Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Do the Hustle: The Bradys at Midtier State

I’ve had some gratifying feedback on yesterday’s entry about the mismatches between graduate school and life on the faculty of a teaching institution. A few folks pointed out that I didn’t mention liberal arts colleges – true, though the same basic dynamic holds there. The elite ones – Williams, Swarthmore, Carleton – offer probably the best undergraduate education in America. Below the top dozen or so, though, the teaching loads start to increase, and you start to get the same pining-for-Cambridge dynamic on the faculty.

The lower-tier schools, I think, need to make a choice. Either embrace their identity as teaching institutions and go for it – which is what community colleges and proprietaries have done – or risk it all and go for the brass ring of research grant nirvana. The latter is much, much harder than the former, especially as government support for basic research is gradually supplanted by private-sector support, which has narrower interests. The ‘comprehensive’ model, in which a pretty-good university is pretty good at just about everything while excelling at nothing in particular, just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Look at retail. Wal-Mart does well competing on price. Everything from Target on up competes on niche. Sears, Macy’s, and the like struggle to survive.

Look at broadcasting. Remember variety shows? People of a certain age will recall absolutely dreadful shows from the 1970's (Tony Orlando, Captain and Tenille, the ubiquitous Bradys, etc.) that offered song, dance, sketch comedy, and even bits of drama, all of it unspeakably bad. Cable killed the variety show, which only existed in the first place because, for most of the country for several decades, there were only three or four things on at any given time. Given more choices, someone who wanted, say, comedy could find a comedy and not have to sit through the Brady kids doing the hustle to get there. With more (and better-defined) niches, the variety show died a welcome death.

To my mind, the comprehensive university is the variety show of higher education. A little something for everybody, but none of it terribly good. Hire faculty (when at all) to teach, and give them substantial teaching loads, but fire them for not publishing enough. Field sports teams, but don’t give scholarships for them. Offer lots of terminal masters’ programs. Respond to industry, but slowly. Try to “raise your academic profile” while adjunct-ing out most of your teaching. Charge employees for parking.

What’s the point? The model made sense, sort of, when geography was paramount, or when public subsidies were generous enough that public midtier schools could charge next to nothing. Now that they cost a lot more, and students are more mobile than ever, what do they offer the typical kid that a cheaper or more convenient alternative wouldn’t?

The catastrophic news for today’s grad students is that this is precisely the group of schools, historically, that formed the backbone of the academic job market. Since they rarely hire full-timers anymore, the job market has bifurcated into the elites and the teaching colleges. Grad schools do a fantastic job of preparing students for the elites, but a criminally negligent job of preparing them for the teaching institutions.

As the proprietaries grow and the community colleges claim a growing share of the ‘traditional student’ population, I just don’t see how the so-so midtier schools can continue in their present form. With ESPN, the Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, and Bravo, who would watch Sonny and Cher now? Why are we still training our best and brightest to do the hustle?