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Jewish World Review
April 4, 2006
/ 6 Nissan 5766
The diminution of the mission of a still-great university?
When you consult a doctor, are you more impressed by the certificates on the wall or the practical experience of his competence? When you fly, would you care that the pilot had an aeronautics degree but only 10 hours' flying time? Academic qualifications are like bikinis: What they reveal may be less significant than what they conceal.
This had become the disturbing reality at Harvard when five years ago it brought in a new reforming president, Larry Summers. A Harvard degree remained prestigious, but most of those who graduated were dissatisfied with their undergraduate education there. It was not commensurate with what they expected from an outstanding faculty. Many asserted they learned less from the academic stars, most of whom they rarely saw, than from their fellow students.
Research, not teaching, has become Harvard's core purpose; the tenured faculty are scholars first and teachers second. More and more undergraduates are taught by graduate assistants and part-time faculty, who handle full loads for a third or less the salaries of full professors. (Last year, full professors at Harvard were paid an average of $163,200 and held 64 percent of the academic posts.) The emphasis on research, not teaching, results in a competition among universities for faculty stars. They are attracted less by money than by the freedom to do their own research, so they shun heavy teaching loads.
Summers was critical of this world of unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants. He understood that the core curriculum at Harvard was an antiquated mess, basically a way of enabling the faculty members to teach their esoteric specialties in the name of choice.
Getting A's. Harvard students, like others in many universities, often graduate without the core knowledge one would and should expect. One of Summers's remedies was to have faculty teach more, especially more overview courses that afford students an introduction to different disciplines. The faculty was resistant. Tenured professors prefer to teach courses that tend to track their research, even their latest book, rather than boning up on introductory material they left behind in graduate school. As a tenured professor responded when asked to teach an introductory art history survey, "No self-respecting scholar would want to teach such a course."
The departure of Summers, later this year, has been characterized by some as a failure of his management style, but this obscures the real issue the inverse relationship between the privileges and perks of academic life and the quality of undergraduate teaching.
Summers was rightly critical of Harvard's own "solution," which is worse than the problem the trend of keeping students happy by giving them high grades. An absurd 91 percent of Harvard graduates gain honors. Grade inflation mocks merit by promoting the fiction that most Harvard graduates are academic stars. Summers was determined to reduce grade inflation. He didn't want Harvard students to just get A's on paper; he wanted them to get an education.
Since worship of research was key, Summers asked individual departments to justify the time and money invested in them and their facilities. The faculty rejected the request. As one professor said, "Once someone is a tenured professor, they answer to G-d."
No wonder Summers refused to rubber-stamp all the tenured positions recommended by faculty. He wanted to seek out younger professors who had the potential to transform their fields. As several journals put it, he was determined to bestow grants and professorships on those fields deemed worthy and would not be constrained by the taboos that protect professorial privilege and self-regard.
Summers's departure marks the loss of one of the few major voices in higher education willing to talk about the forces undermining our institutions of higher learning. He may have been blunt, but his words were directed at issues everyone at Harvard must weigh seriously.
Given that Harvard is the emblematic American university, will Summers's departure signify a shift of power from presidents to tenured faculty? How can Harvard expect to recruit a genuine reformer now that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has tasted blood and the key leaders of the Harvard board have surrendered? Are modern universities ungovernable? Will Harvard's president now lose the role of public intellectual setting the agenda for higher education in America and become a mere fundraiser? Will universities become so dominated by political correctness that they are diminished as centers of intellectual freedom and free inquiry?
It is no answer to inadequate teaching to say that applications remain high. Harvard is the standard-bearer for the ideals of a university. It would be a shame if Summers's departure marked the diminution of the mission of a still-great university.
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