with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 150: What good is college now that we can learn everything for free on the internet? (with Nick Dirks)

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March 23, 2023

Why are colleges and universities valuable to societies? Why does formal post-secondary education seem unnecessary for some fields like programming, where a person can learn everything they need from internet resources? Do universities have a monopoly on credentials? If so, is that monopoly warranted and desirable, or does it stifle innovation and reduce competition? Why have tuition costs been skyrocketing over the past few decades? How does the quantity and quality of university research compare to military and private research? Are universities too political? Should the humanities still be taught in universities? How must colleges and universities evolve to keep pace with technological and economic change?

Nicholas Dirks, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences, is an internationally renowned historian and anthropologist. He leads the Academy in promoting science-based solutions to world challenges, including pandemics and global warming. His work at the Academy facilitates the dissemination of scientific information, supports broad access to science education, studies counter bias in academia and the laboratory, and supports scientists across all stages of their careers. He was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has taught at UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and Columbia University. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Nick Dirks about the value and cost of pursuing a degree, the importance of research universities, and the need for adaptation in higher education.

SPENCER: Nick, welcome.

NICK: Thank you, Spencer.

SPENCER: So today we're gonna dig into a topic that is going to be on the minds of many educated people, which is the role of universities today in society. And I think there's a lot of criticism of universities, some of it may be unjustified, some of them may be justified. And so I'm really excited to explore that topic with you today.

NICK: Terrific.

SPENCER: All right. So, do you want to start by telling us about why you think universities are really important in society today? And then we can get into some of the roles they have in society, and also some of the criticisms of them.

NICK: Yeah. As you said in the intro, universities are under a lot of criticism these days. And you might even say they're under attack or under assault. And there are good and compelling reasons for that. At the same time, I certainly believe that while universities can change in certain kinds of ways and need to certainly take seriously the criticisms that have been mounted about them from basically every possible different position on the political or cultural or whatever spectrum. I think it's easy to forget how critical universities are for our society, for our world. And in the maelstrom of criticism, these things get lost and sometimes the really powerful, positive, and critical aspects of the university just don't continue to get the kind of attention they deserve. So, I'm not going to be a booster, Spencer. I'm going to be quite willing to talk about some of the things universities could do a lot better and about changes that might take place in the larger sector of higher education. But universities are important for a wide variety of reasons. So first, obviously, they are there to offer education and offer education at an advanced level. That is, if anything more important today than it's ever been before, given the degree to which training expertise, a serious educational background is required for almost every kind of job or contribution one might want to make to our society. And certainly when you look at just how educational opportunities at the level of higher education translate into, not just good careers, but into careers that pay more. If you look at the numbers over — even the medium term, not even the long term — they're just a huge benefit for the individual to get a college education. But it's not cheap. And in 2011 or 2012, when the level of student debt began to climb over $1 trillion (as it did), a lot more attention became focused on the cost of college, the cost of higher education, and what the trade-offs were, what the cost and benefit analysis might be.

SPENCER: So you mentioned the role of universities in education. And I think this is something that has an interesting debate around it. Because on the one hand, obviously, if you want to be a physicist or a mathematician, there's really no one else doing as good a job as education, people in those fields. There's just no other game in town, really. And nearly all top people in those fields have gone through the university system. But then you have other fields, like programming, where many programmers do get a computer science degree. But increasingly, you're seeing people who go learn on YouTube or self-taught using a variety of different systems. And then they make some projects on GitHub, where they commit some open source code, and they end up getting hired. And then they start asking, “Well, why are people doing a four-year degree to learn computer science, especially because computer science degrees often are not focused on the things you actually need in a job?” Yes, some aspects of them overlap but on the other hand, they're often not teaching the newest web technologies and things that you'd immediately start applying. So just curious to hear your thoughts on that piece.

NICK: Yeah, so that's a great question, Spencer. And I'll address it in at least two different ways and explore it a little bit more in detail. But first, the truth of the matter is that coding, as you say, you can learn it any number of ways. You don't have to take a full four-year degree to learn certain computer languages and to learn how to code algorithms and basically learn the basics of computer literacy. But there's a lot more to coding than that. And we have begun to realize this as a society that if you simply think about the need to code and the importance of the right kind of algorithm to optimize certain kinds of results, you're not actually thinking about how your optimization structures themselves had been built into the code, or what the effects might be of the code that you're writing, or how you might evaluate more broadly how digital technologies fit into our social — not to mention our individual goals — more broadly. When I was Chancellor at the University of California Berkeley, I convened a group of faculty and we thought really hard about how to find better ways to teach computer science writ large, coding in particular. And what we came up with was a new data science set of courses, and ultimately, a program that, if anything, broadened significantly the educational training that we gave in the basic computer science degree. But we did it in a way that was less technical than a computer science degree. At the same time that it was more connected to other things that students might study. For example, students in the School of Public Health often have to know certainly how to evaluate complex computational results and the basis of data around (for example) the spread of disease, the kinds of things that epidemiologists look at and track when they look at Zika virus or, of course, as we all know, now COVID. And of course, understanding the numbers is already a pretty complex task. And we saw how wildly variant the kinds of modeling of potential COVID infection rates could be based on different kinds of inputs over time. But those inputs, again, are not simply numerical, they're also about evaluating a social context to the cultural context. They are thinking about how those numbers are generated and what those numbers mean, not to mention the fact that these are numbers that go into a model about disease, and about human disease. And in as much as one is going to be coding, in that particular instance, for the purposes of understanding disease spread better, it turns out, you need to know a lot more than just coding. So what we set up at Berkeley was a data science program that had plugins across the totality of the curriculum. So it could plug into public health programs, it could plug into biological research, could plug into work in economics, or political science; fields that require much broader context to understand the quantitative outcomes of particular regression or other kinds of statistical analyses. And it could even plug into work in the humanities. And we realized that teaching coding really is a much more comprehensive challenge than just going to coding camp and learning Python, or some other language.

