Monday, April 27, 2009

End the University as We Know It

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning.
Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

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 and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

  1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises. It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.
  2. 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. Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs. 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.
  3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.
  4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.
  5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.
  6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.” My hope is that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive.

Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming “Field Notes From Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What's Litter Worth?

I've developed something of a habit over the past few years; bringing along an empty bag to fill with recyclables whenever I walk around the neighborhood. The photo here are a few things gathered about 15 minutes ago on a walk to and from the local supermarket. Some fairly well known brands, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Pepsi-Cola, and Cadbury-Schweppes, as well as some fairly well known containers, a glass beer bottle, a plastic (yes, that's a generalization, and most folks'll think of it as "plastic") soda bottle and an aluminum soda can.

So, what's been gnawing at me for a while is the "value" of these containers to the consumer that ultimately uses the product. What is it? And, if there is a value, why throw it away? There really is no value whatsoever to the container, to the consumer. Maybe there's something to be said for the container as a delivery mechanism or storage container, something that the consumer may desire. The way I see it, the container is ultimately a means of delivering the value of the product to the end user.

What am I getting at here? If the container has no residual value to the user, and the producer decides what kind of container to use, how to get it, and how to deliver the product filled container to the user, why is it that the consumer (and therefore the public) is responsible for its end of life disposition?

I guess what I am wondering about is why we've collectively agreed that organizations that manufacture products (and services to some extent) can externalize the end-of-life costs of those products (and services) to the public?

This really isn't a new realization.

I can't help but think that if we had a tangible and obvious way of tracking the resource intensity and costs of the containers to the users, we'd have the public clamoring for ways to reduce those impacts and costs. Imagine some way to connect the taxpayer price of a tossed aside soda bottle directly to the consumer's purchase. Maybe it's something like the push for home energy monitors; when people see what's happening, they start to pay attention.

So, how might we encourage manufacturers to think about closing the loop with the non-value added components of their product offerings?

Of course, TerraCycle (the subject of an April Fool's prank) mines companies' waste streams to capture the forgotten and unseen value there. They've recently partnered with Mars to reuse packaging from Snickers, Altoids, Big Red and other brands.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Interconnections We Forget

From The Oil Drum:
"[Secretary] Chu noted that solar PV will play a major - if not the major - role in energy 100 years from now. He also noted that we really need cheap solar cells with polymer backing. Of course most of our polymers are oil-derived, which is just another example of how we take for granted the role that cheap oil plays in enabling some of these renewable technologies."
This quote (I started this post last week) is a perfect segue into some comments about John Warner's talk at Babson last week. I was fortunate enough to be invited to sit in on Asheen Phansey's (founder of Quaking Aspen) MBA class targeted at students interested in learning how to integrate Nature's design wisdom into their businesses. I twittered (I'm still not sure what twitter will get me in the long are some funny videos about it) about the class so I'll not go into too much detail; we talked about ecosystem succession, the different types of organisms, and what they do. If you're twitter person and are interested, search for #babson and you'll find my comments.

So, John Warner is the founder of The Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry located in Woburn, MA (pretty appropriate given the history of chemical pollution in that town, remember A Civil Action?) and what some might consider the Godfather of the Green chemistry movement. His billing was not undersold. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and found myself muttering agreements to myself, nodding, and generally resisting the temptation to leap up and yell "Amen brother!".

So what was I so excited about? He recognizes the flaws in the system.

What struck me most, tying back into the comment about forgotten connections, was John's realization after working in academia & industrial chemistry making cool molecules, publishing papers, and becoming a bit of a chemistry rockstar he had not once been taught about the potential impacts these compounds might have on nature (including people). A personal loss (something that took the air out of the room when he told us) related to a rare birth defect sparked this realization; he said (I'm paraphrasing a bit) "what if a molecule that I touched, that I worked on, was somehow responsible for this?" How would he know? This is when he started to see the flaws in the educational paradigm that created chemists.

In the academic discipline of chemistry, no part of the curriculum addresses the potential for toxic consequences. It reminds me of my own undergraduate mechanical engineering education at WPI; there was absolutely no mention of the social and environmental impacts of our design decisions had. What does it mean environmentally if you choose aluminum alloy A over alloy B? What happens at its end of life? How much energy goes into its manufacture? Where was it sourced? What did its creation do to the native habitats from whence it came? [I can give some credit to WPI, John said he taught an evening class in green chemistry and WPI did launch a sustainability initiative in the spring of 2008 - only a little behind the curve]

What John reaffirmed for me was that we, and everything else are connected, that decisions we make have far-reaching and often unintended consequences that we are bound to start taking into consideration. He noted (and I believe) that collectively we have made the choice to accept economic practices that create pollutants, that create hazardous materials that have known toxic properties. He challenged us to think about why this is...and then think about ways to change it. Of course, this requires the asking of difficult questions, and remaining conscious of the challenges we face while maintaining a resilient posture in the face of those challenges.

Choosing to create toxic substances for the improvement of the human condition is an oxymoron.

I suppose one of the things we have going for us is that younger generations have a different perspective on industry (The days of The Organization Man are long gone). They have not been taught by the scientists and engineers that were born of the Apollo Project. In many ways, the hard work that our parents and grandparents put in to create these institutions and values that have inadvertently placed us on an unsustainable course have allowed us the luxury to take a step back and look at the system and say "Hey, you know what? This is great and everything and we appreciate your hard work. Let's look at what we can improve and move ahead with building a just and regenerative society." We do not have to settle for business-as-usual. In fact, that's probably the biggest danger we face.

Here's to the future...

Oh, and I just could not help but come back to The Oil Drum, some interesting analysis on the influence of oil prices on our economy (bubbles lead to recessions). Remember, it's all about connections.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Economic Graphs that Make No Sense

I really can not believe that the WSJ published this graph. It appeared in a story entitled Global Slump Seen Deepening on April 1st. Maybe I am locked in my engineering mind where discontinuous graphs (especially with acceleration) usually indicated a severe problem with a design; severe spikes nearly always signal something drastic happened...not always good.

Does anyone believe that nearly complete 180s in national GDPs will happen in late 2009? Seriously, it's like someone was looking at the data and decided it was too depressing (and we all know how psychology & emotion contributes to "rational" market behavior) so they made it go back up in their dream world.

OK, I am not trying to be Chicken Little here, but this does not make any sense (what really does?).

Given that some energy analysts are now forecasting an energy price spike potentially coinciding with a global economic "recovery" (due to a steep drop off in energy investments as the price of oil plummeted) that rosy jump upwards looks even more unrealistic.

In the long-term, is restarting the economy we have the best solution? What might we make instead?

On another note, some articles I read from various sources (thanks Justin) that help trace some of the systemic changes that contributed to the current situation. If only it were so easy to pin the blame on something or someone. Systems thinkers?

NYTimes: September 30, 1999 Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending
NYTimes: November 5, 1999 Congress Passes Wide-Ranging Bill Easing Bank Laws

Interesting reading...especially looking in the rear-view mirror.