At Wannabe U, a research university that I have been observing for years, the provost and president have announced that it is time to create a new academic plan. (That's a business plan garbed in academic regalia, gold tassel and all.) "We have exceeded many of [the] goals" set in the last plan, the announcement said. It also revealed that this newest plan is to guide restructuring: It will set the criteria for eradicating academic departments and eliminating jobs.
When I spoke at several Australian universities in March, I heard professors utter the same words again and again: "We are undergoing restructuring." (Some universities had already experienced restructuring several times.) That process apparently means to combine departments into larger units so as to achieve the "three Es" of the new managerialism -- economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Together, those three Es also constitute the framework being used to "modernize" American higher education. As Wannabe U contemplates a new business plan, I find some aspects of Australian restructuring much too familiar, as though we and our colleagues down under are living the same nightmare. Other practices seemed strange indeed.
Several processes are occurring simultaneously. Departments are being lumped together to form new constellations of schools and faculties. (In Australian academic parlance, schools are a bureaucratic unit composed of disciplines or programs. A faculty consists of a collection of schools.) But, my newly met colleagues insisted, restructuring is not about encouraging interdisciplinarity or intellectual cross-fertilization by increasing the administrative proximity of related fields of inquiry.
Rather, I was told, central administrators have been combining units as universities pare down the number of schools and faculties they harbor to extirpate unnecessary courses, eliminate "redundant" workers, and increase what the Aussies, like the British, call "casualization" and Americans term "contingent labor." As in the United States, such practices are more likely to be applied to the arts, humanities and social sciences rather than to the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, mathematics -- which supposedly promise to raise needed income through contracts, grants, and inventions and to goose the region's and the nation's ability to succeed in international economic competition.
An Australian middle manager at a university explained to me: "The restructuring can be of academic units (initially melting departments into schools, now, [after several iterations] melting bits of schools into other schools but it can also be of degrees (in which case the usual path is to reduce dramatically the number of majors in a B.A.). This is important, because it is a way to reverse engineer academic redundancies." Mostly restructuring pares the staff which supports academics. In both countries, restructuring redirects funds from academic to administrative support. But at Melbourne's La Trobe University, 40 professors took the hit, as Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale explained in The Australian Humanities Review.
In essence, a young man at an Australian university, given to analogies, told me, "Think of it as a kind of colonialism." Eventually the imperial power (or central administration) augments itself at the expense of the faculties. It hires staff to satisfy new federal mandates, such as monitoring teaching and research productivity, expands efforts at marketing, building alumni loyalty (and donations), and managing its reputation, and founds and expands what Americans call Institutes for Teaching and Learning, which have burgeoned in both countries. This fellow added that the imperial powers set the terms by which their subjects live. At best, there is a pretense of consultation.
I have encountered other components of this sort of restructuring before. In Wannabe U, I discussed some ways that a particular long-gone provost appointed committees. One was to select members whom he knew desired the same outcome that he did. Another was to so meticulously map the tools and processes which the provost charged the committee to use that its members were essentially filling in the numbers of a formula that the provost had devised. The committee members were his functionaries. That same provost used to explain how many meetings he had taken to reach a decision. He never summarized others’ opinions or even said whether people disagreed with him – only that it was his responsibility to make decisions, whether those others liked his decisions or not.
I have also heard the president of a distinguished private university discuss redundancies. He boasted about his method of eliminating superfluous courses to save money; he appointed a committee to study the course catalog and syllabuses. Was statistics for sociologists so similar to statistics for political scientists that one department had to retire its course? Did a chemistry course cover some of the same material as a biology course? And, of course, one can always save money by increasing the number of students who must enroll for a course. (So much for the "boutique" courses for exceptional students and the faculty hungry to teach them.) At Wannabe U, a course with too few students cannot be offered. At one Australian university, a unit must pay the central administration if it carries a course whose enrollment is deemed too low. (Needless to say, units eliminate those courses to avoid the penalty.)
And then there’s the matter of adjuncts. Explaining a two day-strike of the staff of Australia’s University of Sydney, the distinguished sociologist Raewyn Connell wrote: "Over time, university managers have responded to funding pressures by making job insecurity grow – through outsourcing of general staff work, erosion of tenure, and above all, casualization. To management, this looks like flexibility. To many of my younger colleagues, it looks like a life of precarious labor, scrabbling for short-term, part-time and totally insecure appointments." She adds, "These are poor conditions for building an intellectual workforce. From an educational point of view, it means a mass of teaching done by staff who can’t build up the experience, depth of knowledge, or confident relationship with students that are needed for the very best teaching."
Connell is describing the conditions of our own work, one of my American colleagues informed me.
Equally noxious is the practice of setting publication quotas. These quotas really do involve publish or perish. One administrator at an Australian university requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences to publish four refereed articles a year and teaching faculty to publish two. Yup: He counts instead of monitoring quality and so virtually guarantees that his faculty will not undertake the challenging projects that require deep thought and take years to bring to fruition. His practice reminded me of Wannabe University’s Professional Responsibilities Doctrine, particularly its emphasis on assessing acceptable academic performance by counting how many articles, grants and whatever a professor has accumulated each year. Wannabe U's new business plan is sure to increase the standards used to gauge a professor's productivity, Many professors still feel that the metrics in the last business plan were a speed-up of the academic assembly line.