SPENCER: I think there are two related ideas here that maybe were mingling together. One is, let's say you want to be a programmer. You think that's a good career path for you. How is the balance changing in terms of going to universities to learn it versus trying to self-teach it and get involved in open source projects, etc? So that's one. And the second is, how do we fit ideas from programming data science related fields into broader curricula? Because now more and more of the world involves programming and data, and maybe there are a lot of fields now where you get some benefit from those skills. And I'm wondering, on that first topic as someone who wants to pursue that career, is it now becoming less appealing to take you through university than it was before? If that's true, is there a way universities can swing that back and say, “No. Really, this is by far the best path to do stuff.”

NICK: Yeah, well, it's a great question. And I'll answer it in a couple of different ways. But first, I understand that there are certain kinds of coding training. You can get shorter courses. You don't have to go through the full four years of college to learn basic coding. And you can certainly get jobs on the basis of training that can be delivered, not only more quickly, but quite relevantly more cheaply. Again, there are a number of problems with that. First of all, understanding something more about the context in which one is working will not only be good for the outcome of the work you do, but it will also be important for yourself as a worker in the computer industry, wherever you might be working. One of the things that we're beginning to realize is that some forms of coding are going to be (like other kinds of skills) increasingly be taken over by computers themselves. And if one is going to stay ahead of the game — leaving aside the kinds of issues around context I just raised — but if one is going to stay ahead of the game in terms of one's own career, I think it's important to have more than one basic skill that you can then take out and say, “This is what I'm going to use for my career.” Careers are changing and we know people are going to bounce from one kind of career to another. We used to say that college graduates, even 5-10 years ago, were going to get at least six different kinds of jobs in their lifetime. But if anything, it's going to be, at this point, more than 10, and possibly double or even triple that number (given the way in which people are moving from job to job). And in that context, you could argue that every time you want to change a job, or every time you need a slightly different kind of skill, you could go back to school and take a quick course in this or a quick course in that. And in fact, I'm in favor of thinking that lifelong learning is a much more critical activity that University should take responsibility for and engage in. But there's still a basis on which any kind of career in this domain will be a better position going forward, even at the level of going back to training camp, or some kind of short executive course, or whatever. Along the way to follow the twists and turns of possible career pathways and the world of coding.

SPENCER: Another thread I want to pick up on with you relates to a comment you made briefly before, which is that people who get college degrees earn more money, and people who get higher degrees earn more money than them. So there really does seem, at least at a correlational level, to be a real benefit to getting these degrees. But some people have argued that this is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where what happens is you have more and more companies that say, “Well, now we just want him to consider you without a college degree.” So it's sort of the rising tide of credentialism, where now people have to get more and more education, but they're not actually better off. It's just this treadmill, wherever is expected to do more education, just to lay on the same job. And so I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that critique.

NICK: Well, there are lots of new ideas about how to certify and how to basically credential different kinds of learnings. And there are certainly criticisms of universities that are like a cookie cutter, and you're gonna go to a university and get a college degree; you go for four years. If you're gonna get a master's degree, you go for two years and follow a curriculum that hasn't changed all that many years, sometimes even decades. And, of course, the critique goes beyond that, to say that the monopoly that colleges and universities have over the credentials of degrees is what inhibits innovation and the opportunity for individuals to get the particular skills they need in the segments that would work best for them. And not just work best for them in terms of developing the skills they need, but also actually cost a good deal less. So I would say two things. One is, I still believe that it's very hard to know, on one's own, what exactly one needs to know in order to fulfill a certain kind of training in an area that is going to position you, not just for the immediate job but for a set of things that would surround that. And position one for a longer term, run it successfully in any particular career that you might want to pursue, but I think there's also the need for universities to be more flexible. And I certainly would agree with the critique that universities haven't always been accommodating enough to the different real needs that different students have. And if in fact, universities could think a little bit more about what's now called micro-credentialing or different kinds of courses that could fit into degrees that perhaps would be segmented more precisely around what students really want to spend, what students really want to do in terms of time commitment, and what students really need in terms of getting careers. I think that would be all to the good. I also think that if colleges and universities could think a little bit more creatively about how student pathways into and out of college and university could be opened up, so that one could have a model where a student doesn't necessarily just go for a four-year degree, but might do the equivalent of that over the course of six years or seven years. And both have the opportunity to earn some money along the way, but also to experience the career and get a sense for themselves of what kinds of things might be most useful in order to meet the needs of that career and to meet one's own needs in terms of one's own career ambitions.

