Smart is knowing what you don’t know

Call me crazy, but maybe it’s a good thing that the University of Iowa — and by extension, a great many schools in financially troubled times — has to decide not to have an Asian studies program, among other marginal offerings. Universities — their administrations, boards, faculties, and sometimes students — are almost uniformly gripped by me-tooism. If a school to which they like to compare themselves has a program, well then by all means, they must have it too. For the sake of academic excellence, and pursuing the future, etc., etc., all of which verbiage is too often a cover for the real purpose of such programs, which is makework for intellectuals who made poor career choices.

Asian studies is no doubt valuable, and likely flourishing at other schools, which is a reminder that universities should focus on developing comparative advantages — rather than trying to have a smattering of everything, focus on areas where you can build a core competence and become known as an elite institution. For most third and fourth tier schools this will mean, realistically, developing in their students the basic skills that should have been imparted in high school, and serving as a screening mechanism for employers. A largely inefficient and intellectually dishonest enterprise, but a necessary function nonetheless

For actual universities, in the traditional sense of that term, this will mean not doing many things, and focusing on those disciplines that can be researched and taught well. There’s an additional implication, of course, that universities should do a better job of separating their teaching and research functions. Every true university should be in the business of imparting a good education, which means employing skilled instructors in a variety of disciplines. But the university should only develop research competence in a select few fields.

Which means many universities should be going through the painful exercise Iowa is now experiencing, and asking hard questions about whether they are actually capable of delivering outstanding advanced-degree education in all the fields they claim to cover.