Monday, May 28, 2018

Pushing back against the multi-versity

One of the many concerns I have about universities, particularly in Australia, is the trend to compartmentalisation, factionalisation, fragmentation, obscure over-specialisation, ...
Long ago visions of the UNIversity included unity of knowledge, collegiality, and combining breadth and depth, ...
This trend to the multi-versity manifests itself in diverse ways:
- the lack of appreciation for the value of a liberal arts education
- students who are reluctant to see the relevance of previous subjects and course they have studied to the one they are studying right now, and more broadly the value of other majors (e.g. maths to physics, physics to chemistry, chemistry to biochemistry, history to sociology, philosophy to everything, ....)
- departments that ruthlessly compete with one another for student enrolments
- a ridiculous diversity of undergraduate majors, minors, and degrees
- claims that all points of view are equally valid and should not be critiqued
- a lack of interest in big ideas, big questions, and big issues

In light of this I was fascinated to read about an initiative of the current President of Princeton, Christopher Eisgruber. The Pre-Read has now been running for six years. Before they arrive on campus all Freshman are sent a copy of the same academic book to read and discuss.
In a recent short article, Eisberger discusses the criteria he uses for selecting the book each year.
 The Pre-read’s author speaks to the incoming class at the Freshman Assembly during Orientation week. The book also forms the basis of my Opening Exercises remarks, and I lead Pre-read seminars in the residential colleges during the fall semester.
His two primary goals are to "introduce students to Princeton's vibrant intellectual culture" and "to encourage students to reflect on the values that should guide their Princeton educations and their lives after graduation''.

There are many things I like about the initiative. One is that it helps encourage civil, robust, and intellectually rigorous debate among the students.
Another positive is that the university president himself interacts with the undergrads about the book. This not only has benefits for the students but also for the President himself (and consequently the whole university) because he is exposed first hand to "coal face". I emphasised this point earlier in a post All University Managers should have to teach.
[Aside. I am very happy that the UQ Provost is currently helping teach an undergrad physics class.].

There is many things that Princeton does that other universities cannot do due to lack of resources. However, this is actually an initiative that almost any university could do.

Do you know of other similar initiatives?


  1. How Europe does tenure.

    Then you have 14 commandments of Prof Sean Caroll , Caltech to be good academic and that to from Prof Richard Feynmans school. One commandment is a sad one.
    "Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc. I don’t think being good at these things actively hurts you, although I did once hear a senior faculty member say that he was negatively predisposed to candidates who had good teaching evaluations. (He was joking, I think.) Why? Because you’re spending time on something that isn’t research. But generally it won’t hurt, it just won’t help. You will typically be told (as I was) something like “teaching isn’t really important, but if your case is very close, it can help put you over the top.” Everyone agreed my case was very close, and my teaching was among the best in the department; it didn’t help. The point is simple: this stuff is not research"

    Classroom teaching is not given importance in many places. Its all grants and publications. All science is research and the rest is all online or in pdf files. It is a bit like of stamp collecting, these pdf files.

  2. Regarding the Princeton initiative, it may have been re-branded by Eisgruber, but it's not new. When I was a first-year undergrad at Princeton nearly 29 years ago, our whole freshman class was strongly encouraged to read Beloved by Toni Morrison.

  3. I especially like you pointing out the bullshit ‘all ideas are equally valid and should not be critiqued’. This really contradicts itself: all ideas would be equally valid but the one encouraging critique. This would bring me to neoliberalism, the cancer that is paralyzing our humanity.

  4. Top 10 Reasons Being A University Professor Is A Stressful Job ex academic
    David Kroll.