SPENCER: Another interesting topic around universities is the rising cost of education. And I've heard different theories about why that has happened. I think there's not really a consensus. One theory I've heard is it has to do with administrative bloat. Hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate. People tend to hire people beneath them, and so on. And so you end up with way more administration relative to teachers and this increases costs. A second theory I've heard is that it actually has more to do with attracting students. The university spends more and more money on cool stuff for students, whether it's nice accommodations, or interesting activities, or things like that. And a third theory I've heard is that it has to do more with rising demand whereas people in society get wealthier and also as people around the world get wealthier and start trying to apply to US schools that they didn't used to apply to from many different countries around the world. That actually just increases the demand for them. And when demand increases, that tends to increase the prices. And if people are wealthy, they're able to pay those prices. There may be other theories besides that, but I'm curious to hear your take on rising costs. What do you see as the most plausible explanation for it? How do you make sense of it?

NICK: Well, first of all, the single most important factor in cost is labor. When I used to run University budgets, by far the biggest component of our university budget was always the cost of the faculty. And the problem is that teaching is done by people, by individuals. It's most effective when you can have, at the very least, a mix of smaller and bigger classes, certainly the opportunity to have discussion groups, to have office hours, to have access to professors. And yet, it's not the kind of industry you can scale, just by using technology or digital means, as has been the case with so many other things that university education is being compared with. Now, of course, there are more online opportunities, and that does produce the possibility of thinking about some level of scaling and some kind of cost-reduction. But at the end of the day — perhaps I'm referring to the question about demand — the biggest demand is for students to come to colleges where they can actually have in-person experiences, where they can be residents of the college or university. And so the truth is that, faced with the opportunity to be in person or to study online, many more students would like to actually have the residential experience. Now, that being said, there are lots of people who are taking online courses and lots of online programs that are expanding and definitely beginning to both offer much better experiences in terms of education in much cheaper price tags, in terms of the actual cost of tuition. There's still a demand issue there. And I think there's still a real sense that if you compare the two, if you can have at least some in-person experiences, it's going to be not only a lot more fun, but a lot more productive in terms of the educational experience. To your question, administrative bloat services for students with international demand, what's really driving this beyond the cost of teaching, the cost of faculty, and the cost of instruction? So, to your question about administration, one of the things I would always field was this question about high administrative salaries. And why was it that it seemed to be the case that there were more and more administrators being hired rather than faculty? And why was it that colleges and universities needed so many administrators in the first place? The truth is that it's a mix of what you were saying. To begin with, we have to hire more administrators in universities because there are many more requirements on universities for compliance: compliance in research, for compliance in respect to Title IX, and the kinds of things that are part of monitoring student life. And ensuring that the university is doing everything it can to maintain equity across and among different populations, redress for cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment, equal opportunities when it comes to extracurricular activities, including intercollegiate athletics, and so many more things. At the same time, that faculty themselves often are the ones who are driving this in part because they have come increasingly to depend on administrative services: whether it's departmental executive assistants who helped organize everything from student advising, to research for faculty, to dealing with college admissions, where you get, for example, at UC Berkeley over 100,000 applications every year and somebody has to read them through. So it's a mix of things. The idea that if you just took the salaries of the highest paid university administrators and distributed across the rest of the budget and just either got volunteers to serve in those jobs or dispensed with them to the extent that you could, actually doesn't work in budgetary terms. It just doesn't make that much difference in terms of the bottom line. Would it be the case that one could in fact begin to really push back against this expansion of administrative personnel? But people will begin to notice. And in fact, every time we had this debate at the University of California and you began to downsize the group of administrators, it turned out it was faculty and students who were the ones who began to complain about the fact that they weren't able to get the services that they had come to depend upon. Now, the question about student services, like the famously used example of the climbing wall in the college, university, or the very posh residential facility that is used to compete against other colleges and universities, for students. There are, of course, egregious examples. I think of over expenditure when it comes to some of those kinds of things. But it's not the rule. And it certainly wasn't my experience that we were spending a lot of money on frills, or some kind of excessive luxury. In fact, across my university at Berkeley, we just didn't have enough student housing at all. Even the most rudimentary kind of student dorms. And for a long time, that hadn't been a problem because it was actually cheaper for students to live off-campus than it was for them to live on. And they often petitioned to move off campus as soon as they could, because they could find either coops or apartments they could share that would be cheaper. As prices have gone up, and housing has obviously become so much more expensive, that's not the case anymore. But you just can't build dorms overnight. And even with the best efforts and intentions of university administrations, it's a slow process to actually change that configuration of housing options that you need to have. And again, I'm not talking about fancy apartments; I'm talking about basic dormitories.


