10 April 2012

Universities: really successful messes?

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | A sobering thought

The United States circa 2012 is one of the most productive economies of all time, arguably the most productive if you take into account size and diversification (rules out Norway, etc.). Internationally speaking, in the richest and most productive global economy of all time, which is our most competitive sector?

Hollywood? Maybe, but it could well be higher education. Students from all over the world want to go to U.S. higher education. If we had nicer immigration authorities, this advantage would be all the more pronounced.

In other words, I work in what is perhaps the most competitive and successful sector in the most competitive and successful economy of all time.

And yet what I see around me is a total, total mess. And I believe my school to be considerably above average in terms of how well it is run.
I agree: total mess. And it's not just universities. Conferences are a mess, journals are a mess, funding agencies are ridiculous, the process of applying to schools is screwed up, the job market in most fields is a train wreck.


  1. Yes, but universities aren't unique in this aspect. Everything is a mess, when you look beyond the surface. On the surface, universities look just swell, you have to look under the hood to see the problems. Same with Hollywood, same with Wall Street, same with Congress... there's nothing which isn't messed up underneath.

  2. (1) Let's assume you're right, and everything is screwed up. I still think it's pretty profound that even our single most successful industry is full of screw-ups. The very best is not an exception to the rule of generalized, wide-spread mess.

    It shouldn't surprise anyone if airports and airlines are run in inefficient ways; that's exactly what their outcomes reflect. It should be more surprising that globally famous, well-regarded institutions like many US research universities are gong shows under the surface.

    (2) Even if every industry is messy to one degree or another, some may be more so. I've only worked for two non-academic employers. Both run very good shops. If you put the USPS or TSA at a 10 on the "messed up" scale, I'd put these guys at about a 0.25 and 1.0. I'd put universities somewhere around 6.5. In other words, by my estimation our most successful institutions are closer to the Post Office than to the local garden supply store I used to work at over the summer. That's saying something.

    (3) I believe that technologists are our best hope of making the world a better place. (Obviously many people disagree with me, but leave that aside for the sake of argument.) Many of those technologists work in or with universities. And those universities, even if they are only as messed-up as the average firm, are still messed-up. Which means the people best suited to move us forward are forced to spend a lot of time and energy dealing with that mess. That's not good news.