Book review: ‘Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities’ by Mark C. Taylor

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Crisis on Campus

A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities

Mark C. Taylor

Alfred A. Knopf: 256 pp., $24

In the spring of 2009, Mark C. Taylor published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “End the University as We Know It.” The intensity of the response surprised him, with hundreds of comments offered in magazines and on websites and blogs around the world. Chair of the religion department at Columbia University, Taylor had often focused his scholarly work on esoteric subjects ranging from postmodern theology to Derrida on counterfeiting. But in the Times article, he called for doing away with academic departments and abolishing tenure. Was he really surprised by such strong reactions?

“Crisis on Campus” is an expanded version of that op-ed piece, and this is both its strength and its weakness. The book is provocative, to be sure, but the arguments are thin, and Taylor seems to have made no effort to back up his observations with research (that is, beyond some casual reading). For example, instead of presenting data about the difficulties of interdisciplinary research for graduate students, he cites e-mails he’s received. Instead of presenting an analysis of the growth of online education, he tells us about the difficulties of a digital education company he started with the help of a wealthy alumnus from the college where he taught. The reliance on anecdote weakens Taylor’s book and may lead some to dismiss his observations on higher education.

This would be a shame: Taylor has in fact identified some major problems facing higher education. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he cogently refers to “the identification of specialization with expertise.” Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor’s main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by “webs, not walls.” Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn’t plug into these new forms of knowledge creation.

Why haven’t universities adapted? “There can be no meaningful reform of higher education,” Taylor writes, “without redesigning departments in ways that will support more extensive collaboration among faculty members and students working in different fields.” He powerfully shows that the self-satisfied cultivation of specializations is a disservice to students because it “inhibits communication across departmental and disciplinary boundaries, the university dissolving into an assemblage of isolated silos.”

What kinds of reforms would reconnect universities to the rapidly changing world? Taylor suggests an academic division labeled “Emerging Zones,” which would cultivate work linking the humanities, social sciences and the sciences. This sounds like a division for interdisciplinary work, which many schools already have. Taylor adds that it should also have “practical relevance and prepare students to become responsible citizens who are capable of pursuing creative and productive careers.” Of course, nobody will be against that — but how he envisions vocational collaboration among well-educated professors remains obscure.

Taylor calls for abolishing tenure, saying that it stymies innovation. But he doesn’t discuss what would happen if professors were routinely fired to make way for younger, cheaper employees, nor how the ethos of long-term, fundamental study could survive when faculty could be dismissed because their research didn’t suit reigning tastes. Tenure might not be a great system for producing innovators, but the pressure of losing one’s job might create an even stronger spirit of conformism than already infects many campuses. Calling for tenure’s abolition will surely get attention (again), but it would have been helpful to think through the consequences of giving universities the same “flexibility” with their workforce that Walmart has.

But perhaps it’s wrong to ask “Crisis on Campus” for data or for more extensive analysis. It’s probably better to think of the book as a long op-ed piece by a gifted teacher and scholar. He identifies core challenges facing American universities, shows how these have evolved and how deep-seated facets of even our best institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. Taylor has written a manifesto informed by his experience and dedication to innovative higher education, and he has pointed us to fundamental problems that must be addressed. We should be grateful for that.

Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “The Ironist’s Cage.”