SPENCER: That's interesting. So just to put these numbers in context, my understanding is that the cost of going to university has risen something like three times faster than inflation. And so, if inflation over 30 or 40 years was 300%, then the cost of going to university would be something more like 1,000%, just roughly that order of magnitude. And it sounds like, based on what you said, regulatory compliance and growing administration seems to take a big chunk of that. What about just the rising demand, especially international demand for the spots where more and more people around the world are trying to get into the schools?

NICK: It's an interesting question to look at. Clearly, one of the great things about American higher education is that it is seen as the gold standard. And so students from around the world would like to get an education over in the US. And there certainly has been a lot of demand that has gone along with that. Now, in most public universities, there is a limit on how many international students you take in. In fact, in private universities, there's usually a limit as well. But in public universities, it's often a state-mandated limit, or it's a limit that is imposed by the state system. And in either case, the intention is to serve, first and foremost, students from the particular state, if it is a public university, before serving students, either from out of state or for that matter from international places. And the demand that has been generated for the top colleges and universities in the US might be enhanced by international applications, but there's plenty of demand domestically as well. So, there's demand, particularly at the high-end. Everybody would like to get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, the Ivy League where they'd like to get into Michigan, Berkeley, Virginia, Texas, and the like. And so for the top-rated schools, really the issue is, how do you make good selections? And how do you accommodate the different kinds of constituencies who all feel they have a stake in the outcome of your admissions decisions and the kinds of priorities that you put on them? But the question of demand, and then, the connection to cost does become somewhat more complex when you begin to talk about less highly ranked colleges and universities. And for the first time, there have been significant pressures on enrollment. There have been both smaller colleges — some of them very fine colleges, but not as well known either nationally or internationally as perhaps the top brands and other second and third tier public universities that simply haven't been keeping pace in terms of student enrollment — there has been a famous case of amalgamation of different State campuses, for example, in Pennsylvania, to deal with some enrollment shortfalls that had been taking place there over the last five years or so. And of course, it includes questions having to do with cost or price, I should say in the case of tuition. But Spencer, I'd like to back up a little bit about the question of cost, because when you're looking at public universities, you're looking at a system of very fine colleges and universities that used to be funded by their states at a much higher level than they're being funded now. Let me take the example of the University of California. When my predecessor, Bob Birgeneau, was appointed as Chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2004, 34% of Berkeley's budget came from a direct allocation from the state of California. When I took over in 2012, the percentage of our budget that came from the state was down to 12%. And this was after the Great Recession of 2008-2009, which hit the University of California very, very hard, indeed. But it didn't recover. In the years when the state was beginning to recover from the recession, the state legislature did not take the allocation back to the levels that it had been before the recession. Of course, tuition was raised and students were being charged more. But those tuition increases had been much contested. There were many protests about them. And in fact, when I went out to Berkeley, Jerry Brown was the Governor of the state of California, and he imposed a six-year freeze on tuition increases. So we didn't raise tuition by $1. During the years that I was Chancellor of UC Berkeley, and I say that because it's very easy to see the overall cost, and then the overall level of indebtedness, and forget that public universities are working at a really different level, and according to a different kind of calculus than many private universities. And remember, over 70% of the student going population is educated in public universities, not in private universities. In terms of the top privates, there's a similarly complex story, because even as tuition has gone up, and sometimes to astronomical levels, so too has financial aid gone up. And before I went to Berkeley, I was Dean of the Faculty at Columbia, and I spent a good deal of time raising money to put more dollars into our endowment for financial aid, so that we could each year increase the kinds of packages that we were giving to students and increase the pool of students to whom we were able to offer those kinds of financial aid dollars. So whereas we began by offering financial aid for students from very low income families, we were, by the time I left, able to offer at least some financial aid for students from genuinely middle income families making somewhere over six figures at the time. So again, the cost issue is a hugely complex and differentiated one.

SPENCER: Let's turn to the topic of research. Because historically, I think that people generally think about research coming from three areas: you've got scientific research happening at universities, and this is sort of being done on behalf of society and all these discoveries being made; then you have military research, large government spending on that and that includes, of course, funding of academia, but it also includes your research that's more directly military oriented; and then third, you have sort of entrepreneurial research or research happening at companies. There's a really classic example being something like Bell Labs, but more realistically today, the kind of research that Google is doing, or other large companies. So I'm curious to hear how you feel the sort of role of universities have changed with regard to research, and just your general impression there.

