Higher Education

The End of the University as Who Knew It?

What if motivated faculty around the country took stock of the state of the various fields to which they are attached and reorganized themselves instead of waiting for half-brained administrators to do it for them?

By J. Jack Halberstam  Halberstam

American universities may well produce “products for which there is no market” but the answer is not to capitulate to market logics, the answer, in part, is to use a refurbished university to re-imagine the relations between markets and ideas, teachers and students, institutions and knowledge, town and gown, community and scholar, smartness and learning. … What if motivated faculty around the country took stock of the state of the various fields to which they are attached and reorganized themselves instead of waiting for half-brained administrators to do it for them?

Mark C. Taylor’s much discussed op ed in the NYT last month, End the University as We Know It proposed that “most American universities produce a product for which there is no market” and “develop skills for which there is a diminishing demand.” In response to the deepening crisis of the university, he proposes, among other things, that we do away with tenure, get rid of departments and turn to problem solving programs. The op ed prompted outraged responses from some (get rid of departments? But then what and who will we train?), sneering from others (interdisciplinary projects are already so shallow!), and bored indifference from a few (we already ended tenure by hiring huge numbers of adjuncts to replace expensive tenured professors). You would think this was the first time anyone had proposed getting rid of conventional disciplinary knowledge projects and the first time anyone had noticed that tenure may well phase out within a few generations thanks to the masses of underpaid PhD’s teaching adjunct around the country.

The truth is that many people, for many years, myself included have imagined an end to the version of training that passes for education in traditional departments around the country (see my The Death of English). English departments in particular (which I advocated getting rid of years ago…if only people had listened!) have quickly become an albatross to a meaner and leaner vision of the university. English departments tend to be large and unwieldy and they are quickly losing enrollments at present. While people like to say that the fall in the numbers of English majors is temporary, in fact students make clear that, if they are interested in culture, they prefer classes in communications, digital media and film to those in romantic poetry, the 18th Century Novel and Shakespeare. English departments are also increasingly fractious and home to all kinds of dreary Dickensian dramas about tenure, the future of reading and the importance of history. Such debates play out in half empty rooms of full Professors on Prozac and result in terrorized junior faculty who learn to tow the line or pack up their books. And similar scenes of territory defense can be found in other outmoded disciplines like Sociology and Political Science where the real project of the discipline is to reproduce itself.

But is the only option here to choose between either abolishing traditional departments or reinvesting in them? What if motivated faculty around the country took stock of the state of the various fields to which they are attached and reorganized themselves instead of waiting for half-brained administrators to do it for them? Problem solving programs of the kind that Taylor proposes stand to lose all kinds of knowledge projects that are not oriented towards problems and solutions so this may not be the best way to proceed; but certainly some of the “zones of inquiry” that he identifies like “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water” are promising rubrics. Taylor seems to have faith in change coming from above and he likens universities to failing banks: “if American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.” But the university is not a bank and is not simply a corporate entity or an industry; it does not require more regulation at the top but maybe more power at the bottom. Definitely private schools need more mechanisms of oversight and accountability built into faculty governance but in many universities, change is prevented by regulation rather than authored by it. Faculty need more control and faculty with ideas about how to reorganize themselves should be given autonomy to do so.

Some of the changes so many people desire for the university might well be created by getting rid of tenure and making complacent senior faculty actually think beyond their comfort zones; but perhaps we should be careful not to get rid of tenure at the very moment when people need to take risks to change the state of the university. Tenure was always supposed to protect people making intellectually daring moves, it was about academic freedom not gate keeping and so how do we ensure that job security becomes the foundation of risk taking rather than the opportunity to dig in? Perhaps there should be mechanisms by which junior faculty judge and evaluate senior faculty as well as vice versa  – perhaps everyone should COME IN with tenure and offered permanent jobs with the understanding that the job is permanent but that the balance between teaching, research and service may change later on if they do not stay current and active. Certainly one major goal should be to make the university appeal to non-traditional scholars, the non-middle class, non-white thinkers who generally find university bureaucracy off-putting long before they might be admitted to a PhD program and who, if they do make it through graduate school, quickly find themselves on the chopping block at tenure time when their work is not ‘recognizable” to their senior colleagues.

