Another Way to Evaluate a College

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The new Netflix dramedy The Chair is easy to criticize.

Aren’t the characters an assortment of academic stereotypes. Among male professors, there’s the debauched, dissipated middle-aged male who has failed to live up to his potential; the over-the-hilll, out-of-touch aged pedant, and the dissolute prima donna. Then there’s the female caricature, dowdy, neurotic, and sexually repressed. And not surprisingly, there’s the sexually alluring co-ed, obsessed with a male faculty member.

Worse yet, many of these stereotypes are somewhat stale and dated, out of the 1980s and ‘90s, then reflective of our time. That’s of course, when Amada Peet, the producer, graduated from Columbia (with a degree in American history).

Where, some ask, are the adjuncts or the transfer or working or older students?

Don’t the producers and screenwriters know that the vast majority of students attend institutions utterly different than the liberal arts college campus on which the show is set?

Then there’s the highly predictable plotlines, involving political correctness and easily agitated activist students,

One could also criticize the series’ omissions, including the near-total invisibility of student life: Greek life, athletics, binge drinking, romance, sophomoric pranks, partying, and bacchanalian football weekends.

And yet, viewers do encounter certain higher ed realities. There’s the professor who sacrificed her scholarly ambitions and indeed her personal life out of a misguided commitment to campus service.

There’s also the traditional college architecture (modeled, reportedly, on Washington & Jefferson College’s campus and Chatham University’s Shadyside campus) that, however rare and rarified, invariably evoke a strong emotional response that combines nostalgia, wistfulness, and desire.

Then there are brief scenes that capture, more than any other campus movie I have seen, the essence of teaching today: The highly assertive students who courageously challenge their professor’s interpretation; the fresh pedagogical approaches, including the use of rap, that engage and draw out students.

There’s an almost erotic passion in the scene in which Sandra Oh brings Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” to life.

It’s during those fleeting moments that the audience can glimpse first-hand why college is worth the expense: Not simply because it offers a credential essential to entrance into a middle-class job, but because it exposes immature, inexperienced, naïve students to the world of culture and the intellect world outside their everyday lives.

I write all this as a preface to an important essay that you may have missed.

Entitled “Is Harvard Complacent?,” the essay sums up its argument in its very first paragraph: “Harvard and other elite American research universities, so crucial to innovation in almost every area of our lives, find it almost impossible to innovate within their own operations and embedded assumptions.”

The essay’s author, Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College, and president-in-residence and visiting professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asks, poses three questions:

Are our campuses organized in the best way?
Currently, Harvard has 50 disciplinary and interdisciplinary concentrations and hundreds of academic and administrative departments and offices, with more added every year.  President Rosenberg asks:  “Would a university with fewer internal divisions be able to eliminate redundancies and reduce costs?”

Are there more effective ways to organized undergraduate education than through traditional majors in a single discipline?
President Rosenberg argues that most majors at Harvard and elsewhere are designed by faculty members to reproduce themselves. Yet since only a tiny percentage of majors go on to become professors, wouldn’t it make more sense to organize an undergraduate education in a way that better prepares students for the “work they will do and the problems they will need to solve,” for example, by organizing an education around “a global challenge like food insecurity or climate change, around the development of an ability like creativity or clarity of expression, or even around the growth in a capacity like empathy or resilience”?

Does the 8-month campus calendar still make sense?
Community colleges and online institutions operate year-round. Wouldn’t a 12-month calendar allow 4-year colleges and universities to serve more students and graduate undergrads faster? And potentially, year-round operation would have an advantage that President Rosenberg doesn’t mention:  It would encourage these institutions to hire more faculty.

Expressing his inner Clayton Christensen, President Rosenberg considers it unlikely that elite institutions like Harvard will engage in a serious process of self-reflection and institutional innovation because any changes (or expressions of self-doubt) might threaten its reputation and rankings.

He maintains, correctly in my opinion, that reputations in higher education, unlike those in any other sector of the economy, “are the products of an almost perfectly self-perpetuating system.”  As he puts it:  “…because they attract students who are almost certain to succeed, their graduation and job placement rates are also the best; because selectivity and graduation rates drive rankings, they remain at the top; because they are the most wealthy they raise the most money and become wealthier….”

But as my colleague Michael Rutter suggests, a better question to ask Harvard – or any other 4-year institution – is not whether it’s complacent, but whether it’s interesting?

Given their amazing resources and collection of smart, creative, incredibly intelligent people, we need to ask whether a particular institution is doing something that make you say “Wow!” or that changes the way we think about a particular issue or topic, or that produces an invention or makes a discovery that changes the world (or one small part of it). 

That’s the very least we should expect from our colleges and universities in light of the tremendous public investment in higher education.

Michael notes that every workday, as he walks on the upper level of MIT’s Building 10, he looks past an area where student groups set up their tables to recruit, out onto an grassy expanse that runs right into the Charles River. 

One day, as he and several colleagues were looking out the window, they saw an army of robotic dogs playing soccer. “It was wonderful. It was eerie. It led to some playful, funny conversations … and also some more serious ones about AI, ethics, and just the sheer amazement of how far robotics have come in terms of mimicking muscular motion.”

That’s one of those moments when a college or university earns its keep.

Dazzling us – with examples of teaching that are utterly transformative, ideas that challenge our understanding, and discoveries and inventions that transform the world, — may not, I admit, be the best metric to measure institutional effectiveness.

But that’s higher ed’s true magic, and why the cheaper and faster paths to a marketable credential can’t substitute for what a college or university ought to do.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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