Monday, June 25, 2012

Is it Possible for a University to Abandon a Passive and Defensive Attitude in the Face of a Weak Economy and Lack of Government Support--The Price of "Yes"

I have been looking at some of the institutional effects of weakening economies on elite universities.  The University of Virginia provides a sad example of a likely pattern of response (e.g. Charting the Passing of an Age or Counter-Reformation?: The University of Virginia Saga Continues on of the Future of Board-Administration Relationships).  But it is not the only one. "Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, says she feels that academic institutions are generally heading in the wrong direction during the economic downturn. "Higher education and research are not broken," Ms. Herbst said. 'I do not think they need some fundamental and profound change.'" Beth Mole, Bucking the Bad Economy, a Few Universities Plan to Hire Hundreds of Faculty, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2012.

(Beth Mole, Bucking the Bad Economy, a Few Universities Plan to Hire Hundreds of Faculty, supra "Susan Herbt, president of the U. of Connecticut, delivers her first State of the University speech in April. Her plans include hiring nearly 300 new faculty members.")

This is the great insight of an article published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  But it is not just attitude.  There is a price to be paid for optimism; while higher education is not broken, the traditional methods of administrative reaction to downturns--reductions, retrenchment, cost cutting in services and faculty--may make matters worse in the long term.  But is the alternative more savory?

Beth Mole, for the Chronicle of Higher Education pu it this way:
Many universities, though, are finding it hard to shield their core mission of teaching from necessary cuts, says Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Given the fiscal turmoil that has buffeted American public higher education, a lot of other institutions are focused on mitigating further cutbacks," he says. Institutions with large hiring plans like Connecticut's are an aberration. And, in fact, it is easier to find examples of places, like the Universities of Kentucky and New Hampshire, that are cutting positions and programs.

Where universities are able to hire and create new programs in the midst of the current budget climate, they are finding money by trimming administrative costs, raising tuition, and forging new ties with industries. Besides Connecticut, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota system have also recently announced plans to hire large numbers of faculty. In each case, the hiring plans were developed under presidents who were in their first year of office and wanted to make faculty growth an initial priority.
At the heart of the approach are trimming administrative costs, raising tuition and forging new ties with industry.  Let's consider briefly each in turn. 
It is true enough that in many universities, the heads of units--academic deans, chancellors and the like--had been indulging a penchant for administrative empire building, metastasizing staff to suit their sense of their own self (and institutional) worth. The proliferation of new and exotic forms of associate and assistant deans, and administrative officials to serve these little fiefdoms provides some evidence.  Administrative staff has become something of a status symbol--what faculty member awarded a "center" or similar little fief does not also desire staff to help operate it? These incentives to populate a university with staff serves a purpose--they free faculty from their traditional roles of administration but they come with a price--they reduce the ability of faculty to have a say in the operations of their administrative units and make them substantially more dependent on the whims of their deans. Yet the market for faculty status requires increasing amounts of time and efforts directed toward research and publication, at least at elite schools. Promotion and salary increases within an institution is also dependent on research and production.  That is one of the reasons there is a tension between university (and outside stakeholder) focus on the teaching loads of faculty and the academic market's focus on research.  And, of course, there is no guarantee that cost savings will be directed toward hiring, or faculty support.  And there is no guarantee that, with the revenues produced from these reductions will not provide an excuse for legislatures to reduce public funding by the size of cost savings. That later point suggests potential political battles that can sometimes cost a university president his or her job. Administrative cost reduction, then, presents opportunities and risks.  
Raising tuition also poses risks and opportunities.  The risks are easy enough to list--political opposition especially in the case of public universities, abandonment of public mission of the university, shrinkage of potential applicant markets, shifting costs from the institution to students in the form of increased student loan burdens, and the like.  These are powerful arguments against tuition increases that match the cost architecture of universities seeking to expand (or even preserve) jobs and programs.  The usual response has been to cut.  That, in part was a problem at the University of Virginia--where broad brush cutting was a point of contention between President and Board.   Yet, blunt force methods of revenue raising through tuition is unnecessary and a brutally primitive method.  Universities have already begun experimenting with differential tuition.  More importantly, they have begun to dis aggregate revenue production centers, much like banks have done recently with the provision of their services.  Revenue can be raised, for example, by charging more for second majors or for more than one minor, for taking more than the necessary credits to graduate and for staying more than four years in residence.   Continuing education can be reshaped and expanded in economies grounded on a presumption of constant re-training and updating of skills.  Tuition based revenue raising, then, is not necessarily a bad approach, but the days of simplemindedness in revenbue raising are over.
Forging new ties with industry also presents opportunities and dangers.  The opportunities are easy to describe--money, connection with a potential source of jobs for graduates, and timeliness and revenue enhancing focus of made-to-measure research.  But connection with industry also produces risk--the dangers of made-to-market education and made-to-measure research carries with it both the potential for capture--the university loses its autonomy and becomes a pass through for sponsor policies and objectives, and the relationship between industry and university becomes vertical--the university becomes a means of leveraging industry investment and a commodity in the production of industry wealth.  More importantly, capture can also suggests a narrowing of vision and scope of production for university reaching and research.  At the limit it can reduce the university to an amalgamation of the servicing of the needs of its sponsors to the exclusion of any other sorts of knowledge production and dissemination.  Thus, connection presents an opportunity and a danger (e.g., Penn State and Chevron Forging Closer Links, and Made to Market Education and Professionalization in University Education).

It is clear, then, that President Herbst has a point.  And she is putting her ideas into operation. The course of this experiment will be worth following,.

1 comment:

  1. Very thought-provoking post, especially the idea of sponsorships. As we continue to roll out new degree programs, I believe it is worth considering whether or not connections to industry have more benefits than drawbacks in these challenging financial times. Thanks--