Thursday, May 03, 2007

Can American Universities Stay on Top?

The American university has for years been the envy of the world. It draws students from everywhere, its scientists dominate the Nobel prizes, they are said to generates tremendous technological spinoffs for American society, and hardly a day goes by in which some important scientific breakthrough does not emanate from one of them. Such things are of course always subjective, but they dominate such world rankings of universities as exist. Shanghai Jiao Tong University publishes a list every year, and this year’s has U.S. universities as eight of the top 10. The Times Higher Education Supplement now also publishes such a list, and its 2006 rankings, which rely on subjective peer review rather than things you can count, are less heavily tilted toward US universities, nonetheless. They are nonetheless ranked as seven of the top 10 worldwide.

Can this high quality continue? In answering it is first worth noting that university quality is not a zero-sum game. If American universities and universities in the rest of the world are simultaneously getting better, the world is the winner. And if one nation’s universities are generally the best, it is only natural to expect that the natural forces of competitive convergence would cause the universities and other societies to get closer. But it is still useful to think about the likely future of the American university; it has weaknesses and strengths.


1. Raw material. American students come into college more poorly prepared than students in most countries. The dirty little secret of many large American universities, even those with extensive international prestige because of their research competence, is that a very large majority of those who apply as undergraduates get in. Some significant fraction of these require remedial work, and their lack of preparation slows down the rate at which classes can move. This is the flip side of making college so accessible; it becomes open to people who otherwise might choose to do something else, some of whom impose significant negative externalities on their classmates. In some essentially open-admission universities, an administrator can, not entirely without reason, argue that it is the job of the faculty to reconcile themselves to the students as they find them, but in universities that proclaim higher standards, this disjunction between what is supposed to come out and what comes in is fundamentally dishonest.

2. Nonsense. The humanities departments at far too many American universities are crippled by their devotion to trendy academic fads. When one reads about people with doctorates in education or English teaching courses in “whiteness studies,” a discipline devoted entirely to the idea that whiteness is an invented idea and that white Americans benefit from invisible privileges that they know nothing about, one wonders first why such a field has anything to do with the training the professors received (shouldn’t English professors be doing literary criticism?), and then why the scarce time of students isn’t assumed to be a little more valuable than that. So too with the whole postmodern detour, where knowledge itself – the discovery and transmission of which is supposed to be the very mission of the university – is assumed to be fuzzy. For all their problems, university students in China or India did not have to waste their time on this kind of stuff. Fortunately, on balance, I suspect that most students who go through this kind of coursework emerge relatively undamaged, and as far as I know these ideas have yet to seriously harm what goes on in the natural sciences.


1. Immigration-friendliness. Cutting-edge knowledge can obviously be generated by people from anywhere. A great university simply must draw its faculty from all over the world. The United States will always have an edge in this department, simply because of our greater receptiveness to immigration, especially skilled immigration. It is one thing for a university in, say, Sweden, to say that it wants to internationalize its faculty and draw the best and the brightest from everywhere. But if the faculty get there and find that it is very difficult for them to become a citizen, and that even if they are they are not treated as real Swedes, Sweden becomes less attractive as a destination. That we are now in an age when Americans are drawn from the entire world population makes it much easier for us to attract the brightest minds. For a country like China or Japan, which has no history at all of immigration, defining citizenship instead entirely by blood, this is a tremendous disadvantage. A genius born in Botswana can work in Germany, but he will never truly be German. If he comes to America he will be a full equal.

2. Lack of academic incest. It is common in universities in Europe and East Asia for people to work where they got their Ph.D., and for their career to be supervised by the person who supervised their dissertation. In Japan, a research agenda can be implicitly directed by the senior in a junior-senior relationship. This retards independent inquiry, causes people’s thinking to become undisciplined, and helps make sure that university that start out mediocre stay that way. In American universities is relatively rare for a department to grant a Ph.D. and then hire the new graduate. Multiple perspectives are believed, accurately, to generate more interesting ideas. (In fairness, this is a deficiency that foreign universities are starting to recognize.)

3. Self-direction. Closely related is the way professors are supposed to relate to students. While American professors are often unjustly criticized for simply asking her students to repeat back with a professors told them in class, students in the US are often held (see here for an example) to engage in more independent thinking activity than in other countries. The professor may give a lecture or an assignment, but the student is often required to do quite a bit of work in terms of collecting information, organizing his thoughts on his own terms, etc. Of course, some foreign universities have the practice of having a comprehensive examination for undergraduates, which requires a significant amount of self-directed preparation. Assuming U.S. students would tolerate this (doubtful), this is a practice we might do well to adopt.

4. Humility. The full-of-himself Professor is justifiably a common stereotype in the American university. But in fact, American professors are overall probably more approachable than in many societies, where they are treated as authority figures to be submitted to blindly rather than colleagues to be worked with in the pursuit of knowledge. I often find it ego-gratifying when students from foreign countries treat me with profound respect merely because I am a professor, but if all they get out of the experience is that I am to be obeyed, their time in my classroom will largely have been wasted. The students who talk back and ask difficult questions are always the most interesting and enjoyable to teach, and the more of them there are in class, the better.

I think that on balance, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, but worry about the potential of the weaknesses to ultimately capsize the ship. Still, all in all, in 2007 things could be worse. With any luck, the rising global competition for high-quality students will force American universities to think hard about what makes them strong and what holds them back.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

With profs like you I think we'll be fine.

9:13 AM  

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