Higher education’s ‘bad ideas’?

According to Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University and a senior politician in both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations, higher education suffers from some ‘bad ideas’. Two of the perhaps surprising ones he lists in an interview with the Washington Post are the end of mandatory retirement in US universities, and small group seminars.

In relation to mandatory retirement, Summers argues that as tenured professors hang on into their old age the average age of the academic staff rises, disconnecting them from the young student body.

The problem with small group teaching, he suggests, is that ‘professors are loathe to give bad grades to students they see at the other side of a table every day.’ In other words, he believes that teaching a small number of students makes it difficult to treat them objectively, and this in turn stokes grade inflation.

Larry Summers is not a typical spokesperson for the academic community, but on the other hand he has a ready audience for his statements. So then, is he right in relation to these points? It has long been my view that the compulsory retirement of academics (and others, for that matter) is now hard to justify. But of course an older average age follows – and does this indeed create an academy to which students will find it hard to relate? And have we been wrong all along to seek to defend small group teaching? Or could it be that better grades flow from the better attention students get, rather than from familiarity?

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9 Comments on “Higher education’s ‘bad ideas’?”

  1. The idea that older academics don’t relate to the students is pure nonsense. Some of the older academics are the ones I remember most fondly from my undergrad days. And some of the young ones can be just as remote and inaccessible as any septuagenarian.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    There are many arguments which I could advance in favour of small group teaching and the benefits thereof, not to mention an academic’s ability to detach personal feelings when judging a student’s work – but, seriously, has Summers never heard of anonymous marking?

  3. Jilly Says:

    I’ve never worked in the US, but from conversations I’ve had with people who do, there does seem to be a very different culture of marking there, which includes the common practice of students who have been given, for example, a C grade approaching the professor and asking them to raise it (typically because of the ‘need’ to maintain a certain grade point average, or to gain entry to another course), which for reasons I’ve never understood, many professors will consider doing.

    No Irish student has *ever* done this to me or to anyone else I know, but if they did, it wouldn’t be entertained. But perhaps this is what Summers is referring to – in a culture where grades are negotiable, perhaps it *is* harder to say no to a student you know well. Either way, I don’t think the problem there is with small group teaching!

    • Wendymr Says:

      I have had American exchange students make that kind of request, sometimes expressed in an attitude of entitlement. It appalled me. In one case I’d given the student – in the third year of her degree programme in the US – a D, due to basing her essay on one single source and grossly inadequate referencing. This was on a first-year undergrad course. The student made clear that her usual grade was an A.

      This incident in particular left me with a very poor impression of US marking standards – and, of course, the student’s grade did not change.

  4. Vince Says:


    Take a look at this. And closely at the facilities. This is what we are dealing with and need to address, not some ex-pres carping. So the more thinkers we have the better. More mill operatives for high tech machines popped like peas from a higher educational pod are the needs of the 80s as exemplified by Ed Walsh at that time.

  5. The retirement age would not be a problem if there was a proper system for evaluating the quality of the performance of academics.

  6. The simplest solution to small group bias is blind double marking. In my direct experience of this process being applied in a situation where the small group affection factor had been assumed, the results held up, and in some cases were found even to have a been a little harsh. And you only need to do it once for lasting effect.

  7. cormac Says:

    Typical Summers. His argument ignores an obvious fact – most professors of advanced age keep up research, but not teaching. This adds a great deal of expertise to the research expertise of a department but has no impact on the undergraduate students.
    How does a former President of Harvard not know this? How do people with such little knowledge of academia get to such high positions ?

  8. kevin denny Says:

    Cormac, while you or I might not agree with everything that Summers says he has a fairly wide experience of academia & of policy making (& business too). He also grew up in in academic environment (I think two of his uncles won Nobel prizes for economics , Arrow & Samuelson).
    I think Summers would be better aware of trends in US academia than most people in Ireland. In my experience, academics’ research productivity tails off before the 60s (or earlier)- certainly in technical areas like maths, physics,economics. Maybe not the humanities where they just seem to get wiser – the bastards.

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