Archive for September, 2010

The University Today

September 10th, 2010 by under The University Today. No Comments.

The American university system has enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest in the world.  Today, however, the university is subject to criticisms on multiple fronts.  Tuition is too high, athletics have become too dominant, and not enough students in the US are getting a college degree. I have seen very little written that looks at the complete picture of the modern American university.

Possibly colored by a career in higher education, I feel that the key to a country’s success is an educated population.  Jobs are becoming more and more skilled; workers have to be educated to survive and flourish in the 21st century world economy.  Particularly in the U.S., a high-wage economy, we have to compete in the world on knowledge rather than brawn.  As the ad says “an educated consumer is our best customer.”  Many of the people who got into severe trouble with mortgages were fooled by mortgage brokers; they did not have the education to understand the situation they were placing themselves in with trick mortgages.  Beyond the economy, the political success of a country depends on education.  One of Thomas Jefferson’s biggest concerns about democracy was having an educated population who could participate in the political process with enough knowledge to make good decisions.

This country has a hierarchy of higher education, with the community colleges playing a vital role, providing either a stepping stone to a four-year degree, or a terminal associates degree that prepares the student for a specific career.   The four-year college is primarily a teaching institution, though some of its faculty may engage in research.

At the top of the hierarchy is the research university, and most criticism seems to be aimed at this group.  Complaints of tuition, room and board at private schools that are in excess of $50,000 a year instill fear in parents trying to save for their children’s education.  We hear stories of faculty who only teach three courses a year, with full professors averaging six-figure salaries. And at some of these universities an undergraduate may see far more doctoral students in front of the class than tenured faculty.

How have we come to this?  There is much reform needed in American higher education, especially at research universities, but before discussing some ideas for change, I would like to look at the research university and its larger ecosystem.  We have developed an institution where research is one of the key activities of the faculty; salary, promotion and tenure all depend on it.  Has anyone asked the fundamental question of why society wants universities to conduct research?

One reason may be that by and large industry has stopped doing fundamental research; industrial research is aimed at development and products, not a basic understanding of science.  There is very little industry research in the social sciences either.  Why should a society care about or indulge in research?  I am sure there are many philosophical treatises on this topic, but my personal view is simply that research is what helps us improve lives.  It is the basis for all progress in a society, and one sign of a developed and enlightened economy is being able to invest, to devote resources to research that will pay off sometime in the future.

Because industry does not seem very interested in basic research, except possibly in the life sciences, the government has taken on much responsibility for sponsoring it.  The outside contractor that does the largest share of fundamental research is the American university.  As a result there is heavy competition for research grants, and faculty members are evaluated on bringing in grants and publishing new knowledge.  I sometimes wonder at the research topics I see in conferences, on papers and in our journals, but one never knows when something obscure will turn out to be of major importance.

What about those faculty, me included, who do not teach five, six or seven courses?  There are two answers here, the first is that research and teaching both take time.  What is the tradeoff between the two?  The university wants faculty who are famous both for research and teaching, because they attract students and funding.  The research university has built an infrastructure and hired a number of faculty members to conduct a certain amount of research; they must feed this creation with a steady diet of grants from the outside.  The second answer is that schools are in competition with each other for star faculty and students.  If all of one’s competitors are offering faculty a three-course teaching load, then you had better match the competition.

How about tenure and salaries?  Whether correct or not, faculty salaries do reflect supply and demand.  Typically medical schools, law schools and business schools pay the highest salaries in that order.  The argument is that these faculty are attractive to the general market for these professions.  There is less demand for an English professor, and her salary reflects the basic supply and demand equation.  Is paying a humanities professor $50,000 to $100,000 a year “too much?”  She may have spent six years or more after a bachelor’s degree to get a Ph.D., and may inspire students for a 30 or 40 year career.  You will have to make this judgment yourself, but I am happy to see someone teaching make a reasonable living.