NICK: I'm glad you raised the question of research, because it's also a critical part of what universities are and do. And it's easy to lose sight of the incredibly important role that universities play with respect to research when one is simply talking about educational issues and the cost of education in particular. So, the American research university actually began to develop in the late 19th century. And it did so on the model, actually, of the German research university. It wasn't in Oxford and Cambridge that the kind of big commitment of universities to research began; it was in Germany. And about a third of the faculty and also administrators, who were playing a major role in university life in the late 19th century in America, had gone to Germany at one point or another and came back deeply impressed by the extent to which the research university in Germany was advancing knowledge in ways that it seemed the US wasn't and could sorely use, particularly as it was launching its own innovation economy, as it was in those earlier years of the Industrial Revolution. Even thinking, too, about the importance of new understandings of agriculture, but involved as well and developing new kinds of understandings of biomedical research of materials, all the different kinds of things that go into our burgeoning American life. But from the point of view of how research in universities can contribute, so we had this kind of efflorescence of building research universities. A number of pre-existing universities began to commit to research, also to graduate training. Some new universities were established by people of great means: John D. Rockefeller endowed the University of Chicago, Leland Stanford built Stanford University, Johns Hopkins was credited as being the first real American research university. And these universities quickly began to shine in a way that almost began by the early 20th century to eclipse the German university itself. And that trajectory then was built upon and enormously aided by a decision after World War II on the part of the US government to invest a significant amount of money in university research. Vannevar Bush, who had been the provost at MIT, drafted the outline for the National Science Foundation. The National Institutes of Health was established in the post war periods. And these have been responsible for providing millions, billions of dollars for university research, using the method of giving money to individual researchers, but helping also to support the universities through the overhead that was granted along with the actual research grants to the PI's, as they were called. And this then enabled, in the post war period, enormous growth in terms of our research. And it's because of that investment, American universities became the gold standard, not only in terms of education, but in terms of our research. There are all kinds of ways that economists and others have suggested that you can calculate the benefits of university. Every dollar that goes into investment in research often ends up producing 7x its value in terms of local economic activity. But, we have only to thank about the kinds of things that we've learned about fields ranging from biology to technology in the years from 1945 to the present, to recognize the extraordinary contributions to knowledge that have come out of university research. And it's often the case, Spencer, that when you look today, and you see some of the technological miracles that we carry around with us, like the iPhone, to think, “Oh, that came out of the innovation of the Silicon Valley.” Well, almost all of the components of the iPhone were developed either in university laboratories or in government labs — places like DARPA — all funded with public dollars. The Silicon Valley itself wouldn't be the center for innovation and development of the kind that it has become, without the presence of universities all over the country, but in particular, Berkeley and Stanford, that educated so many of the major innovators, but also produce the kinds of technical knowledge that has been needed to fuel our innovation economy, things like semiconductors and the like. So again, one can talk about everything from big science — the kinds of projects that are often now funded by the Department of Energy and the National Laboratories — you can talk about the research that's done, and not just in universities, but in affiliated medical centers. And you can talk about research at any number of other venues and areas. But it does come out of that kind of commitment to funding research and to locating the bulk of that research in our great universities.

SPENCER: I'm not sure if you'd agree, but it seems to me that university research has come under increasing fire in the last few years. Maybe part of it is that people have started to feel that it's politicized. And maybe another piece of it is connected to sort of the replication crisis like in social science, which is the domain I focus on. There have been increasingly findings that a bunch of studies aren't replicating when people attempt to do the same study again; they're just not producing the same result. We've also seen similar results in cancer biology where there was a big project to try to replicate a number of results there and they weren't replicating. So I'm curious, do you see an increasing sort of tendency to critique university research and if so, what do you think is driving that?

