28 April 2009

Academic FAIL

(via PB) A professor of religion laments the "broken" higher education system, calling for more regulation and re-organization.

Although he's wrong about regulation (MORE government? Please no!) and performance (US universities are great), he's right to point out "as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less." His example of a true multi-disciplinary program involves water:
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.
Why is such a program not happening now? Well, it IS already happening with water in some places (UC Davis has an amazing ecology graduate group), but perhaps it is not happening enough. To me, the fundamental driver of all that ails us is the publish or perish regime. Because academics cannot get tenure* without publishing in peer-reviewed journals, they put a lot of effort into getting those publications. Few people academics read the journals, since most of the articles are too specialized for most. Even worse are the opportunity costs -- less teaching by professors and less outreach to "normal" people.**

Bottom Line: Incentives matter! The way to change academic departments is by changing the reward system, i.e., stop encouraging obscure publications and start encouraging teaching and research for people.
*Lifetime job security is NOT good for innovation.

** Note that I am conducting my career without regard to this system (see this post). I am looking forward to lecturing in the fall*** (I am a postdoc in a department with 20 professors), and I am spending MY time "teaching" normal people (you readers and groups I speak to). I have no idea where I'll work after June 2010, but this is the way I want MY career to go...

*** Maybe. I am now tied up in bureaucratic knots on this :(

1 comment:

Umlud said...

I read the same article, and I have the same feeling. I'm a PhD student in the area of water sciences (hydrology and aquatic ecology) and water policy. During a trip down to Chile to help out in an integrated workshop on sustainable development in Patagonia, I had the opportunity to meet many faculty that are of a similarly open (i.e., cross and inter-disciplinary) mindset.

One U de Concepcion professor told me that he wished he could create a degree called "river science" in which he would teach students the chemistry, physics, biology, geology, engineering, etc. relating to rivers, instead of producing engineers who just don't understand anything not-engineering, biologists who only understand biology, etc.

I would add my own current institution - the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan - to your list of a place where "theoretical insights develop" into "unexpected practical solutions."

Anywho, thanks for the blog. Although it tends to be western water-heavy, I like a different perspective.