Tufts University--boldly addressing the difficult issues of modern higher education . . .
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More blistering criticism of U.S. higher education

Honest, I'm not going out of my way to look for it. It just seems as though there's more of it these days.

Louis Menand, Bass Professor of English at Harvard:

Weirdly, the less social authority a profession enjoys, the more restrictive the barriers to entry and the more rigid the process of producing new producers tend to become. You can become a lawyer in three years, an M.D. in four years, and an M.D.-Ph.D. in six years, but the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities disciplines is nine years. . . .

There is a sense in which the system is now designed to produce ABDs. . . .

In the sixties, the time-to-degree as a registered student was about 4.5 years in the natural sciences and about six years in the humanities. The current median time to degree in the humanities is nine years. That does not include what is called stop-time, which is when students take a leave or drop out for a semester or longer. And it obviously does not take into account students who never finish. It is not nine years from the receipt of the bachelor’s degree, either; it is nine years as a registered student in a graduate program. The median total time it takes to achieve a degree in the humanities including stop-time is 11.3 years. In the social sciences, it is 10 years, or 7.8 as a registered student. In the natural sciences, time-to-degree as a registered student is just under seven years. If we put all these numbers together, we get the following composite: only about half of the people who enter doctoral programs in English finish them, and only about half of those who finish end up as tenured faculty, the majority of them at institutions that are not research universities. An estimate of the total elapsed time from college graduation to tenure would be somewhere between 15 and 20 years. It is a lengthy apprenticeship. . . .

The effort to reinvent the Ph.D. as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote 10 or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. Professors are not themselves, for the most part, terribly practical people, and practical skills are not what they are trained to teach. They are trained to teach people to do what they do and to know what they know. Those skills and that knowledge are not self-evidently transferable. The ability to analyze Finnegans Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings. . . .

Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own.

William O'Neill, Professor Emeritus of History, Rutgers:

This devastating report has gone almost unnoticed in academia, and in the country at large. The New York Times ran a short story on p. 34 of its December 16, 2005 issue summarizing the report, but otherwise it has received very little attention. In one sense this is surprising, for surely the steep decline in literacy has to bear some relationship to the under funding problem. As state support for public universities, who produce the great majority of college graduates, has declined so has the size of the permanent faculty in relation to student enrollments. About half of all undergraduate courses are taught by part time instructors, usually known as adjuncts, who receive pitiful salaries, no benefits and no job security. As the wretched serfs of academic life they have little incentive to teach well and every reason to inflate grades, as most students will forgive a teacher anything so long as they receive at least a B—except for those who seldom show up and never study, who will accept a C, although such low grades are rare. In addition to buying off trouble for doing such a poor job, the entire teaching force, from adjuncts to tenured professors, is tempted to win glowing student evaluations by bribing their classes. Widely derided when first introduced several decades ago, student evaluations have become a standard component of faculty promotions. Everyone knows these evaluations are worse than useless because they penalize demanding teachers and reward the easy graders, but administrators love evaluations which sustain the illusion that the happier students become the more they learn, which as the NAAL shows, is manifestly untrue.  

David Post, I. Herman Stern Professor of Law at Temple:

Plenty of people have been complaining in the last decade or so about the fact that law schools do a poor job of preparing their students for the actual tasks they will be called upon to undertake as practicing lawyers. Much of that criticism is, in my opinion, well-deserved; there are many, many ways in which we could do a better job at helping our students develop the skills they’ll need to practice law. 

Joel Spolsky, entrepreneur [I love the reference to "red-brick universities"!]:

It is amazing how easy it is to sail through a Computer Science degree from a top university without ever learning the basic tools of software developers, without ever working on a team, and without ever taking a course for which you don’t get an automatic F for collaborating. Many CS departments are trapped in the 1980s, teaching the same old curriculum that has by now become completely divorced from the reality of modern software development.

Where are students supposed to learn about version control, bug tracking, working on teams, scheduling, estimating, debugging, usability testing, and documentation? Where do they learn to write a program longer than 20 lines?

Many universities have managed to convince themselves that the more irrelevant the curriculum is to the real world, the more elite they are. It’s the liberal arts way. Leave it to the technical vocational institutes, the red-brick universities, and the lesser schools endowed with many compass points (“University of Northern Southwest Florida”) to actually produce programmers. The Ivy Leagues of the world want to teach linear algebra and theories of computation and Haskell programming, and all the striver CS departments trying to raise their standards are doing so by eliminating anything practical from the curriculum in favor of more theory.

On the miseducation of computer science majors, see also this piece by Philip Greenspun (scroll more than halfway down).