David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Notes on The Future of Academia

This started as a comment on a post over on New Savannah, where Bill Benzon was talking about cognitive science researcher Mark Changizi’s decision to leave academia. But I think it’s a red herring as far as the structural problems of academia go.

Changizi left because despite having tenure, the whole nature of grants is such that they do not allow for work on potentially paradigm-shifting ideas, because they have too great a chance for failure. He cites Vinay Deolalikar’s valiant but seemingly wrong proof that P=NP as an example of the sort of work that can only be done outside academia.

But I don’t think the Changizi incident reflects anything too new about academia. And I think when people talk about the problems in academia today vs the problems forty or fifty years ago, Changizi isn’t running up against anything new. Paradigm-shifting work has never gotten funding except when there was a clear military interest, in which case the floodgates (or cashgates) opened.

So when assessing academia, there are three interlinked but distinct factors here that vary independently by field:

  1. The Finance Factor: The ability to get funding for research in that field from anywhere other than a university.
  2. The Infrastructure Factor: The non-overhead resources (time, money, people, equipment) required for research in the field.
  3. The Prestige Factor: The field’s self-determined metric of success for research (influence, “impact,” prestige).

Literature, psychology, and computer science are affected in different ways by these factors. Even within a field, there are variances, which is why Deolalikar isn’t such a great example.

People like Deolalikar wander between academia and corporate research labs quite a bit, as there’s much closer coordination between them in the computer science world, the profit motive being far more obvious. Even beyond that, Deolalikar’s capital needs are very cheap: a living wage for himself, an office, etc. He didn’t need a “lab.”

Theoretical computer science issues like P=NP are akin to theoretical math, requiring little beyond pen and paper and a brain with very particular capacities.

On the other hand, applied computer science research can be tremendously expensive. So expensive that academia can’t even provide the infrastructure even with funding. If you want to analyze the entirety of the internet or examine database issues with petabytes of data, acquiring and processing meaningful that amount of meaningful data is just not within the reach of a university. This may change in the future with joint efforts, but I suspect that corporations will always have some edge because the financial motive is so present (unlike, say, with supercolliders).

The financial motive is not always so imminently present, even within computer science. For things like neuroscience and psychology, where the profits are clearly possible but harder to predict, grants come into play. If you need a lab and funding for it, there will be politics to getting it, period. Research labs spend thousands of person-hours filling out grant applications in order to convince the pursestring-holders (the government, frequently) that they’re doing the “right” thing.

Where the finance factor is high, things haven’t changed that much, even with increases in bureaucracy. High-cost research will continue to be done within institutions as long as there’s profit in it. It will always be somewhat conservative because people with money want results for their research.

Where the finance factor is low, the infrastructure factor is also frequently low, because there’s nowhere to get money for infrastructure other than the university, and the university is unlikely to fund much that can’t be funded by other sources.

The exception is if the prestige factor is high. If the top people in a field have a huge impact on the world around them, then the university will invest money simply because it will draw attention and (indirectly) more money to the university. Economists, political scientists, and even (in Europe) anthropologists and philosophers: they frequently possess enough prestige outside of academia that they will continue to draw people and money because they are part of the larger society. Jurgen Habermas and Michael Ignatieff, for example. And success in these fields is partly measured by that sort of outside prestige. How could it not be?

So where things have changed are in fields which lack external sources of funding and lack external prestige. Fields meeting these criteria:

  1. Funding Factor: Low
  2. Infrastructure Factor: Low
  3. Prestige Factor: Low

These are fields in which the measurement of a researcher’s success is determined near-exclusively by people within the field, and the researchers, even the top ones, have little pull outside of academia. Many of the traditional humanities meet these criteria today.

And these fields are in trouble in a way they were not fifty years ago, where they seemed to comfortably sustain themselves. But today, we see the demand for “impact” in the British university system:

Henceforth a significant part of the assessment of a researcher’s worth – and funding – will be decided according to the impact on society that his or her work is seen to have. The problem is that impact remains poorly defined; it isn’t clear how it will be measured, and the weighting given to it in the overall assessment has been plucked out of the air. It is a bad policy: it will damage research in the sciences and corrupt it in the humanities, as academics will have a strong financial incentive to become liars.

If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effect of impact will be to force researchers to focus even more than they do already on research that pays off – or can be made to appear as if it does – within the assessment cycle, rather than on fundamental work whose significance might take years, even decades, to be appreciated.

Iain Pears, LRB

This is a problem for the sciences as well, as it corporatizes the grant process and makes immediate results far more necessary. But it is a far, far greater problem for some of the humanities, which don’t really traffic in “results” of this sort. But when put it this way, it doesn’t exactly seem surprising. Isn’t the better question why this sort of reckoning hasn’t happened until now?