Ultimately, though, I have trouble understanding one key aspect of restructuring in Australia. The combinations of departments lumped into schools are so different from those that prevail in the United States and there is so much variation from one university to another that I have a hard time following the logic of permutation and recombination. Are schools and colleges supposed to combine related fields? Why is philosophy classified in the humanities in one university and in the social sciences at another? Why does social science include sociology, anthropology, and criminology but not demography? Why does one university’s School of Cultural Inquiry include Victorian English literature, classics and ancient history, while Victorian history is housed in a School of History that specializes in early modern and modern Australia, North America, and Europe?
When classificatory systems seem nonsensical, there must be another principle at work. One of the three Es – economy -- provides an answer. In Australia, a colleague claimed, central administrators have been combining financially productive and fragile departments into new units, letting those units steep in their juices, and then rearranging them, as well as their bits and pieces, again. Structured and restructured, combined and recombined, these ever-larger units may not have intellectual integrity, but they help central administrators to eliminate sluggardly departments, to build their own managerial capacity to initiate and respond to accountability measures, and to react to the diminishing public funding that is increasingly characteristic of higher education in most countries.
In the United States at most research universities, including Wannabe U, central administrators appoint committees to identify departments that are weak and so do not deserve to retain their graduate programs. At liberal arts colleges, the committees are to fold whole departments, not merely graduate programs. At most institutions, the administrators set the criteria used to define weakness, much as done at Wannabe several years ago. The carefully selected committee has the unenviable task of filling in the boxes of the rubric that a central administrator has constructed. Today, members of Wannabe’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors hope that the faculty will be able to decide the criteria used to measure strength and weakness. However, with their Australian colleagues, the faculty at Wannabe shares the realization that the central administrations' perceived need for academic extirpation is not open to negotiation.
In Australia, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are federal mandates. In America, those mandates come from the states with the federal government consistently pushing them to spend less and achieve more. In Australia, central administrations announce new combinations of departments that are to comprise new schools. In America, central administrators strongly advise -- virtually insist -- which combination of disciplines should work together to meet the financial and workforce needs of their state.
Perhaps because I am an American academic, I find the Australian combinations of disciplines to be quite strange. I betcha that Australian academics would find the rationalized and interchangeable American combinations of fields to be so rationalized as to be McDonaldized, akin to the ubiquitous McBurger or a luxurious McMansion.
Strange as some aspects of our work lives may seem to one another, too much seems the same. We are threatened by the academic version of McJobs. Before I left the U.S., I had read such classic American treatments of Australian tertiary education as Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie's Academic Capitalism as well as refereed articles by Australian researchers. I was familiar with the argument that European nations were reverse engineering American practices Then I went to Australia and learned that academic worlds are becoming more similar and more besieged than I had thought.
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.
When Richard Herman resigned as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (amid a scandal over admissions procedures that favored politically connected applicants), he was awarded a salary of $212,000 a year as he took on a faculty position. But an article in The Chicago Tribune raises questions about whether he is performing the full duties of a faculty member. Herman is required to teach only two classes a year in the College of Education, not the standard four a year. And his class this semester was called off due to low enrollment -- the second time that has happened since 2011, the Tribune said. Herman lives in Chicago and said through a university spokesman that he travels to campus once a week. Herman has switched to online courses when his classes have been canceled. He declined to comment on the questions raised by the article.
The University of Windsor sits just across the Canadian border from Detroit, yet Americans make up just 82 of its nearly 2,000 international students. So the Canadian institution is trying to woo those south of the border, by cutting its tuition in half for Americans, the CBC reported. Under the policy change late last month, American students will pay $5,000 a semester, down from the current $10,000 and significantly less than the $15,000 some international students pay. "The international relationship we have with folks right across the river is much different than the relationship we have with [other] countries around the world," Windsor's president, Alan Wildeman, told the CBC.
The university's billboards around Detroit encourage locals to "put the 'u' in neighbour."
The new chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee has drafted legislation that would change the criteria under which the National Science Foundation awards grants, Science reported. Traditionally, peer review panels have had considerable latitude within their subject areas. But the draft legislation by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, would require that all grants adhere to three criteria. Grants would have to be certified by the NSF director to be:
"In the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science."
"Groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large."
"Not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies."
President Obama used a speech Monday at the 150th anniversary meeting of the National Academy of Sciences to pledge that he would continue to push for research funding. "[A]s long as I’m president, we’re going to continue to be committed to investing in the promising ideas that are generated from you and your institutions, because they lead to innovative products, they help boost our economy, but also because that’s who we are. I’m committed to it because that’s what makes us special and ultimately what makes life worth living," he said.
Further, at a time that Republicans in Congress are questioning the validity of peer review decisions, Obama expressed strong support for peer review. "[W]e’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars. And I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process. That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come," the president said.
While a number of presidents have addressed the annual gathering of the academy, President Obama is the first to speak more than once at these meetings. He previously addressed the scientists in 2009.
