General Motors and the University

April 27, 2009

I spent almost 15 years in academia, teaching graduate and undergraduate architecture students at three universities as a full-time professor. When I left full-time teaching, I was convinced that the system I helped sustain was broken beyond repair. Today’s New York Times Op-Ed page confirms my assessment. Everyone who cares about higher education should read Mark C. Taylor’s brilliant condemnation of the American system: “End the University as We Know It.”

Taylor has made a name for himself as one of the most far reaching scholars in America, writing books on many topics including architecture, death, literature, and philosophy. He doesn’t teach in any of those fields. In fact, he is chair of the religion department at Columbia. At Williams College, where he spent most of his career, he pioneered interdisciplinary methods of teaching and research. Taylor is a polymath and a generalist in a field of myopic specialists, a breath of fresh air in the stuffiest of disciplines.

I have often thought that the American university was similar in its intransigience to General Motors. Both institutions have operated for decades on an unsustainable model, resisting change at every level, ensuring jobs for life for professors and line workers, and chasing immediate cash rather than looking to the furture health of the institution. Taylor agrees: “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” His prescription for improving the university is to dismantle the entire system and rebuild it from the bottom up. Can we do for the University of Michigan what we are about to do for Chrysler? Well, as anyone who has spent time in an academic department will tell you, changing things at Chrysler will seem like a picnic compared to restructuring a modern universtity.

Nevertheless, it is clear that if the U.S. intends to create a future that ensures prosperity and a high standard of living for its children, the university system will have to change, and change drastically. Taylor has six bitter pills that no college president will want to swallow. The last, and most important is: “Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.” You can bet that Taylor will be getting some cold stares at the next faculty meeting. If you think that the ire of displaced automobile workers is hot, try dealing with the resentment of an aging full professor who loses his corner office and graduate assistant. It’s really ugly.

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