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Is There A Budget To Be Cut Under Your Christmas Tree? A View To The Future

December 18, 2010, 3:31 pm

In yesterday’s Huffpo, David J. Skorton, the president of Cornell University  asserted that “We Can Do Better On College Costs.”  He proposes calling a halt to the educational blame game:  “let’s stop the intellectual shoving matches,” he argues, “and get about the business of dealing with those factors that can and should be controlled to attenuate the rate of rise of both cost and price. And let’s also stop apologizing for investments that are necessary to keep higher education one of America’s premier ‘products.’” His suggestions include:

  1. greater specialization on individual campuses, so that institutions are not duplicating partially filled programs;
  2. reviews of “faculty productivity and quality,” including post-tenure reviews;
  3. acknowledging that educational administrators who are skilled at running an institution might not always have the skills to do so in a cost-efficient way.

    The economic crash that has motivated our current state of intensified budget cutting, Skorton argues, should be viewed as a re-set.  “Given our continuing uncertain economy,” he concludes, “I call on my colleagues in higher education to reduce the rate of rise of our operating costs through focus, connectivity, accountability and administrative streamlining. Improvements in higher education’s pricing and accessibility will follow.”

    Now, before you fill the comments section with off the cuff remarks about what self-interested sleazebags and incompetents administrators are, please do two things.  Read the article, and ask yourself the question:  Isn’t it time that faculty started to work with administrators to reshape and rethink what we do, rather than sitting around and howling about the latest set of budget cuts made by corporate executives and legislators who really don’t have a clue what we do or why it matters?  And isn’t it time for faculty to stop defending everything they do, in exactly the way they learned it should be done decades ago, as if the university is a place where nothing has changed since the 1880s?

    So here are a few initial responses to Skorton’s suggestions from this faculty member.

    Overspecialization on campuses:  The vast majority of departments and programs would not be vulnerable to elimination on any campus under a plan to scrutinize overspecialization, in my view, although some positions within them might be useful targets for cross-institutional appointments.  Colleges would want to duplicate fields that draw numerous students and that are basic to citizenship, social/cultural competence, literacy and a student’s capacity to choose a future: for example,  English, history, political science, mathematics, and philosophy.  But such departments might be asked to work together to ensure that they represented an intellectual direction that was coherent and distinctive, rather than one that fulfilled individual desires without regard to how those fields are supported elsewhere in the curriculum.

    Furthermore, the failure of area colleges to work together to establish consortium arrangements for areas of knowledge that are less desired by students is leading, not to duplication, but to the actual collapse of certain fields of knowledge.  German, for example, is under-taught on many campuses, due in part to the fact that the teaching of German at the high school level is almost non-existent. It is a difficult language that requires dedication to learn, and a background in other languages (also difficult to get more than a couple years of in most high schools) doesn’t hurt either.  The response of the budget cutters is that there German departments should be eliminated due its marketplace failure — even though the market for German among students has been actively and deliberately undermined.  One might argue that this failure does not, in fact, represent the actual value of being literate in German.  Knowledge of German continues to be highly relevant to many fields other than German literature (science, philosophy, history); furthermore, if you look at a market that really matters, Germany is the biggest economy in the EU, and you might think a global power like the United States might want to train people to communicate in German.

    Proposed solution:  cooperative hiring practices and curriculum development between area universities, as well as investment in transportation and technology that could make a cooperative curriculum genuinely accessible to all students.

    Improving faculty productivity:  I am not altogether sure what is meant by this, but there is one thing I know:  if we are talking about the teaching of students, there are very few courses that are underpopulated because the professor is a well-known incompetent (in fact that can have the opposite effect, as well-known incompetents are also often well-known for assigning very little work.)  Profs pulling down big salaries to teach few students is far more complex than this.  Issues to be addressed would include:

    • Elimination of core curricula and real distribution requirements in liberal arts schools means that most of us are simultaneously maintaining fields of knowledge and allowing uninformed student preferences to dictate how courses are populated.  Hence, Department X might be groaning under the weight, not just of its numerous majors, but of its massive service to the general curriculum.  Meanwhile Department Y culls a few dedicated majors from an introductory curriculum that students can completely avoid; and those faculty go on to teach 10 students a semester or so — for salaries that can be (if say, the comparison is between a humanities and a science or social science department) significantly higher than the faculty in Department X.  
    • This straightforward ratio of students taught to salaries paid is accentuated by a second problem:  that most faculty don’t want to teach students who are only in the room because they are fulfilling a requirement.  Hence, core curricula have to be backed up by persuasive advocacy and creative teaching.
    • The mania of “raising standards” for tenure and promotion everywhere is affecting other things that faculty do.  Granted, the production of good scholarship is important to good teaching in any field.  However, the increased pressure to produce ever more prior to tenure and promotion to full that younger scholars are facing is an indirect incentive both to evade students and to evade roles in faculty governance that, in turn, creates a need for more administrative staff.  In many places, senior faculty instruct those they supervise to attend to publication over all other activities, sending the message that dedication to teaching and institutional work is evidence that the scholar is insufficiently dedicated to success.
    • The mania of liberal arts college faculties for insisting that their “standards” for tenure and promotion are just as high as those at institutions with prestigious graduate programs undermines teaching at institutions that advertise this as their greatest value.  This is an odious and false assertion, and academic administrators should act to intervene in these expressions of hubris. Standards can be high in terms of quality without sacrificing anything to the teaching mission; however, except for the rare scholar, it absolutely cannot be t
      rue
      in terms of the quantity of publications in the dossier prior to tenure without sacrifice to the teaching mission. 
    • Take a good hard look at faculty who, post-tenure, might benefit everyone including themselves, by choosing another career and help them transition to it.  Admit that a faltering vocation is one of the conditions of labor, not just in the academy, but everywhere.  Most of us have a mid-life crisis; not all of us are good at addressing it without help and encouragement.  Instead of talking about “dead wood” in the contemptuous way we do, wouldn’t it be better to find other things for such faculty to do and replace them with another person who really wanted the job?

    Proposed solution:  sustained discussions that instill a sense of collective responsibility for educating students across the faculty, establish a curriculum that demonstrates the values that caused the institution to invest in the faculty it actually employs, and see which fields and disciplines might be revived by humane restructuring of personnel.

    Increased administrative efficiency:  Okay, so you know what is not helping here?  The constant screeching, at all levels, for “accountability” and “standards,” particularly from politicians who don’t know squat-all about what constitutes good education.  Administrators who should be engaged in leading a process of renewal and reform are, instead, responding to politically-motivated attacks on education. But the other thing we have to re-think is the question of what kinds of problems are amenable to governance by people who are trained as scholars; and when is a good time to call in a consultant or two.  I can’t tell you how much time I have spent over the last decade trying to solve problems that neither I or anyone around me has any expertise in solving.  One solution to this problem would be administrative exchange programs between colleges and universities:  if College X has someone who was able to find a creative solution to a particular problem, could we bring hir to College Y for a few months to look at our problem, sending in return one of our people back to College X to study the outcomes of their reorganization?  Reversing this exchange would then give College Y an administrator who was skilled in implementing the new plan.  As a not insignificant aside, this might eliminate the problem of larding on new administrative staff to address new problems without ever taking a fresh look at what the old administrators are doing and whether their work is still relevant.

    Proposal:  Increased hiring of consultants with relevant expertise; a high focus on continuing education and retraining for administrators; and ongoing consultation between institutions with similar missions about the challenges of the new environment.

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