A number of people (including T. Daniel Crawford) have pointed me at an article by William Stuntz in The New Republic called What Summers’s fall says about the future of higher education.
Stuntz makes some interesting points, although this statement:
Teaching loads of senior professors have declined; probably teaching quality has declined with it.
seems at odds with the experience of many undergraduates…
I will give him this: there is definitely a tension between the dual missions of major research universities. The most interesting institutions are the ones that are trying to reconcile those tensions (i.e. by putting undergrads directly into research settings from an early stage, and by recognizing and rewarding good teaching by faculty). Stuntz’s article tells me that Harvard isn’t reconciling those tensions particularly well compared to some of the second-tier institutions.
The top tier places have never offered the best experience for the “formal” side of higher education (classroom experience, access to faculty, etc.) What the big bucks spent at the top tier will buy parents and students is a highly educated and well-connected peer group. This aspect of the “value calculus” of higher education in America is often overlooked (and Stuntz is overlooking it, I think).
Most of Stuntz’s article centers on the forces that brought down Larry Summers presidency of Harvard. He seems to be blaming over-specialized faculty who have forgotten that the core mission of the academy is to educate, train and enlighten the next generation. And I’ll agree that academic faculties can be extremely resistant to change. Stuntz is painting with an awfully broad brush, however. There are institutions that are trying to resolve the research-teaching tension in ways that benefit both the students and the faculty. And there are certainly academics who are deeply concerned about the direction of science and mathematics education in the US and about our eventual decline as a scientific and engineering superpower.
Anyway, the article is certainly worth a read.