Dorf on the future of graduate/professional programs and “Great Research Universities”

Michael Dorf’s blog includes an interesting post that touches on a lot of related, yet distinct concerns (grad school, tenure, viability of Great Research Universities, etc.). I will touch on just two. First, the referenced NYT article makes an important point about the graduate school model and its possible need of revision. Especially compelling is this idea that you are taking graduate students’ time, effort, and possibly money and they are left largely unemployable.

It seems to me that this argument mirrors recent complaints about law schools and law students’ relative debt to employability. To clarify, I think that this problem is more drastic in some fields than others. (For instance, I’m told that it’s a huge problem in English programs). In my field, political science, it is a concern, but I must add that there is a good deal of self determination in the equation as to whether one gets a tenure track job. This includes choices made (subfield choice can drastically affect probability of employment), institution chosen, and basic factors of working hard and working smart. It strikes me that similar factors come to bear on employability in law. Further, it is really not that different from gambits that people play in many other training-employment fields where there is dramatic drop off of candidates who have made costly investments in one way or another. This being said, both Arts & Science programs and law programs need to be upfront about realistic employment opportunities for their students.

Second, what is the future of Great Research Universities (GRUs)? Well, to a degree it may turn on how one defines GRU. I will assume that it broadly refers to institutions with a 2-2 or lower faculty course load. The point regarding a disconnect between undergraduate teaching and faculty research is well taken and I think that this is the primary opportunity for GRUs to change for the better. In other words, I think that GRUs need to involve students (and possibly even alumni) more in their research endeavors or at least integrate their research into their teaching. This isn’t rocket science, but it does require a commitment and possibly some allocation of resources. When undergraduates and alumni feel a connection to research it makes more sense to them that their dollars are going toward this enterprise.

Finally, for what it’s worth we need to think about the counterfactual – if the financial crises is going to undo GRUs then my first question is why? State GRUs are typically cheaper than LACs, so I’m not sure why GRUs are going to lose market share. Also, if GRUs are going to fall by the wayside, then what it going to take their place? Are LACs going to become much more dominant? Are on-line colleges going to experience massive increase in popularity and the employability of their graduates? Also, if GRUs are going to have to yield to pressure to be more like LACs (maybe a 3-3 or 4-4 course load and the accompanying downturn in research), then what are the collateral effects of such change?  The fading of GRUs would would leave a large hole in our collective experience and patterns of employment/commerce/society that would have to be filled with something – the question is – what?

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