A candidate trying to decide between graduate schools recently asked me which

“types of public administration, political, or civic problems you are attempting to provide solutions to with your research?  For example, which questions are you tackling right now?”

Of course, right now I’m grading. But in a slightly more general sense of “right now,” I’d say that I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Does the bureaucratization of public policy sap its legitimacy? What can be done to preserve administrative institutions’ efficiency and egalitarianism while rendering them responsive to citizen concerns? How important are concerns about ‘psuedo-consultation’ or top down mobilizations that create the appearance of legitimacy while squelching dissent?
  2. What is the source of legitimacy, in general? Is it consensus? Fair procedures? Just policies? Citizen participation?
  3. How should we think of the relationship between global poverty and domestic politics? What role does inequality play within a polity? What role does it play in international relations? What can be done to reduce the intense suffering associated with global poverty? Are some strategies self-defeating?
  4. Which is more important: having one’s needs met, or having unhindered access to the political process? When they’re equally important, is it acceptable to forgo the meeting of some needs for the least advantaged in order to bolster political accountability to the middle class?
  5. Can participatory democracy (either activist or deliberativist varieties) adequately plan for, and respond to, risks and hazards? If constitutional essentials are regularly at risk, are we obligated to rely on experts to properly manage such risks?
  6. What problems typically face transitional democracies? What kinds of lessons can established democracies learn from these newly minted republics?
  7. What role does pluralism play in bolstering (or weakening) civic engagement?
  8. How should we think about the relationship between market-oriented solutions and institutional solutions? Can the market’s tendency to exacerbate inequality (both economic and political) be resolved adequately with the use of transfer payments and guaranteed services?
  9. I’m hoping to start working more on policing and punishment. One aspect of that interest has to do with the question of testimonial privilege and the culture of deception in police departments. The other aspect is related to the hidden costs of over-incarceration and the status of Pell Grants for prisoners.
  10. Do Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum supply a solution to conflicting accounts of political justice in their accounts of entitlement and capabilities?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it captures many of my concerns. Because of the nature of the request, these questions are primarily in public policy. There’s a related set of questions in philosophy proper having to do with things like identity and authenticity, the relationship between one and many, the metaphysics of personhood and freedom, the distinction between rights and privileges, and the difference between what evolutionary psychogists and x-phi types call ‘moral intuitions’ and the traditional use of intuition in epistemology.

This is not to mention various authorial questions in the history of philosophy, primarily related to Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, and the classic “M” civic republicans: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Madison, and Marx. What’s striking, however, is how often those questions now seem to be subsidiary to the general policy and normative questions, rather than primary as they did when I first began to pursue philosophy.

If I ran the zoo…

The National Association of Scholars is running a series on visions of the academy, amusingly based on the Dr. Seuss story about re-inventing a zoo.

Dr. Seuss’s protagonist, young Gerald McGrew, suffers none of his sophisticated contemporaries’s deadly contempt for life as it is, or for his social surroundings.  His opening words are, “It’s a pretty good zoo, and the fellow who runs it seems proud of it too.”  But McGrew imagines he could do better.   He would release the current animals and acquire creatures such as a ten-footed lion and a family of Lunks in a bucket from the wilds of Nantucket.   He dreams of zookeeper glory, when “the whole world will say, ‘Young McGrews’s made his mark. / He’s built a zoo better than Noah’s whole Ark!’”

McGrew’s bestiary comes from Linneas-knows-not-where, but surely Dr. Seuss has posed a good question.  If you ran the zoo, could you outdo McGrew?

It’s a nice conceit, although many of the authors have been grinding various axes with affirmative action, speech codes, or feminism and not really offering much of value. Some of them also offer some good sense alongside the bullshit. Anyway, it’s a fun game without any chance of changing anything, but if I somehow found myself Commissioner of all things post-secondary, well, here’s what I’d do:

If I ran American Higher Education…

…all libraries would allow coffee in spill-proof containers.

…all academic journals would be published on-line and freely available to the public.

…there would be Pell Grants for prisoners and incarcerated students would get quality faculty to teach them.

…there’d be no pro-male affirmative action. Women, who have higher scores and higher grades, would be admitted in numbers proportionate to their qualifications, not rejected to keep classes gender balanced.

…there’d be more, smaller schools rather than massive megaversities.

…charitable donations would not be tax-deductible unless used for scholarships, architecture, or books.

…schools would never pay for computer operating systems: Ubuntu or typewriters are fine, but no proprietary tech, especially if it’s donated to create path dependent consumers. (Computers and software have played a major role in hiking tuition and expending endowments in the last two decades.)

…there’d be no organized athletics.

…no course could count towards a degree unless taught by a Ph.D.

…graduate students would be students, not cheap labor. Grading and research assistance would not be available as a perk for talented researchers, and classes would have to be sized to be gradeable by a single person.

…every “full-time” faculty member would be required to teach at least four courses a year, regardless of endowed chairs or administrative tasks.

…full-time researchers would work for private scientific labs or political think tanks. Basic research would occur at these private labs but be publicly funded and results would be owned by the public. Faculty would be expected to go on sabbatical if they wanted to go work for one of these labs or think tanks, so no double-dipping. (I could go on, here, but the research university has really damaged higher ed in this country, as Eisenhower suggested it would: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”)

…there’d be fewer administrators, and administrators would always answer to faculty, not vice versa.

…law school would only take two years, not three.

…medical education would proceed from nurse’s training or physician’s assistant training to medical school, and every MD would have to work as an RN or a PA before moving on.

…graduate students in the liberal arts and sciences would be required to teach high school students for a year in their subject area, after receiving a Masters but before going on to finish their Ph.D. (This is similar to the French system, and has the perk of creating a pool of better educated and more enthusiastic high school teachers, while supplying better prepared freshmen and making the last two years of high school worthwhile rather than a waste of everyone’s time.)

Anyway, I offer the challenge to my baker’s dozen of readers: how would you run the zoo if you were its keeper?

[UPDATE: In the interestes of transparency, I’ve been tinkering with some of the suggestions based on reader comments. Most notably, I got rid of a prohibition on fraternities and sororities, and changed a hard student-limit to a soft prescription for smaller schools.]