NICK: Yeah, well, I think just to connect this part of our conversation with what we were talking about before, the first criticism of research has often been that it costs too much, and students end up paying for it, and that it is part of the overall cost structure of the university. But it gets rolled into the cost of education for students who go to universities. And of course, my argument would be (and that of many people who are in universities, either as researchers or faculty or or administrators), the truth is that students benefit from having great research being done on those campuses. They often work in those laboratories, and they can participate in and learn from the extraordinary excitement that goes into scientific discovery of many different kinds. But to your more immediate question, yeah, there is understandable concern about studies that are published, and then turn out not to be replicable. Everything from scientific misconduct to just different kinds of very incremental research that don't advance our knowledge in any significant way, even though of course, part of the problem with replication, I think, is that there's a kind of rush to publication that comes from the whole logic of evaluating faculty and researchers, and assuming that you have to publish a great deal in the top journals very quickly, in order to actually get promoted. Well, first of all, to get hired, then to get promoted, and to get tenure. And it's your grant volume that often determines your overall value as a member of the university research team. So their questions about how the structures of evaluation for university research might contribute to the crisis. There also are just egregious cases of misconduct. And when somebody does a study and shows how it should be done, and doesn't test it enough times to really believe and ensure that it is something that can be replicated in another lab by another research team, they're bringing a lot of harm to the research enterprise. And I'll be curious what your thoughts are here. But, in social science, it's not totally different. But it is a little bit of a different picture in the sense that there are criticisms of some social science research, because it may be viewed as being, say, too political. Or there may be further criticism suggesting that there are particular ideological positions that are being advanced by the research that's being done. And therefore, it's tainted by ideology or political perspective. And the idea that any research can be done independent of certain kinds of assumptions, certain kinds of values, certain kinds of understandings of the world, well, it doesn't work like that, because all science — social science, as well as chemistry, biology, physics — is done by humans. And all humans are engaged in looking at the world from the perspectives that we occupy. And we seek to be as rigorous as possible in the setting of a university and the kinds of activities that we do that we call research. But it's always going to be a human activity. And as such, it's always going to be part of how we see the world. And hopefully, it will change how we see the world. And that we'll learn things and be able to not just course correct, but sometimes really change in fundamental ways how we think about fundamental questions. But at the end of the day, we're humans, and we're doing this and humans make mistakes.

SPENCER: Yeah, on the political piece, I feel like there's a critique coming from the right, and there's a critique coming from the left. The critique coming from the right is that universities are these liberal places, and that this liberal ideology is kind of corrupting the research process and leading to certain conclusions and making certain truths unacceptable to talk about. And then the critique coming from the left is maybe that these universities tend to have this sort of canon of (let's say) liberal arts that is rooted in a sort of white westernism. And it's being upheld as like the font of knowledge, when in fact, there's all of these people that have been geniuses throughout history coming from different cultures that maybe are getting short shrift, or they're not are not getting properly included in the canon. And so, the critiques on both sides are sort of interesting. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on those two critiques.

NICK: I was always grateful that there were critiques coming from every possible different direction. That always made me feel, you know, when I was probably in a better place, fending off attacks that would come from more than one particular side. But just a few comments about those some specific kinds of critiques from different political positions. First, there's been the statement that — and I've heard it made even recently at a conference on academic freedom at Stanford — that the problem with university research is that there are too many Democrats, there are not enough Republicans. I think that what that critique misses is that when you're hiring faculty, you're not looking at their political background, you're not looking at their political perspective, you're actually looking for the best researchers. And you're often not particularly interested in what their political positions are. In fact, academic freedom is about trying to protect whatever political position a member of faculty may have and their right to express it outside of the classroom and political debates and discussions that will take place even off campus, as long as one can maintain a sense of the rigor with which both teaching is done in the classroom. And research is done in laboratories or in archives and studies and then disseminated in and across both scholarly and public domains. The charge that was made, for example, in Congress that the problem with political sciences that it's too political is — well, stick one with a charge that hurts — of course, it's political in the sense that if you're debating districting or redistricting, or voting levels, or rates, or any number of issues that have now become the grist of political debate in our political process, you're going to seem to take positions that may be viewed by some who disagree with you as more political than as social scientific. But there's a fine line. And it's very hard to draw it in a way that is either exact or will satisfy everybody looking at it. I think the issue here is how to maintain a certain level of transparency about the relationship between assumptions and methods on the one side and conclusions and recommendations on the other. And also fundamental commitment to the kind of rigor that ultimately is what advances academic knowledge — whether it's humanistic, social, scientific, scientific — from any number of different kinds of disciplinary perspectives.

SPENCER: Why do you think it is that if you poll academics, they tend to be much more liberal leaning? Is that sort of a historical fact than a path dependent thing? Or do you think there's something else going on there?

NICK: Well, first of all, I think, if you look right now at the political divides in our country, on the basis of who is Republican and who's democratic, you're missing a great deal of the actual spectrum in terms of political positions and commitments of different kinds. I think it's no accident, in my view, that a great many historians are anthropologists — and those are the two disciplines that I've taught in my role as a faculty member — tend towards what would be seen as the left side of the political spectrum. But that's partly because there are certain kinds of commitments that often lead one to study these fields that include, for example, belief in the importance of social justice. Now, what social justice translates into in terms of either precise policies or political opinions or whatever is, in fact, hugely variable. And if you came to a faculty seminar, and you just assumed that everybody was in massive agreement with each other all the time, you would be shocked to realize that academics spend most of the time arguing with each other and most of the time arguing with the people who are closest to them, that is to say, in their own departments, in their own fields. So there's a huge amount of disagreement and lively debate, and it moves all over the place. So the closer you get, the more you see what you would probably expect from any kind of human activity, which is to say, a real mix of positions and perspectives. So I think it isn't terribly helpful to look at formal political affiliations in America today. And I think that you're going to learn a lot from mapping that on to the academy as a group of individuals.