So while we can change the university in part by changing its personnel, we also have to make sure that even a different professoriate is not swallowed whole by the demands of institutional life. Professors need to be trained for sure, but then they need to retrain and as knowledge changes at the speed of light, they need to train again.  In the sciences and engineering, people retrain often and need to stay current to get grants. Humanities professors –to the extent that humanities and sciences remain meaningful rubrics and hopefully they too will wither away eventually—should also retrain every 5 years or so. Perhaps, we should get “learning semesters” where we take classes from faculty in other fields or we should have the option to take one class every two years (and teach one class less every two years) in order to keep expanding our own knowledge bases.

Probably many of us can think of ways to re-imagine the university – better relations with communities; free classes for non-degree seeking students; classes in queer theory for doctors; classes in immunology for queer theorists; smaller projects done better; collaborative projects as much as single-authored ideas; experiments in writing and teaching and combining the two; more professional mobility for professors; better relations between high schools and universities; more creative rubrics for clustering (“Power, Knowledge, Children”? “Bodies, Space, Transportation”? “Gender, Food, Populations”? “Animation, Innovation, Imagination, Perspiration”? “Revolution, Disorder, Dynamite”? “Professors, Prozac, Pretension”?); training and retraining; learning and relearning; new modes of evaluating faculty; peer evaluation and abolition of junior-senior distinctions. And while we are at it, we need to seriously rethink what is meant by teaching, how we circulate (write and present) our work and how to become central to public discourse. We should invent alternative evaluation modes for faculty and rethink the classroom and the student-teacher relation.

The main thing is to make change now, make it locally and quickly; we need to think about transformation long before a Dean, who has not made a meaningful contribution to any field in 20 years, appoints his cronies to downsize your department. American universities may well produce “products for which there is no market” but the answer is not to capitulate to market logics, the answer, in part, is to use a refurbished university to re-imagine the relations between markets and ideas, teachers and students, institutions and knowledge, town and gown, community and scholar, smartness and learning. The new university is not off in the far distant future, it is just around the corner, it is outside your office, it is in the imagination of your graduate students, it is your next book if you dare to write it.

7 replies on “The End of the University as Who Knew It?”

I find Jack’s suggestions refreshing. I thought Taylor was both clueless (yes it’s all been proposed before) and clued-in (something is wrong and we need to fix it). Jack’s suggestion of ad hoc, impromptu moves now that slowly moving administrators might pick up on later appeals to me. I have one specific suggestion that comes out of my work in disability studies. Right now there are many graduate students trying to do disability studies in departments that have no one teaching the subject. They end up trying to educate their professors rather than the other way around. We can’t put disability studies folks in all universities and departments yet. But what we can do is to create a department of disability studies that is trans-universities. In other words, if faculty from many different universities would agree to be part of a mega-department that had no specific university ties, that might teach courses through distance learning and Skype-like tutorials, we could begin to educate and help a large group of graduate students. Perhaps individual universities would agree to have professors who belonged to this consortium give up one course at home for the larger interest. If such altruism would be un-university-like, then perhaps faculty could act in a pro bono way (we do this now when agreeing to sit on MA or PHD committees outside our home institutions or when we write peer review letters) until such time as funding schemes might be put into place.

When I was working on my M.B.A. some years ago,(8 years ago) I engaged in a group project in which we designed a trans-university degree program. The class was on innovation and we envisioned the very thing you’re talking about here. When we presented the vision/plan, our classmates practically laughed us out of the room. Kudos to you for your vision and idea–we will have the last laugh.


I really like this idea and see it as one contextualized and ready to go manifestation of what Jack speaks of here. And while I certainly support (and will happily sign on to) the spontaneous configuring of a ‘potentiated’ disability studies capacious enough to contain/hold the space for the many investments across disability studies/practice, I am also keen on the idea of individual institutions producing similar configurations among interested faculty. One important piece of this is people being able to see themselves as both drawing all kinds of knowing and thinking around one theme, but also as circulating students and ideas through the extant infrastructure. The department of the instructor of record today gets to count enrollments, next quarter/semester/session the instructor of record shifts and their department gets the enrollments. . . something like that… the idea would be that these intellectual/social configurations would exist in multiple ways simultaneously, perhaps.

Hi Jack and everyone,
this is a very thought provoking thread. One irony is that Taylor published his call for new approaches in that most elitist of venues, the Times Op-Ed page–a more or less bankrupt instance of a more or less defunct medium. And yet here we are talking about it.

Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody talks a good deal about this being like 1500 CE–meaning a radical change has happened but we don’t know what the consequences will be yet. I don’t think the parallel is quite right because c1500 the change was not apparent, whereas it very much is now. I think we’re closer to a moment like 1848 or 1968 where radical change is possible; and so is a reconsolidation of capital.

I think we have to push it where we can and one area where we can is publishing: if those of us with tenure/tenure-track positions nonetheless consistently publish in open-source venues (which we may have to create and edit, setting aside the old-boys club double-blind chimera), we can push at democratizing cultural capital (at best) or just keeping up with the pace of change (at least).

One more thought prompted by Lenny DAvis’ comment. For the first time in a decade I taught a Dis Studies class this semester and I was knocked out by how quickly students saw the radicalizing potentials of the field, as they used to do in visual/cultural studies but seem to do so less now. There are many reasons for that but to keep it short, I think Dis Studies opened a democratizing perspective for us, in a way that the typical CS class with its barrage of often contradictory theory no longer does (to be clear, my example here is my own teaching).

Hey, Jack, Great blog! Thanks for that. On April 27, after the Taylor piece came out, I posted a blog on the HASTAC site that has garnered a fair bit of attention and numerous comments. Plus url’s to various other commentary. I’ll add the url to your blog there too. And here’s the one to my post and the comments:

To my mind, the biggest single problem with Taylor is his idea of ending the university as we know it is highly limited. I REALLY want to end the university as we know it —-not as we know it within the comfy tenured walls of Columbia or Duke or USC but as it is now, mostly adjuncts, desperately underfunded, with disciplines walled off into competing fiefdoms. I really, really want to end the university as we know it, not as we fantasize it in the safe, protected space of present lives immune to what has happened to universities in the last decades.

Folks: The best, if not the only, way to bring about the radical change we seek is to actually do it. Nick alludes to this in his last sentence, as do others in this thread. Making changes implies serious work and serious risks which you have to take; it means putting your ass on the line, which, in general, academics are reluctant to do, because the university system breeds it out. Case in point: we’ve built a wildly radical program in the belly of a stunningly conservative department, college, and university. Not by making changes in the university system; those will be decades in coming, if ever. All it takes is willingness to outfight or outsmart all the people who try their very best to stamp it out — doggedly, continually, with no hope of success. In our case we’ve been doing that for sixteen years, and (gasp) we’re still here, still hopeless, and still going strong. The Dean, wryly looking on, calls us academic insurgents.:) Is it worth it? Of course it is. You never “win” in the classical sense, but in guerrilla warfare you win by continually not losing. We’re at .

I’ve been working for a radically different educational system for more than 40 years. Changes we tried to make at the beginning of that process are still marginalized; actually, in a lot of ways we have moved backwards, away from innovation, except in the use of technology which tells you a lot about what really has power, metal (or in this case plastic with tiny bits of metal inside it).

Ending tenure, or the idea of reverse tenure, bores me to death. If we do end tenure in the next generation, education will be poorer for that ‘innovation.’ Tenure is not the problem; tenure is just what capitalism likes to attack.

I do, however, like the idea of problem solving fields arranged around issues like mind, body, water, etc. The collapse of the disciplines in the humanities has much to do not with what isn’t needed but rather with what isn’t valued by capitalism.

But honestly, there is no discipline, no major, no occupation that I can recommend as a bulwark against irrelevance and/or unemployment. Medicine is about to become a middle class occupation with a host of practitioners who do little more than run machines and read the output from those machines. Engineers have long been threatened by structural job loss. An MBA turned out to be a specialty in learning how to crash capitalism.

If someone would tell my students, their parents and I what they should train for, we would all sleep better at night. Given that we are undergoing something I call the Great Restructure in the economic sphere and analogous changes in the cultural sphere, it is virtually impossible to predict what humans will need to know to contribute adequately now or even in the near future. I agree it is 1500 CE AND 1848 AND 1968, all at once.

A good general education across several disciplines is still the best bet for mental flexibility, but the university does little or nothing to foster such a goal.

In the meantime, the university will drift, until it collapses of its own weight. It will morph, it will twist in the wind.

The only thing worth saving in the American system is our graduate programs, brutal but still the best in the world.

After forty years, I still have hope for something different, but I know longer think it will evolve inside the halls of our current institutions. It will evolve in hyperspace or whatever comes after hyperspace.

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