What about this thing called tenure?  No one else seems to have it except in teaching.  And as a result you can’t fire your tenure mistakes.  I recognize the problems with a life-time job and have tried to encourage some tenured faculty who have stopped being productive to retire.  But what is the reason for tenure in the first place.  Bill Sharpe, the Nobel laureate, has argued that tenure allows a school to pay below-market wages over a person’s career in return for job security.  That is one way of looking at tenure.  To me the major reason for tenure is to guarantee academic freedom.  When a new dictator takes over a country in a coup, the first course of action is to close the universities.  Why?  Because a university faculty member with tenure can say that the King has no clothes.  It was a faculty member whose research led to much needed regulatory changes at the NASDAQ.  Lacking tenure, I have no doubt that the managers involved would have pressured the university to suppress the research and fire the faculty member.

What about high tuitions?  At public universities the level of state support is constantly dropping.  I have heard that the state of Maryland provides the University at College Park with about 30% of its budget.   We have to find the rest someplace.  And private colleges at $50K?  You need to remember that only a small number of parents pay this amount; there is extensive financial aid.  The idea is to gain as much revenue as possible from people with the desire and the ability to pay, and to subsidize the rest of the student population.  A few people desperate for more funding have even suggested auctioning off the last 5 or 10 places in the class to the highest bidder.  I am not willing to go that far yet.

Does the American university system need reform?  Definitely.  There are some issues to be addressed in another post including:

  1. Excessive emphasis on athletics that conflict with the fundamental values of the university.
  2. A bloated cost structure and outmoded business models.
  3. Inadequate basis for funding.
  4. An economic model that appears to be unsustainable.

Athletics ($5.6 million) Academics (-139)

September 10th, 2010 by under The University Today. No Comments.

Athletics is a huge business in the world, and no place is it more a part of life than the United States.  We have major professional sports leagues in football, baseball, basketball, hockey and a growing interest in soccer.  What began as friendly competition among universities in these sports has become a huge industry, a major line of business for schools.

I would like to see our universities focus on what should be their core competence: education, research and leadership on the important issues facing the world.  Unfortunately, alumni seem to measure the value of their schools by how their sports teams perform.  It has been reported that the quality and quantity of undergraduate applicants is correlated with the success of sports teams, though I have not seen the data.  I did have a colleague from a college that once went to a football bowl game say that the school has never reached the level of alumni contributions it received that year again.

A quick look at the NCAA web site shows the distressing graduation rates for college athletes, especially basketball players.  No, they don’t all go on to the NBA.  A large number of schools are recruiting players for their teams who have little interest in a college education.  And the schools have little interest in them after they have used up their eligibility for their sport.

Common wisdom is that universities make a great deal of money from football and basketball, and that these sports pay for the rest of the athletic program, and maybe even subsidize academics.  A New York Times 10/3/2010) article about the University of Florida states that only 14 of the 120 largest football schools made money in 2008-9.  Schools in the big leagues of football increased their spending by 11% that year, and overall universities increased their contributions to athletics by 28% even as the economy went into free fall.

Schools have booster clubs and fan clubs that raise money for athletics so that it does not appear that the University is paying for them.  At the University of Florida the athletic budget went up $5.6 million to almost $95 million while the university laid off 139 faculty and staff members from 2007 to 2010 in response to a $150 million reduction in state funding. The department has the use of three airplanes. The University of Florida athletic director makes $1.2 million a year, the basketball coach $4.5 million, the volleyball coach $365,000 and the softball coach $253,000 including benefits.  And people are criticizing the salaries of college presidents, a few of which have hit $1 million a year for managing organizations with budgets over $1 billion?

To be fair, the article states that athletics have contributed more than $55 million to academics since 1990 at Florida.  But that is not the point.  The University could start other businesses to try and make money, say a consulting company using its faculty.  However, that is not the core business of a University.  Noncore activities distract the institution from its mission, and when it comes to this kind of emphasis on athletics, sends exactly the wrong message to everyone involved with the school.

Are we telling the inner city child that it makes the most sense to work on his basketball skills rather than his studies to get into college?  Are we telling our students and faculty that the job of the football and basketball coaches is so important than it pays a multiple of what the college president earns?  How can a school say it values academics and pay the softball coach more than most full professors?

