Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yao and Preparata on US higher education

Andy Yao and Franco Preparata sat on a panel at Brown about globalization. Andy Yao said that the US system of higher education was the best in the world, for the following reasons.

- Indirect evidence from the results. US institutions of higher learning train the best scientists and the best engineers, he said. I would say that it is an indicator of the quality of the PhD and Masters programs, but not necessarily of the undergraduate programs.

- Merit-based decisions for admitting students, hiring faculty, and promotion to tenure. Andy Yao specifically praised the tenure-track system, that, by putting new hires on probation for 6 years, prevents hiring mistakes from having life-long consequences. As someone who has greatly benefited from the French tenured-upon-hiring system, as a friend of women who have avoided the stressful tenure-track phase by spending the early part of their career in industry labs, and as a witness of women who wait until tenure before having children (at 35, the age when fertility starts to decrease significantly and the risk of genetic defects in babies rises), I see the great personal cost of the tenure-track system and am reluctant to consider its advantages.

- Franco Preparata added the 9-month salary system: US universities only pay faculty for work 9 months of the year. That gives professors both freedom and incentive to go elsewhere for the remaining three months: visit another university or industry lab. The arrangement promotes the exchange of ideas and cross-fertilization between different places.


  1. So it's "stressful therefore successful?"

  2. Anonymous, I think - I hope - that it's not so much about putting stress on people so that they work harder (a rather unpleasant perspective) as it is about correcting hiring mistakes.

  3. I cannot comment on U.S. graduate programs in science and engineering. However, in my opinion, the graduate system in the humanities and social sciences is seriously flawed. It is inefficient, which equates to significant amounts of lost opportunity costs for individuals (students) as well as for the nation as a whole. The tenure track system can create a culture that is ossified; it is also far from meritorious (politics often plays a large role in deciding who does/does not gain tenure). Graduate programs do not adhere to a standardized grading system, which makes it difficult for companies to determine which applicants are the most capable/brightest. Finally, cheating by both graduate students and by undergraduates is rampant, which has important ramifications with regards to the educational experience of those students.

    As an aside, I was not at the conference and would be interested in knowing which variables Yao and Preparata used to measure American students vs. foreign students. "Indirect evidence" is often tenuous indeed. I would love to see a paper that used valid and reliable measures, ie. from a standardized test given to students pre-entry and post-entry that measured knowledge in specific areas as well as other skills pertinent to their profession.

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