The University in the Future

August 24th, 2010 by under The University in the Future. No Comments.

I am concerned that the economic model of the university is going to break.  Can schools continue to raise the nominal tuition that fewer and fewer families can pay?  If 90% of students need scholarships, then tuition raises do not accomplish much.

The biggest expenses for a university are salaries and energy.  Looking for a 10% improvement in costs and/or productivity is not enough; we need to see dramatic changes in costs and productivity.  I do not see where these are going to come from.  The ideas below for reform might help, but they will not solve the fundamental problem that universities have too few resources to do their job.

We need to reign in athletics; football and basketball dominate academics.  Universities should not be farm clubs for the NFL and NBA.  Yes, athletics brings in funds, but it also requires a huge staff and expenditure to support sports.  What message does it send when coaches make seven-figure salaries, salaries that dwarf the president’s wages?  In most cases a booster club pays the salary, but the fact remains that the highest compensated employee of the university serves no academic function.

At the risk of alienating all the alumni, I have two proposals.  First, a coach should not receive compensation higher than the 75th percentile of full professors in the university.  Second, there should be no athletic scholarships.  The Ivey League did away with them years ago and refused to participate in post-season bowl games as well.  Of course, there is an industry of bowl games and schools make a lot from an appearance.  But we are educational institutions, not sports franchises.

We cannot promote our fundamental goals of learning while graduating a small percentage of our athletes to whom we devote considerable tutoring and hand holding.  Very few of these athletes become professionals so that schools are taking advantage of their physical skills without much concern about what happens to them after their last season.

How can faculty become more productive?  Any of us could teach another course or two, though at some point you become so inundated that quality begins to suffer. Increasing course loads would help reduce costs, but that is only a temporary measure because there is a limit to how much one can teach.  For the research university, there is always a tradeoff between developing new knowledge and teaching.

Why not increase class sizes?  Is there a practical limit on class size?  When the Internet first came along we all thought that it offered the opportunity for the best economist in the country to teach all intro econ courses, thousands of students at one time.  Of course, that did not happen.  Universities have long offered large lecture courses for introductory courses, often with a small discussion section lead by a graduate student.  Large means hundreds, not thousands of students.

The only way to reach very large numbers of students is through a videotaped course, an Internet simulcast, or an online course that is asynchronous.  Structured courses that do not feature a lot of discussion are the best candidates for these approaches. I believe that the future will see more online courses led by non tenure-track faculty, especially for subjects like statistics.  A second approach being tried by some schools is a “hybrid” or “blended learning” model in which there are some physical class meetings and some portion of the class taught online.  This hybrid has a lot of attractive features and I expect it to become the dominant mode of instruction for many subjects.

These approaches will help, but they will not solve the university productivity problem.

Faculty have long been criticized for the research they undertake.  For people outside the field some topics seem to be irrelevant to much of anything and sometimes even silly.  But who is to judge?  What study might lead to a breakthrough?  Research in medicine, physics, chemistry and engineering have all led to better lives for us all. The social sciences and humanities may help us solve some of the really important problems confronting the world like how to help countries to get along with each other, how to mount successful negotiations, and how to solve political problems.  All in all, it would be nice to see a section in our academic articles that talks about the relevance of the work to the reader.

Closely tied to research is the issue of publications, especially those in peer-reviewed journals.  For most research schools these are the keys to promotion and tenure.  In my own field, information systems, it appears sometimes that the peer review process has broken down.  It can take years to go through multiple revisions to satisfy anonymous reviewers and ultimately publish a paper. Reviewers take a long time to respond, and often ask for trivial changes that result in another revision and resubmission.

The New York Times (8/24/2010) reported on the Shakespeare Quarterly which posted four articles online and asked readers to comment on them.  Forty-one people made over 350 comments and the editors reviewed and finally published the papers in the print journal.  This crowd-sourcing of reviews offers an exciting alternative to the traditional, lengthy process.  The next step is to get rid of the print journal entirely.

Research leads to the tenure question.  I once asked at a lunch of academics why we did research, and the answer that came back was “to get tenure.”  But one usually gets tenure after six years of teaching with a few exceptions at nine years.  But that is a fraction of one’s career, so why continue?  One reason is because you become used to doing research and you like it. Another reason is to keep your options open so that you can move at some point, and you want to maintain the respect of your peers as well.

Administrators can be pretty arbitrary.  I worked under a dean once who would gladly have done away with my department and fired all of us because he did not like information systems as an academic discipline in a business school.  The fact that we were tenured prevented him from doing more than merging the department with another one.  As one pundit said to the  prior dean:  “deans come, deans go, but I stay.”  So tenure protects the faculty form a short-term administrator’s arbitrary actions.

But tenure has a downside, those we call an abuse of the tenure system.  If a faculty member is not doing research and not teaching very well, then there should be no guarantee of a lifetime job.  We need a reasonable peer review process to withdraw tenure from the few faculty who stop contributing to the University.  The faculty member should be given a year’s terminal appointment to move on to something or someplace else.

Universities are also in need of re-engineering their basic processes.  We are undertaking such an effort in the Smith School; it is needed system-wide.  There are huge inefficiencies in our business processes, some of which come from the fear of any kind of scandal (auditing expense reports in three locations as one example).  Some inefficiencies come because a process has always been done a certain way, and others exist because no one has probably ever asked why the process is done this way.  Re-engineering will save some money, but not enough.

Even if all the suggestions above were implemented, they would not solve the economic crisis facing higher education.  We as a society are going to have to decide to what extent we want to invest in the future.  Historically higher education leads to higher salaries and a more competitive, educated workforce.  The US has fallen behind other countries on the percentage of eligible students enrolled in college. If this trend continues we will have trouble competing in a world economy that is becoming increasingly complex.

As a  modest start I recommend that states or the federal government give every accredited, not-for-profit community college, college and university a fixed amount for every student graduated.  Further, I recommend that every for-profit organization that hires a new college graduate remit an amount equal to 10% of the graduate’s first-year salary to the institutions that granted her degrees.  If we really want to be creative, require each subsequent employer to pay 5% of the graduate’s starting salary to the schools where she obtained her degrees.   Firms often pay recruiting agencies a fee; a little extra to support education would be a good investment for the country and the economy.