A Veiled Announcement?

Quiet rumors about our administration working on a major shake-up of Wesleyan’s departmental structure ought to start getting louder: in his most recent Roth on Wesleyan post, President Roth suggests he likes the idea of dissolving departments.

“Liberal Learning and the University of the Future,” President Roth calls the January 31st entry, and he keeps the tone safely theoretical. It’s Mark C. Taylor, not Roth himself, who suggests “moving from silos to networks, abolishing departments and tenure,” in his book, Crisis on Campus. But President Roth likes much of what he sees. He writes,

“[Taylor] is right on the money in attacking the powerful, long-term trends toward specialization in university culture, trends which have a decidedly negative impact on undergraduate education. At many schools this has led to a fragmentation of intellectual life, with powerful departments defending their own interests without regard to the welfare of the institution as a whole. Who is going to articulate a holistic vision for undergraduate education when only specialized success is awarded professional prestige?”

Roth’s answer? It might be the next word in his post: “I.”

Consider Roth’s difficult position. On the one hand, he needs to run this Little Ivy with a relatively skimpy endowment. On the other hand, he wants to sharpen Wes’s reputation as a bold, forward-looking kind of place. Building a solid reputation for himself as an educational reformer wouldn’t hurt either. By eliminating the little hierarchies in the “silos” of departments, President Roth could significantly cut Wesleyan’s budget and simultaneously spin the change as an innovation. Wes could be the first “postmodern university” (Taylor’s words) among our peers.

Dissolving departments and replacing them with administratively managed “Emerging Zones” is unlikely to be the administration’s course of action. Tenure appears to be off the table, as President Roth has repeatedly stated that he strongly believes in it. He re-iterates this in his latest post.

But it doesn’t seem too conspiratorial to believe President Roth might be laying the groundwork for something big, something controversial, and something perhaps involving more direct administrative control over academic life. Roth praised Taylor’s ideas as early as September. In November of last year, Roth wrote that he would spend “the next several months” working “to better understand how we have organized the curriculum, and talk to faculty and students about how this organization supports their educational goals,” with an eye toward clearing up “one of the confusing aspects of our curriculum at Wesleyan”– “how we define our academic divisions.”

Since Taylor’s Crisis on Campus seems to be at the center of Roth’s thoughts on what to do about those divisions, maybe we should all give it a closer look.

4 thoughts on “A Veiled Announcement?

  1. Choobops

    No, what it comes down to is, Roth wants to dumb down education in the service of his irresponsible idealism. He wants to go an irresponsible distance with his personal obsession with producing ‘well rounded’ intellectuals.

    The problem with having too broad an education is you have no depth. You have no deep training in one area that you can call upon in dealing with any kind of challenge. THAT is the true meaning of liberal arts education – a DEEP immersion in one or two completely non-practical academic areas (e.g. philosophy, literature, history) nevertheless conferring on one a GENERAL ability to understand non-narrowly-technical problems in just about any field. roth has it backwards, or just wrong – he wants people to have a GENERAL immersion in a whole bunch of random things, without any deep immersion in anything, thereby producing a generation of dilettante intellectuals who dabble in a lot of different subjects but are real authorities – or who have received truly high-quality training – in none.

    what that means is, instead of being an expert on a non-traditional/practical field and parlaying that into a generalist’s understanding of a wide range of problems in many fields, roth wants you to be an expert on nothing, and to parlay that into ignorance, irrelevance and lack of credibility in any field you choose to dabble in post-wesleyan.

  2. Lesanjuan

    Last year, the administration sent a list of proposed ways to cut the budget to the WSA. One of these was consolidating academic departments. Like all corporate speak, it comes down to: If we do [insert stupid idea here], we can save a lot money.

  3. Alum '10

    While I think this post raises some interesting points, at the end of every blog post concerning this, Roth states things like, “Specialization without the capacity for translation… does undermine effective teaching at many schools, but Wesleyan professors who remain active scholars, scientists and artists exemplify a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.”

    Or, “But we have many professors committed to this task, and that is the most important factor for building the university of the future — a university in which faculty members make student learning the priority in ways that enhance our capacity for research.”

    He says Mark Taylor has points, BUT Wesleyan is doing a good job avoiding some of these negatives.

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