Who is Tyler Cowen is probably your first question. The short answer is go look him up on Wikipedia or something. The medium answers is he’s the guy who awarded me the largest grant I’ve ever received for my community journalism work as a member of his first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners, a grant and fellowship focused on “moon-shot” ideas. The long answer can only be discovered by reading his books and listening to his podcast. 

Without a doubt, he is probably the smartest guy I’ve ever met. Wikipedia mentions he was ranked at number 72 among the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” in 2011 by Foreign Policy Magazine if that means anything to you. I like to describe Tyler as the guy who doesn’t interview Mark Zuckerberg on his podcast because Zuckerberg interviews Tyler on his.

Last week, Tyler wrote a piece for Bloomberg titled ‘At Tyler Cowen University, No One Would Have Tenure – If you could start an institution of higher learning from scratch, what would it look like?’  Here’s my thoughts on his thoughts, if I may be so bold. 

I would start with what I expect students to know. They should be able to write very well, have  a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning. 

Tyler Cowen

When Tyler brought the couple dozen first recipients of Emergent Venture winners together to D.C. in 2019 from around the globe, we peppered him with all types of questions to pick his brain. One guy wanted to know how long it takes for him to review an application for his grant before he approves it. Tyler said it takes him no more than 10-seconds of reading an applicant’s submission before he rejects them. I knew then that effective writing was really important to him and to know I got him to read my application beyond 10-seconds is still one of the greatest honors of my life. 

Tyler is one of the world’s top economist and experts on public policy. I listen to his podcast and usually have no clue what he and his guest are talking about. (He thought I was kidding when I told him that). His real followers almost worship the knowledge he shares in his writings and podcast, so I appreciate why he expects his students to have a basic understanding of econ, public policy, and stats.

…the people who write and grade the students’ tests would not be their instructors. So students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam.

Tyler Cowen

Imagine taking the burden of grading papers off of instructors. I often say the benefit of science education is the fairness of grading. Solving problems in engineering classes are easy to grade because they are either right or wrong unlike what happens too often to liberal arts or business school students who are subject of the instructor’s bias, opinion, or objectivity. I’ve seen for myself many minority students who come up short because of it. 

If you learned three programming languages, for example, or won a prize in a science fair, that would go on your page as a credential. But it would not count as a credit toward graduation. Some students could finish their degrees in a year or two even if their pages were not adorned with many accomplishments, while others might fill their pages but get no degree.

Tyler Cowen

I’d like for this concept to be fleshed out a little more for my understanding, however, I’ve learned that in these times, employers in the tech space are less likely to hire based on a college degree, GPA, or where you went to school. They reward proven successful experience in the area they’re hiring for. 

My imaginary school would not have many assistant deans, student affairs staff or sports teams. The focus would be on paying more money to the better instructors. There would be plenty of humanities classes, primarily aimed at helping students learn how to write well, but the topics might range from Dante to hip hop.

Tyler Cowen

Tyler is the furthest thing from a nerd you’d ever find in a man with his pedigree. He loves hip-hop and NBA basketball. And, as he reiterates, he wants to see people become better writers. There’s something about writing he values greatly as it contributes to becoming a better learner and thinker. 

Instructors would not have tenure, but would have to compete for students — by offering them classes and services that would help them graduate and improve the quality of their certification pages. Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract…

Tyler Cowen

This is a revolutionary concept that makes the situation with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times Magazine who was denied a tenured position at the University of North Carolina after the university’s board of trustees took the highly unusual step of failing to approve the journalism department’s recommendation, a mute point. Thankfully, she took her talents to Howard University where she’ll be a great asset to the students. Should instructors earn a living based on how many students they can attract? What a concept. 

The very best instructors could earn $300,000 to $400,000 a year. They might attract students through their research, or with their active online presence, or even by helping students negotiate online courses from other institutions; the students themselves would judge the efficacy of those investments.

Tyler Cowen

We have always undervalued educators, especially in the elementary and high schools in terms of salary. College professors don’t make a great living unless they’re tenured and find ways to make money on the side. Business school professors always seem to do well, though. Tyler is suggesting ways this could change. 

He offers other “moon-shot” suggestions for changing how education is delivered which is what he rewards all the Emergent Venture folks to do in their own disciplines. He has a discerning eye for genius that contributes to making a difference and rewards it with grants and support. 

Am I sure that my “fantasy university,” if it ever became reality, would work? Of course not. So I encourage you to come up with your own proposal. Because I am sure of this: Higher education is in desperate need of more innovation, and there’s room for more than one idea.

Tyler Cowen

Tyler is a dreamer and a realist at the same time. He encourages everyone to find the genius in themselves to change the things so many of us take for granted. 

He’s interested in coming to Chester. Would you attend a lecture when I get him here?

Read the complete Bloomberg article HERE.

Tyler set us up to attend a field trip at the National Air and Space Museum. At first I didn’t understand why we went there until I associated it with his “moon-shot” concept. We finally asked him what’s in that bag he carried on his shoulder the entire weekend. It’s applications for Emergent Venture grants he reads and only the ones that pass his 10-second test get considered.