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Friday, January 31, 2014

the old university system is dead -- time for a professional university

I once had lunch with a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. I asked him how it felt to be in charge of a fraudulent institution. He was shocked by the question, of course, but I continued. How many of the people who attend the University of Illinois do you think go there because they think they will get jobs upon graduation? He supposed that all of them did. I asked if they actually did job training at Illinois. He agreed that they didn't. I pointed out that most of the faculty there had never had jobs (except as professors) and might not know how to do any other jobs. He agreed.

I once suggested fixing this state of affairs while I was a professor at Yale. I discussed this with the President of Yale at the time, Bart Giammati. He replied that Yale didn't do training. But Yale does do training. Yale trains professors.

Universities were started as places for classical education for wealthy people. Typically they indeed had a large training component since they were usually religiously based and future religious leaders were expected to come out of these schools. Yale started as a divinity school and morphed into a school where the wealthy could hobnob with members of the their own class of people and then turn out to be the leaders of the country (who knew Latin and the classics.) Although most did go into business, business was never taught.

The world has changed in the sense that anyone with exceptionally good test scores and grades can get into Yale. But Yale hasn’t changed. One is still expected to study the classics and there are no programs for job training. Even the computer science department, of which I was part for 15 years, has no interest in training future programmers.

I am not criticizing Yale here actually. Most universities have copied the “training of intellectuals and professors model of education” and have disregarded the idea that future employment might be of major concern to students. Professors can do this because they are forced by no one to teach job skills. They don’t really know much about job skills in any case. The major focus of a professor at any research university is research. Teaching is low on their priority list and teaching job skills is far very from any real concern. So, economics departments teach theories of economics and not how to run a business, and law schools teach the theory of law and not how to be a lawyer, and medical schools teach the science of the human body but not how to be a doctor. Psychology focusses on how to run an experiment, when students really want to know why they are screwed up or why they can’t get along. Mathematics departments teach stuff that no one will ever use, and education departments forget to teach people how to teach.

Still we hear that everyone must go to college. Why?

It is time for a change.

I propose the creation of a Professional University. By this I mean a university that teaches only job skills. It would do this by creating simulations of the actual life of someone who works in a particular job. After a year or more living in a simulation of the life of an actual engineer, computer scientist, psychologist, business person, or health care professional, the graduate would actually be employable and would have a pretty good idea of whether they had made a good choice of profession. Creating these simulations is not that complicated. Small projects can lead  to larger projects that build upon what was learned in the earlier projects. Constant required deliverables with mentoring by faculty, not lectures. Students try to do things, and faculty are there to help.

The faculty in a professional university would be practitioners who had done it themselves. The students could come to campus or work on line. It makes no difference. Deliverables would not be given grades. If your business idea isn’t good, work harder on it. If your technological solution to something doesn’t work, keep working on it. Degrees would not be based upon an accumulation of credits and would have nothing to do with the time a student was in the program. The students would have to complete well specified tasks, and when they demonstrated they could actually do something they would move on to a more complicated task. If the students weren’t immediately employable, the programs would have to be modified until they were.

We can do this. It just takes money. Existing universities won’t help. They will be threatened by it. Yale can keep producing professors and intellectuals. But most countries in the world need way fewer professors than they need well educated functioning professionals.

Would graduates of the Professional University be able to speak, write, reason, and solve complex problems? Of course. Those skills would be built into every program.


Anonymous said...

I studied engineering at University of Waterloo; a 4-year Bachelor's degree, run over 5 years, including six 4-month coop work terms; the equivalent of 2 full years of paid industry experience. I believe we lived the type of simulation you describe, except that it was real experience. Thoughts?

CMD said...

i agree with Lino D...and disagree with the example you gave of you know how long my cousin studied and practiced before he was ever a licensed physician? he studied for years in two countries with more hands-on experience than most people get at a vo-tech school, so that example is flawed...but overall, i agree with your premise...aren't vo-tech and online universities the type of professional u's you're describing...and like Lino D said, they include real-world experience, not simulations

Sacred Human said...

Yeah, my Early Childhood Education program was actually only offered to working professionals. Course requirements were to implement teaching strategies and report back to small group to process the results. Certainly improved my practice.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your post

Unknown said...

Responding to Professor Schank's blog:

"Degrees would not be based upon an accumulation of credits and would have nothing to do with the time a student was in the program. The students would have to complete well specified tasks, and when they demonstrated they could actually do something they would move on to a more complicated task..."

As a graduate of a liberal arts program and an MFA in creative writing, I was taught that the primary purpose of a four year degree is to obtain exposure to a broad selection of critical thinking and scientific disciplines. occupational Specialization comes later. I agree that the bureaucracy surrounding 4 year programs is thick, wasteful and worst of all, outrageously expensive for students, but I'm curious how we reform the system in a way that provides a better atmosphere for incubating creativity, especially in the arts. Any ideas?

Unknown said...

Isn't what you describe called a Vocational or Technical School?