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Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities
by Mark C. Taylor
Knopf, 240 pages, $24

Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities began life as a widely noticed and controversial New York Times op-ed in 2009, after which it grew into a book. Taylor’s argument is simple: The university is in crisis, both financially and intellectually, and must be reformed.

By his way of thinking, the most pressing problems include a dramatic drop in college and university endowments, an ever increasing number of graduate students and recent PhDs who will likely never secure full-time academic jobs, and a graying, backward-looking professoriate that refuses to get out of the way. The solutions? Interdisciplinarity, greater use of technology, inducements for aging faculty to retire, and”by the way”the abolition of tenure.

Taylor anticipates that abolishing tenure will be controversial. Yet this is actually the least radical and perhaps the least interesting of his suggestions. Legitimate, careful arguments can be made on both sides of the tenure question, but that’s not Taylor’s approach. Instead, he presents his proposal in the terms of a labor-union manifesto: “It is long past time for faculty members to rise above narrow self-interest, give up the doctrine of academic exceptionalism, and agree to the same terms of employment as everyone else in the workforce.” The idea that a scholar might be something different from a laborer and a university something different from a production line seems not to have occurred to Taylor.

Far more telling than his particular proposals is the entire tenor of the book. His language, taken as a whole, is a combination of twenty-first-century business jargon and empty technological platitudes. Taylor has no reservations about the model of higher education he endorses. “Let’s make no mistake,” he informs his readers, “higher education is a business.” Recent developments in technology “pose new challenges and opportunities for the organization and delivery of higher education.” “Changes in how information is distributed and knowledge communicated will both create more competition in higher education and provide the occasion for new forms of cooperation.” The product of higher education is “increasingly unaffordable and of questionable value in the marketplace.” He is preoccupied throughout the book with “revenue streams” that universities can generate. These possibilities include “a franchise model in which [universities] open branches in different countries,” partnerships with for-profit businesses, and corporate sponsorships.

Lest anyone think Taylor is simply a free-market advocate, he also calls for “new government programs designed to foster cooperation among the haves and have-nots in higher education.” “If the government can afford to bail out large corporations . . . it can afford to assist struggling colleges and universities.” Like the automakers, higher education is “vital to our national interests.” Echoing cheerleaders for American industry, Taylor insists that we must “sustain our leadership position in the world.”

Taylor’s seductive vocabulary of technological promise aims at lulling readers into nodding assent. We are moving, Taylor maintains, from “walls and grids” to “networks” and a “world of webs.” The phenomenon of globalization is frequently invoked: “Accelerating globalization makes it essential for young people to be exposed to different cultural traditions.” He asserts, therefore, that our goal should be to create a “global classroom” in which “anybody anywhere in the world could sit around a table and talk together about important issues.”

Not only does the rhetoric of Crisis on Campus combine the sensibilities of a management consultant report with the urgency of a liberal-progressive manifesto tinged with futurist incantations, it is also an apocalyptic prediction of the consequences of ignoring his suggestions. He has a well-defined group of obstructionists in his sights: those professorial pedants involved only in their tiny and irrelevant research projects, or worse in no research projects at all. Many faculty members, he tells us”especially those in their late sixties and older”“resist significant change and remain committed to obsolete areas of research and outdated pedagogical practices.” This, he intones, is “irresponsible.” “If colleges and universities will not transform themselves, it is incumbent upon the broader society to pressure them to provide the educational opportunities our children deserve.” Some old-fashioned obstructionists go so far as to insist, brazenly, that knowledge exists for its own sake and should not be judged by its usefulness. Taylor traces this view to Kant”“a lonely eighteenth-century philosopher who never left his hometown.” He might also have traced it to Socrates, another outmoded pedant who, evidently, can teach us nothing at all.

What does all this reveal about the cast of mind of the book’s author? It shows that despite his scanty and lukewarm disclaimers Taylor is entirely consumed by the promise of technology and a glorious, global, disembodied future. In view of his approach to solving the problems facing higher education, it’s not surprising that, although long a tenured professor at prestigious schools, Taylor evinces little respect for academic disciplines. He predicts with some enthusiasm that departments and disciplines that “cannot adapt to the emerging shape of knowledge will disappear, and others will change beyond recognition.” Far more important will be an emphasis on fluidity, creativity, “crossing boundaries,” and alternative, “original” modes of expression. In a purple passage, Taylor imagines the possibilities for moving beyond the dull scholarly paper: “No longer constrained by words in black-and-white, ordered in straight lines and right angles, you become free to configure words with any color, image, or sound in designed texts that can be layered and even set in motion.”

Insofar as Crisis on Campus identifies pressing problems”the financial plight of universities and the difficulties graduate students have in finding permanent academic jobs”it can be useful. Moreover, Taylor is surely correct that students often want to reflect on current problems and on questions (current or not) they have encountered in other courses. For these and other reasons, interdisciplinary study can be beneficial to many students.

But Taylor’s move toward an entirely self-generated plan of radical reform is quite another matter. It reflects a familiar pattern: the liberal-progressive intellectual who is dissatisfied with the present and longs for a utopian future. Taylor aims to bring about this future by means of his own unaided reason, which may require a purge of all those who are not in agreement with the new agenda”a prospect he seems to relish more than regret. Professors, he suggests, should retire at the age of seventy because “the best work of people in their late sixties and seventies is behind them.” One cannot help but think of Voltaire in this regard: “If you are desirous of having good laws, burn those which you have at present, and make fresh ones.” Older faculty, it seems, are like aging athletes or racehorses. They ought gracefully to disappear from the scene before they become entirely useless. It is hard to imagine a more radical misunderstanding of the intellectual life, which in many cases produces its fullest fruit only in one’s latter years.

All the talk of networking, webs, computers, and globalization causes Taylor to overlook one of the most important aspects of college and university education: its local character. More and more students, he asserts, believe that their physical presence in a room with a professor is “unnecessary.” But university education is about more than the efficient distribution of information (as Taylor sometimes seems to know). It requires continuous engagement with real people in real space and thus the possibility of ongoing conversations over the course of a semester, or perhaps longer. For this there is no substitute.

Abeunt studia in mores ”our studies give rise to our character. But character cannot be cultivated in an online chat room. Students themselves already know how to navigate the high-tech world into which they are now born. What they desire, as one of my own students told me recently, is not more technology but an escape from the relentlessness of constant, frenzied communication. They want a respite from the temporal and transitory, a place where they might without embarrassment engage permanent questions of human life”not unlike that old-fashioned method employed by Socrates. For this, little technology is needed, and perhaps even our aging professors ought to be kept around as guides.

Elizabeth Corey is assistant professor of political science in the Honors College at Baylor University.