“These are extraordinary times,” said a statement from Jehuda Reinharz, the university’s president. “We cannot control or fix the nation’s economic problems. We can only do what we have been entrusted to do — act responsibly with the best interests of our students and their futures foremost in mind.” The university’s statement pledged continued support for teaching the arts, and for the liberal arts, and said that the decision was part of “an emerging new vision for the university aimed at streamlining it for the future while bolstering its focus on undergraduates, the liberal arts and research.”
Last week, the Brandeis faculty agreed to create a special committee to review the curriculum. Among plans being discussed are adding business or engineering programs and finding a way to simultaneously expand undergraduate enrollment while shrinking the faculty. University administrators have also floated the idea of replacing all existing majors and minors with new “meta-majors,” a term whose definition is hard to pin down even among those who have discussed it. Many faculty members have said that they will never go for the abandonment of traditional disciplines, and many have derided that idea as simply cover for eliminating positions and departments.
Two points, related.
First, it is interesting to note that no institution really is safe — even ones that exist within other institutions. In today’s climate, all organizations are subject to breakup and no organization is guaranteed permanence. Higher education is an area (like primary education) that has been stretched by the transformational forces in society but so far has sidestepped the revolution going on all around us. For the most part, colleges and universities still look like colleges and universities. But for how long? How much of that stability is just momentum? (So, for example, looking just at the art museum issue: Why should a college be home to the best art museum in New England? Why shouldn’t such a museum be standalone?)
Second, the challenge Brandeis is facing is quite literally to do more with less. That is going to take equally revolutionary thinking. You can’t just wring more out of people, you’ve got to restructure the way the work gets done. I happen to think this “meta major” business sounds like a bunch of bogus claptrap. However, it’s worth asking: What is a “major?” Why do we have them? How are they best taught?
It’s may also be worth asking: Why is there tenure? Should there be required minimum teaching skills in order to actually get up in front of students? Why does all this have to take place in a location?