Mark C. Taylor, Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, wrote this provocatively-titled Op-Ed in the New York Times. As you might guess, there were many comments - over 400 the last time I looked.
He has a number of recommendations bound to create waves. Here's one:
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.
To illustrate how this might work, Taylor invokes 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.
This approach is being taken at a number of universities, including my two most recent: the Water Resources Graduate Program (WRGP) at Oregon State University and the Water Resources Program (WRP) at the University of New Mexico. The University of Idaho has its Water of the West (WoW) program.
At each of the aforementioned schools departments have not been abolished, and the multidisciplinary MD) and interdisciplinary (ID) programs have been crafted using faculty from a variety of departments, schools, and colleges. I don't see departments being abolished in the very near future; too much turf involved.
Taylor's approach is akin to the 'trade school theory' of universities. This is an age-old debate: should universities, especially ones with graduate programs, function like trade schools? Or should they seek knowledge for knowledge's sake? Or should they do both, depending upon the discipline involved?
But you cannot argue that the USA universities are the envy of the world. On one list 13 of the top 20 are USA schools. So something is right, but we can make some improvements. One of the dichotomies I see in USA higher education is that while universities are on the cutting edge of knowledge that is fomenting societal change, they are highly resistant to internal change. For some, it's the old 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' argument.
My biggest complaint with ID and MD programs is that they are not adequately funded and there are seemingly interminable debates over which department/school/college gets credit for which things. These fatcts are true whether we are talking about degree programs or research endeavors. Many universities are great at 'talking the talk' when it comes to ID and MD programs, but 'walking the walk' is an entirely different matter.
But as usual, I am digressing.
Do read Professor Taylor's article. It goes beyond water.
Thanks to Todd Jarvis for sending this my way.
“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.” -- Mark Taylor's advice to his students