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.
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