Let’s get athletics back where they belong-as a student extracurricular activity. Stop hiring athletes to represent the school.  Eliminate athletic scholarships and limit coaches salaries to 75% of the average salary of full professors in the university and maybe things will get back into perspective.

Or, if sports are so ingrained in the University, then make them a real subsidiary.  License the name of the University and let the NFL and NBA operate the teams as farm clubs.  Baseball has to run its minor leagues, why not football and basketball?  Then we could really run these as a business and not bother the employees (athletes) having to go to class.  The school can sell branded merchandise and earn a franchise fee for the use of its name.  And the university can focus all of its energies on its core mission of education, research and leadership.


The Information Systems Academic Field: A Crisis in the Making

September 1st, 2010 by under For Information Systems Academics. No Comments.

The Information Systems academic field began in the late 1960s when faculty in business schools realized that technology was likely to change organizations in many different ways.  Computer scientists were interested in computers, but not necessarily their use in organizations nor their impact on those who worked with these machines.

In those early days a firm could choose from a half-dozen mainframe vendors who offered computers with different computational power.  These machines belonged to a central department where personnel designed and programmed applications of the mainframes.  These departments developed reputations as being unresponsive for taking a long time to develop systems.

In 1981 IBM announced its PC, and individual users flocked to devices that gave them computational power on their desktops.  They were free from the central technology group.  Soon, however, these users realized they needed the data from mainframe systems, and so it became important to network the computers in an organization.

When the Internet became available for profit-making use in 1995, we saw the confluence of an international network, huge data stores, and powerful computational abilities.  The world has not been the same since as we discuss in remarks about transformational technologies.

The academic IS field has followed along with trends in the industry, looking at topics like the impact of technology, the value from investing in IT, technology acceptance, data bases, expert systems, electronic commerce and Web 2.0.  This research has grown more esoteric and narrow every year, and I would argue more boring with each passing study.  A faculty member once suggested the following question for a doctoral exam:  “What would be the result of destroying all the IS research ever done?”  We did not include that question because we feared what the results would be.  In more pessimistic moments I think my answer would be “none.”

Maybe IS is an example of what happens in academic research; it becomes more narrow and less relevant to people outside the academy.  But it seems to me that other business disciplines have had an impact on practice.  Certainly financial research has influenced Wall Street.  I believe it is responsible for indexed funds and for better or worse, many of the derivative products out there.  Some companies appear to use the results of academic research in marketing, and certainly management scholars have influenced the practice of management.

What should the IS field do?  I would like to see us study and report on important events in the world that are related to information technology.  Such studies might involve insightful interpretations of how one or a group of firms implemented a new technology, for example physicians groups adopting electronic medical records.  While our tradition in the field has been to gather data and analyze it, we may find it equally valuable to observe and report on the major issues affecting the success of an implementation effort.

Unfortunately our field, mainly the editors and reviewers for our journals, view individual interpretation with great skepticism.  Researchers who do what is called qualitative research are still pressured to count the occurrences of the themes they present.  Much research in the humanities involves faculty who gather information from many sources, analyze it and present their interpretation.  The IS field could benefit greatly from such an approach.

Most of our research involves data, and that means everything is old by the time it is published.  Data are history, and add to that the time to analyze it, write a paper, and the long publication cycle what finally appears may reflect data that are years old.   How does this work help decision makers who are concerned about the future?  I would like to see every paper in our leading journals have a section on speculation that goes beyond the historical data presented.

We also have the knowledge and insight to study important topics related to technology policy for the U.S. and the world.  How should the U.S. develop its broadband capabilities?  How can we assure the privacy of medical information in a national health information network and in local repositories of electronic medical records?  Should the U.S. government continue its policy of telecom regulation known as “net neutrality?”

We need to conduct academic research to get tenure, but to become relevant to the world and have a positive impact, we need to help decision makers.  Talking only to ourselves means no one else is listening, and there is no constituency to support out continued existence as an academic field.