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Margin Notes

The future of graduate education

The New York Times OpEd by Mark Taylor raises the ire of academics, but some of his suggestions have merit.


There was quite a wave of reaction on the Internet last week to the OpEd piece by Columbia University professor Mark C. Taylor that appeared in the April 26 New York Times. Entitled “End the University as We Know It,” the commentary decries the state of graduate education in the U.S., calling it “the Detroit of higher learning.” Ouch.

Dr. Taylor’s argument, in a nutshell:

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.

Not surprisingly, the commentary was not well-received by many within academia. Blogger Mark Busquet at the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, called it “more drivel” from the New York Times, adding that the piece was “hilariously out of touch.”

I wouldn’t be so quick to denounce the commentary. I don’t agree with all of Dr. Taylor’s  analysis, but I think he offers some worthy suggestions for change, including “expand[ing] the range of professional options for graduate students.”

Our own careers blogger, Carolyn Steele, touches on this in a recent post in which she cites a “revolutionary statement” from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. The CAGS statement reads:  “The university is responsible for providing graduate students with the best possible preparation for their future roles whether within academia or in other sectors. This responsibility extends to developing professional skills.” [Emphasis added.]

Some of Dr. Taylor’s other suggestions about restructuring the curriculum and increasing collaboration among institutions are also not terribly revolutionary and fairly reasonable. But his suggestions to impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure are non-starters and needlessly provocative, and I don’t take them very seriously.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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