SPENCER: Before we wrap up, let's turn to the topic of the humanities, because some people feel that a kind of humanities curriculum is outdated and that it's not preparing people for the jobs of today. Whereas others argue that these are the fundamental topics that an educated person should learn about, and it kind of stands the test of time. So I'm wondering where you stand on that question. And what do you think the role of the humanities is in the future?

NICK: So there has been, of course, a lot of criticism, not just at the university at large (as we've been talking about) and not just of science and social science, but of the humanities. And there's been a growing sense that it is, at best, a kind of luxury. And sure, if you don't have to worry about a job, if you have come from a wealthy family and you go to a fancy college, you can spend your time reading humanities, and it's not going to be a bad thing for you that if you actually need to get an education, that's going to equip you for a job, and you don't have a lot of time to just indulge yourself in reading irrelevant texts, go for it. I do have a different point of view on this. And I think, in fact, that in some respects, the humanities are showing themselves to be more important today than they've been in years. And I say that for a number of different reasons. First, look at the kinds of debates we're having in our country: about the nature of democracy, about the nature of the state, about the role of the market, about the growing inequality that we see all around us, about fundamental questions having to do with our government, our society, our culture. Where do you actually learn about both the history of those debates and those different kinds of arguments that can be made, but also learn how to sharpen your sense of what the issues really are, and what the stakes really are, and what the stakes have been, historically, as well as what the stakes might be? And thinking about the future tends to be the case that those explorations take place in disciplines that we group under the name of the humanities. And I think this is not just around the questions that I just mentioned. Having to do with the kind of polarization that we've experienced in recent years in growing and increasingly disturbing waves, it also has to do with, I think, what we began our discussion talking about. Take coding. If you look at how social media works, if you look at how technology is being directed and utilized and developed, if you think about even some of the developments in science that are most extraordinary — for example, the discovery that the technology of CRISPR cast nine gene editing using RNA can actually not just perhaps take out a gene that causes something like sickle cell anemia or Huntington's disease, but change other parts of the human body (your height, your athletic prowess, any number of other things), — you quickly realize that issues around ethics are the kinds of things that are discussed in classes around philosophy, but are pretty important even outside that seminar; in fact, are of great moment in terms of decisions that all of us are going to have to be thinking about, not just individually, but the level of our social and political compact. So you could take the example of self-driving cars. There are going to be computer coders who are going to be developing the software that will be used to navigate cars that will soon be, I think, in greater numbers, plying our streets and doing so without benefit of an individual driver behind the wheel. And lo and behold, it turns out, they might have to make split second decisions about things that, in fact, are part of a core course in philosophy: something called the trolley problem, which famously poses the question of whether if you had a chance to direct a trolley on one track or another, and kill, say, five older people on the one side and three young children on the other side, which would you choose? Not to say that that's a decision that there should be a hard and fast decision about, but rather that it's the kind of decision that is going to be fundamental, even to the world of technology, that, again, is going to dominate our economy more and more in the years going forward. So where do you get the kind of perspectives you need to begin to take on board those weighty kinds of questions, if not for the humanities. So I think the humanities are at a stage in their development, where they have to pay more attention, on the one side, to science and technology and to issues that go beyond the canons that they often not only have inherited but take as their primary subject matter and teaching. But by the same token, I think it would be more important than ever for engineers and scientists and people working in technology, and people across not just other disciplines but other sectors of society, to more regularly include perspectives from the humanities to try to figure these things out.

SPENCER: I feel that if we look at different humanities, the case for some of them is more obvious around why it's really relevant today, right? Like political science. You can say, “Well, we have all this political strife in the US and polarization and questions about democracy and it's like, okay, so that...” You can make that argument. And moral philosophy, right? You can see how that connects in many ways to society. But I feel that with some humanities, let's say studying literature or poetry or certain kinds of more abstracted studies that feel less connected to society, people may wonder, “Well, how are those really relevant today?”

NICK: Well, in my family, it's a question that seems almost personal. My son just graduated from college a couple of years ago, and he majored in English, and went off then to do a Master's in Public Policy and Management. He thought he needed to get a different kind of degree to actually go out in the world after college. He loved reading literature as a student and found it to be incredibly helpful for himself as he was figuring out who he was, and what fundamental questions about the meaning of life entailed for him, and so on. But leave them aside, childish things, let them go. Well, he's now teaching in a school in the UK, and he's teaching high school students. And he went back to teach English because he found not only himself drawn back to these questions, but realized in the experiences that he had and talking to young people, how these are not just frivolous pursuits — to read poetry and novels and take a few tests, and then move on — because they really are about some of the core questions that we ask ourselves all the time about what's the meaning of life. And we're in a moment in our society when whole generations are being diagnosed with anxiety, when we could say we have a mental health crisis, when there are many young people who are asking about whether it's the coming climate crisis or whether it's about growing political strife, or simply whether it's about a sense of alienation from the larger economic and social structures that we have as a society? What and how do I make sense of this? And there's really no better way to begin that process, or at least to engage a serious part of that process, than by putting oneself in a literary text, where one can really try to see things from somebody else's point of view, where one can experience somebody else's life, and the struggles that they're going through where one can have a kind of dialogue with another time, another place, another person, another set of people. And these are all things that literature allows. It's, to me, kind of fundamental to who we are as humans. And if we just said, for reasons of utility, we're simply going to say the humanities are irrelevant, or literature is no longer important, I think we're making a monumental mistake.

