs I know are happy to have their PhD, feel they learned a lot, and have opportunities that most graduate students I know don’t necessarily have.

    I agree that if most graduate students come in with the goal of being a professor at a top ten university, then most will not achieve their goal. I try to make this clear to every student who asks me about going to graduate school. They should be going in to graduate school with open eyes.

    I don’t think it follows that, as you say, most PhDs “have to settle for jobs they could have done just as well without a Ph.D.”, and I’d be interested in how you back that up.

    As for online learning, I think there’s a lot of potential, and I’m sure it will change the way we learn and do things in the future. So here we’re mostly in agreement, although I tend to think the revolution will be slower and harder than you do, as we have to learn best practices, and figure out how to change institutions and expectations accordingly.

  8. Oops, that last comment was from me, Professor Mitzenmacher. By the way, Daniel, we’ve commented back and forth quite often, it’s like we know each other — you can call me Michael. 🙂

  9. Yes, I would not normally call you “professor Mitzenmacher”. 😉 This was meant to tease you and underline the fact that *you* are a professor. I’m also a professor… even a full professor now… and even at precisely where I wanted to be… so it is easy to think that the system works well for everyone… after all, it works for us, right? We both have the jobs we wanted. My life is good. Your life is good. We have research grants, job security… we have graduate students… we have all the time in the world to blog and do fun things without worrying about the current financial crisis. Good.

    Yet, Michael, you are a probability expert. I ask you… Can you take the samples you see from your Harvard professorship and extrapolate them, and assume that the same holds true for the thousands of new Computer Science Ph.D.s produced every year? Can you honestly see that you are as likely to meet the Ph.D.s that are unhappy about the outcome for them? Or can you admit that maybe, just maybe, you have a selection bias and tend to notice the “happy endings” a lot more?

    When my unit opens up a computer science position… even a temporary one… in a lesser school than Harvard… we can get over a hundred applicants… most of them smart computer scientists with a Ph.D…. did you know that there were so many? When Harvard opens up a position, how many applicants do you get? What happens to the hundreds you don’t pick for the job? Do you just assume that some lesser school will pick them, somehow? How many lesser schools are there?

  10. @Michael “I don’t think it follows that, as you say, most PhDs “have to settle for jobs they could have done just as well without a Ph.D.”, and I’d be interested in how you back that up.”

    If you look at the Taulbee Survey, more than twice as many CS Ph.D.s go into industry as into academia. At first, you’d think the trend towards more Ph.D.s going into industry meant that industry market was growing, but it might not be so. I suspect that a fair number of these industry jobs represent under-employment, i.e., people with Ph.D.s settling for jobs that require a B.S. or M.S.

  11. I’m aware I probably see the “higher end” of PhD students. I’m also aware most PhD students don’t get faculty jobs — we’re already in agreement there. Perhaps you should read my comment #7 again? Don’t I say students need to go in with eyes open on their prospects of becoming a professor (and other employment)?

    What I’m not in agreement with is your extrapolation is the end result is a large class of PhDs in computer science that then do jobs they could have done equally well with a Masters or undergraduate degree. I’m sure this does happen. I also know plenty of people who went through law school and didn’t become lawyers. Some of them are doing jobs they could have done without their law degree. But for many of them, the law degree opened doors in business, consulting, what have you that they couldn’t have done before. And my experience is that PhDs who go to industry get to do more interesting things than people who graduate with only a Masters or undergraduate degree. Or viewed the other way, there are undoubtedly CTO’s that don’t have a PhD; it’s not really necessary. But my impression (which would need to be checked) is that you’re more likely become a CTO with a PhD. PhDs can open lots of doors — not just to professordom — and the fact that they don’t for everyone doesn’t justify your comments.

    To summarize, I’m sure there are people who obtained a PhD in computer science and felt it was a waste that had no overall impact on their career. My claim is that, as far as I know, that number is small; you seem to be implying that number is large. If you have evidence otherwise, I’d be happy to learn more about it. Simply saying that we produce far more PhDs than professors I don’t consider evidence of this point. It is only evidence that we should be telling potential graduate students honest information about the odds of becoming a professor — a point that I’ve long agreed to.

  12. The goal of a tenure was, in my opinion, to embrace the freedom of speech and to protect professors from government, companies or any other outside force. it is now used more to shut up new hires

    We should definitely get rid of tenure and fire all faculty members older than 65 years old (we can keep Richard Karp though)

    The whole university system is broke, everyone knows that but no one wants to admit to it

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