A recent article in the New York Times made some radical suggestions on how to reform universities to meet the demands of the 21st century. Mark C. Taylor's article, End the university as we know it, is highly critical of an academic world largely lacking in relevance for the outside world and increasingly inward-looking, producing ever more specialised research papers that are of interest only to a tiny circle of specialists.
"Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)."
Taylor suggests abolishing permanent subject-based departments and working towards inter-disciplinary collaboration in areas such as Water, Infomation or Body which can be examined from multiple perspectives leading to deeper insights and unexpected conclusions. Universities should collaborate on programs even internationally providing multi-national perspectives for students. The traditional dissertation format should be questioned and alternative ways of presenting research findings using net-based tools should be encouraged in order to make the findings more accessible to the public.
The article prompted 437 comments and they are probably more interesting than the article itself. There are, of course, universities that are already doing what Taylor suggests and show that many of his ivory tower accusations are rather too sweeping. A lot of research today may well seem rather obscure but haven't many great discoveries been made by examining seemingly insignificant details? The analysis of many small and obscure details can lead to the discovery of important patterns. Much research today is indeed closely linked to industry and public interest but curbing the pursuit of pure knowledge would be a dangerous path to follow.
This is an age-old debate of course and will rage on. Change is happening, though academic traditions are mighty hard to break.