SPENCER: So my final question for you, and it's a pretty big question. Society is changing rapidly and universities don't have the best reputation for changing rapidly, right? These are large institutions that are rooted in history. So what I'm wondering is, how do you see the role of universities changing in the future? I know, that's a difficult question to answer, but I'm curious about your thoughts on that.

NICK: Well, that is a very difficult question. And I can only sort of hack at it a little bit in this conversation with you, Spencer. But I do think two things. One is, universities don't have a reputation for changing quickly. You're absolutely right. But I've looked at the history of universities in this country in particular. And, it's fair to say that they're slow, but they do change. They keep changing. And the truth is that if you look at the kinds of courses that were taught, and the kinds of questions that were raised, and the kinds of issues that were at the forefront of everything from curriculum to research, over the course of the last 150-200 years, you'll see enormous change. But that being said, a lot of the disciplines that were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still pretty much the disciplines that universities have a lot of the structures we follow: from the four year degree to the PhD. And so these were all things that were set up quite a while ago. And arguably, given the times we're in, we're gonna have to figure out how universities can change more quickly. And I agree with that. And I think that, while on the one hand universities have been around for a while — I mean, they are among the oldest institutions that we have, and they tend to be the ones that stick around century after century after century, and they do so partly because of their resistance to change — but they do so partly because they also do change. And we're at a time now, I think, that not only is that change needed, but we need to be intentional about some of those changes. We need to be deliberative about it. But we also need to think about how to direct that change. So I mentioned earlier when we were chatting about certification, that I think it would be a good idea for universities to be much more flexible in terms of how students come, go, come back, not just across the course of a period during which they're getting a basic degree, but across a lifetime. And I think universities have a lot of work to do to figure out what this term ‘lifelong learning' can actually mean, in terms of the way they set up as institutions, not just as profit centers. And I think as well that the disciplines have to really reorganize how they think about delivering knowledge and pursuing more knowledge in terms of both education and research. And I believe that there are a set of ways in which universities could work together much better than they do today. They tend to be very competitive. They tend to see their success in part as where their relative ranking is, and things like US News and World Report. And we've seen a little bit of pushback against that recently, in terms of law schools, which I think is great, but just the beginning. And in that respect, I think the truth of the matter is that it's often the universities that are not at the very top of the game that tend sometimes to be the most amenable to change. I would call out, for example, the work of a friend of mine, who's been the president now for 20 years of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, for the work that he's done in changing that institution when he went there in (I think) 2002. It was a pretty sleepy state university. Well, under the shadow of the University of Arizona, it's now a place that has reconfigured how disciplinary teaching and learning takes place. It's become one of the largest purveyors of online education, in addition to being one of the largest, if not the largest public university in terms of the residential students who are actually there on campus. It's got a College of Global Futures that brings different disciplines from the sciences and social sciences and humanities together. It's pretty remarkable and is a kind of model I think for others in terms of how much change not only can be tolerated, but could actually be the basis on which we could significantly reinvent some aspects of these institutions that really do have to keep changing in order to both maintain relevance, but also to respond to all the criticisms and critiques that are circulating out there, and that we do have to take very seriously indeed.

SPENCER: Nick, thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

NICK: Thank you, Spencer. It's been great. Fun chatting with you, and I really appreciate your questions.


JOSH: A listener asks, "You've mentioned you're an atheist. When did you become one? Or have you always been one? And what would it take to convince you of the existence of spiritual or supernatural things?"

SPENCER: So I never believed in a particular religion. Even from an early age, I did go to Sunday school, but I never was convinced by what they were telling me at Sunday school. I would say it would be pretty easy to be convinced of religion, for me. For example, if, let's say, a certain religion — they were routinely able to show that God does things for them that can't be done otherwise. For example, let's say they can turn water into wine repeatedly in a way that, you know, no magicians or scientists can figure out how it's done, and they can have miracles walking on water and so forth. I think if someone really had those powers, they were able to tap into God in that way, I think it'd be pretty easy to convince people, including myself. You know, obviously I would come in skeptically and I would assume at first it was a magician's trick. But you know, you think about people who lived around Jesus, according to the biblical stories. Jesus was doing all kinds of miracles to prove to them that he was the son of God, right? So like, you know, now people believe without those miracles, but at the time at least it seemed like miracles were the way to convince people. And I think that, yeah, I think they could be very convincing if they were real.




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