Notes on the University Today

By Bill Hanna, UMCP/Urban Planning


Among faculty members who have been on the job for, say, fifteen years or more, are there concerns about the possible shift from ideas to applications? Should a student pursue the Ph.D.? Should the university offer the Ph.D.? Should most people go to college? These are questions that have arisen in recent years, perhaps especially in the arts and humanities. They are in turn linked with a university’s decisions on how best to allocate funds to departments. If the STEM fields bring in the most grant and contract money, shouldn’t the approach be riches to the rich? Should that approach be applied to individual faculty members: raise money to get tenure and/or a raise? Such questions are addressed in many recent books, e.g., The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, and Other Success Stories (2014) by Rebecca Peabody; University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education Paperback (2006) by Jennifer Washburn; Universities in Decline: From the Great Society to Today (2014) by Howard Wiarda; and the adrift books, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010) and Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (2014) by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

What is a university for? Of course, one answer is to get young people out of the comfort of home and into a larger world with more diverse experiences and peers. Maybe it’s to have his or her first beer and maybe the first … well, never mind. What about job prep? These days, more and more university units are seen as career aids – and the units scramble to prepare students for jobs with technical courses and maybe résumé writing. Richard Cohen, in the Washington Post (7 October 2014), reacts to the “barrage of news stories about the cost of college and whether it is worth it. Almost all these stories, most of them based on some report, answer with a money sign ($) but almost never in terms of education—knowledge, wisdom and, if I may be so bold, the pursuit of happiness. … I apply my own set of metrics to my college education. I met some wonderful people, particularly fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was. I had some great teachers, one of whom became a mentor and taught me how to suffer criticism. … Whole worlds opened up to me — philosophy, which I never would have read had I not been forced to; the clotted verses of Chaucer; and, of course, … anthropology.”

Is David Brooks’ comment relevant? “A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.” (NY Times, 3 October 2014)

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, famed for their higher education critiques, write (in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 September 2014): “Colleges, which have often focused more on delivering improved social amenities to students rather than high-quality academic programs, must bear a good deal of responsibility for the low levels of student performance. Rather than challenge students who come in with limited academic interests and overly narrow ideas about the purpose of college, we too often ask little in terms of commitment and offer little in terms of direction. Institutions rarely impress upon students that college is not just about obtaining a credential for a job, but also about accepting adult responsibility and participating in democratic citizenship.” It’s not about getting a job (when there is a job to be had!)?

Casey Ark writing in the Washington Post: “My experience is far from unique. Despite rising tuition rates, graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to land jobs (53% of college grads under 25 are unemployed or underemployed). More and more graduates are finding that their conceptually-based college educations leave them ill-equipped to handle ‘real-world’ jobs – so much so that, according to some experts, most companies no longer care what their recruits majored in, since they know they’ll have to extensively train them regardless. … Businesses aren’t looking for college grads, they’re looking for employees who can actually do things – like build iPhone apps, manage ad campaigns and write convincing marketing copy.

And Anthony P. Carnevale at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce states: “We need more skill in the workforce …. Higher education really is a work-force-development system.” If so, how do the arts and humanities fit in? Take the urban planning field: Should it make sure that students know the history of cities and the urban theories developed by historians, sociologists, and others? Or should it prepare students to plan where to build a light-rail line for efficiency or how to relocate residents displaced by gentrification at the lowest cost to the jurisdiction?

Is the bachelor’s degree part of the challenge universities face? Jeffrey Selingo writes: “The bachelor’s degree—the backbone of the American higher-education system for generations—was never designed to do all it is now expected to do: Provide a vehicle for teens to mature into adulthood, offer a solid general education, and prepare graduates to step immediately into high-skills employment. What’s desperately needed is a bachelor’s-degree makeover, one that isolates the liberal-arts education everyone needs in a fast-changing global economy and is flexible enough to accommodate the demand for skills training throughout one’s life.” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 June 2014)

Could it be that the older current members of a university faculty are finding themselves in the wrong line of work? After all, if they entered a faculty twenty, thirty, or more years ago, the university was quite different. The focus on applications and students’ careers was less, as was the quest for money. Also, the classroom may have had a projector but none of the current technical equipment available today. (“Do I have to learn that?”) As one commentator puts it, “The times they are a-changing.” Should the oldtimers be encouraged to seek early retirement so that people who know the occupational techniques can be brought into the faculty?


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