Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Though I generally try to take both the high road and the optimistic perspective, it's harder some days than others.  As I begin my personal transition from several months of full-time project management back to teaching next semester, I am struck by the stark contrast between academia and what we'll just call The Real World.

The contrast is not just in my own line of sight, but also in the communication I receive from former students.  And it may the academic version of iatrogenesis.

Colleges and universities are both institutions of higher learning and institutions of hiring.  And it's the hiring part that seems somewhat quaint and curious, when compared to other employers.  In what may very well be a historical relic, colleges and universities strive to protect academic "freedom" through a process of granting a tenured or hired-for-life (essentially) status to those academics who devote themselves to studying and writing about their chosen discipline or subject.

The unintended consequence of a search for someone willing to start early, focus on a subject matter (researching, writing, publishing), and provide value to the university in return for the hiring investment is the early identification of potential tenured faculty members while they are finishing their own doctoral programs.  In fact, the last year of the doctoral program is understood to be heavily focused on interviewing with hiring institutions of higher learning.  And this is where the disconnect begins, I think.

The brightest doctoral students become the most-sought-after junior faculty members.  They continue to delve into their chosen fields, standing upon the shoulders of the learned who came before them, and adding to the body of knowledge through their research and writing.  And they are entrusted with teaching in their chosen field, the field in which they are experts.  They become specialists who teach what they have studied.

What seems missing in this equation is the practical application of a subject matter or expertise, since the majority of the students in a four-year undergraduate program will be hired by non-academic employers.  And it's those non-academic employers who are seeking problem solving ability, critical thinking, teamwork, innovation, and a nimble responsiveness to change.  Today, this does not appear to be a workable  model.

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