The changing economic situation is obviously a factor, but there’s a social one as well. The prestige factor used to be higher. The connections between the academic humanities and the rest of the world used to be stronger. But through some process, and I think that it is not a trivial or obvious one, some of the humanities turned hermetically inward and/or the world started ignoring them, and so their prestige diminished.

Fifty years ago, there were scholarly books put out by major presses (Harper, Penguin) that no non-academic publisher would touch today. Was there an audience for them outside of academia? I don’t have a strong sense. There certainly isn’t now. Pears is a bit too specific: money and politics are certainly high-prestige forms of impact, but what impact really seems to mean is any perceived societal value outside of academia.

Low-cost research will always continue to be done by enthusiasts. Michael Ventris made huge steps in deciphering Linear B, despite being a low-level architect with no credentials. But the “impact” business seems to be at trailing indicator rather than a leading one, signifying that the more disconnected humanities have been living on borrowed time for quite a while. And I don’t see how that will reverse without a larger shift in the relation of those fields to society at large.


  1. Well, one difference between the US and Britain is that in the US English and Creative Writing majors pay (huge) tuitions (even when discounted), and their tuition money subsidizes the sciences in their institutions. A lot. So it pays to encourage people to major in the humanities (or math) here, as it doesn’t there.

    But the dynamic here, I think, was that the ginned-up excitement to be found in humanities departments in the eighties and nineties peaked and collapsed because they started believing their own press notices. To put it cynically, functionally, but I think accurately, administrators flattered literary theory and its cousins in order to get a high profile for cheap, and to get undergrads from affluent backgrounds to pay a lot for that cheap education, and to get grad students (from affluent backgrounds) to do the teaching that would make that education even cheaper. This supported science which then got more grants, partly because of the facilities the institutions could offer paid for by English majors.

    I don’t actually think the financial structure’s a bad one. Humanities types want students; scientists don’t; they want post-docs and money, and the flow of students to the humanities and money to the scientists is win-win. But the humanists lost their magic, their ability to attract students (for many reasons, as you’ve noted) and so yeah, maybe that leads to the lagging indicators you’ve mentioned, both here and in the U.K. Especially since business majors are probably cheaper still (the classes are a lot larger per faculty member, even if the faculty earn more individually), and more willing to borrow a lot to make a lot of money later.

    DId you read the Luke Menand pience in this week’s New Yorker? I don’t usually like him, but this was good.

  2. David Auerbach

    3 June 2011 at 15:58

    Your picture is bleaker than mine, I think. You also point out some additional nuances that I should have mentioned. Things are very different at Ivies versus tech schools versus liberal arts colleges versus big state/regional schools. The last are probably in the biggest trouble.

    Even at high-profile schools, Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley helped ease some of the science costs; in general the rise of CS has had this effect at a number of places: Bill Gates and Harvard, Packard and Yale; many others I’m sure. This was far less true of other engineering and applied science fields, many of which have higher infrastructure costs, at least these days. (Cyclotrons haven’t gotten more powerful at quite the rate that computers have.)

    Nonetheless, the key idea of needing large survey courses in all fields (but primarily humanities) to fund labs and seminars in all fields is worth reiterating. And undergrads are becoming less able to subsidize other parts of universities via those large survey courses.

    It’s hard for me to imagine a time when theory was played up to generate a high profile. Unfathomable really. The divide was just too deep by the time I encountered it.

    What percentage of the undergrads and grad students were from affluent backgrounds? I was under the impression that at least outside of Elite schools, a fair number of students were going into debt to get their undergrad diplomas but that this was okay as long as there was a growing economy to accommodate humanities college grads in well-paying white collar jobs (and as long as colleges were not *too* expensive). Of course, when many of those jobs ended up being business, suddenly majoring in “business” or “communications” seemed like an efficient shortcut rather than funding all that interchangeable humanities nonsense.

  3. “… some of the humanities turned hermetically inward and/or the world started ignoring them, and so their prestige diminished.”

    “Or,” I believe, with McCarthy evaluation reaching the second clause. Education in the humanities was once linked to social class. Unprofitable science was boosted by Sputnik panic and the ongoing Cold War. Post-WWII democracies supported broad improvements at the expense of the wealthiest. None of these conditions hold any longer.

    What individual humanities departments did in the 1980s or what they do now has about as much effect as a bookstore’s reading series might have in the face of a 5000% increase in rent. As someone pointed out when the latest UK clampdowns started, in the global marketplace prestigious higher education has been England’s most reliably successful product for a long, long while. Doesn’t matter — it’s not a priority.

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