The Internal Revenue Service last week released a report documenting its findings from a series of audits it conducted stemming from a broad, six-year review of tax compliance at hundreds of colleges. The report contained relatively few surprises, given that the revenue service had previewed its conclusions in previous analyses at earlier stages of its comprehensive review. The major findings of the Colleges and Universities Compliance Project Final Report focused, among other things, on colleges' improperly unrelated business income losses from activities that did not qualify because the agency determined that they had not been conducted with the purpose of making a profit.
The world still comes to the United States for higher education. Our elite institutions are the best in the world. Historically, we have done a better job of providing quality education to tens of millions of people than almost any other country on earth.
Yet we’re slipping. Simply put, our graduation rates are too low, our costs are too high, and too many students are slipping through the cracks. Reformers -- and universities themselves -- grasp these realities and want wholesale changes that will fundamentally alter how we think about higher education.
Those long-term battles are important, even necessary. New innovations in distance learning and nontraditional degrees may provide new pathways for students. But such changes may take decades. In the meantime, we have millions of college students taking on ever-higher debt loads for a long, winding road to a degree. We need to make immediate changes to affirmatively lower costs – not just “increase affordability” – while we raise graduation rates. We need to work within the existing framework to do what we’re already doing, but do it better and cheaper.
The good news is we have proven methods to improve our efficiency and outcomes at our postsecondary institutions.
Take student costs. Conventional wisdom focuses on high tuition costs, but there’s a related problem that’s often overlooked. Graduating from college takes most students five or even six years, while they are planning for four. That ends up an extra 25 to 50 percent in tuition costs alone, not to mention college-related fees and the opportunity cost of not working.
Institutions can directly reduce time to degree. Recent data show that “bottleneck courses,” i.e., courses where student demand outstrips available seats, play a big role in delaying degree completion.
To put it in human terms, a student who needs Biology 201 to graduate – when a seat in Biology 201 isn’t available until next year – is wasting time and money. That dynamic is why “access to courses” consistently ranks as the biggest student complaint about higher education, according to the Noel-Levitz annual student satisfaction survey (subscription required).
The fix is relatively straightforward: offer those bottleneck courses more often. Just 5 to 10 percent of courses are responsible for the vast majority of bottlenecks, so colleges and universities can address the shortages quickly. For instance, they can ensure that their most valuable resources -- professors -- are teaching the right mix of courses to prevent bottlenecks, rather than spending limited resources on course offerings that are not needed (15-20 percent of a typical school’s schedule). Similarly, colleges can better align schedules so students don’t have to choose between two required courses, and can make sure room size is aligned to corresponding course demand.
“Quickly” is the key concept in this fix – we can save students hundreds of millions of dollars every year starting immediately. We don’t need to wait a decade, or even a year.
Addressing bottleneck courses is one of the clearest examples of changes we can make to address the problems in higher education immediately, but it is far from the only one. The two below, for instance, lead to real savings right away, but are easy to overlook:
Extensive data show that better allocation of academic space – i.e., which courses are scheduled in which classrooms at which times – is an overlooked yet vital cost issue. Better allocation of classroom resources – identifying and addressing primetime bottlenecks by focusing on room ownership, meeting pattern efficiency and last-minute cancellation, etc. – can postpone or even cancel entire expensive classroom construction projects. (Full disclosure: Ad Astra Information Systems, where Tom Shaver serves as CEO, are providing university leaders with data-based solutions that help them make these important resource allocation decisions.)
College bookstores can adopt software enabling students to take advantage of economies of scale and get their expensive textbooks for vastly reduced costs (One of us wrote an op-ed on this subject in The Hill).
There are, of course, hundreds of other solutions we can adopt right away. These solutions represent just a few ideas that directly address the nuts and bolts of providing courses to thousands of students on a single campus. These solutions aren’t glamorous. They’ll never make the front page of TheNew York Times or be the subject of a TED talk.
Yet they are key operational concerns that save real money. One large community college in the Northeast better aligned its faculty and classroom resources to offer more of the most oversubscribed courses, allowing it to enroll hundreds more students without committing new funding. All told, it improved its balance sheet by over $1.7 million in a single year. A community college system in the Midwest took a similar approach and has improved its fiscal outlook by almost $3 million in just three years. Multiply those figures by the approximately 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, and you are looking at tremendous savings for students – and for institutions.
Will these changes singlehandedly fix the deep-seated and complicated fiscal issues afflicting our higher education system? Probably not. But can these solutions -- and others like them -- vastly improve the higher education experience for both students and institutions? There is no question they can.
In an era defined by a $16 trillion federal debt and states across the country struggling with multibillion-dollar shortfalls, we are going to see an unfortunate but inevitable reduction in government funding for higher education. Colleges are facing this reality today. They cannot afford to wait for next-generation solutions. They need this-generation solutions. Millions of students’ futures depend on it.
Gene Hickok is the former deputy U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser at Whiteboard Advisors; Tom Shaver is CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.
The Cooper Union, an art, engineering and design college in New York City, announced Tuesday that its board voted to charge tuition to undergraduates for the first time since 1902. That decision is likely to spark controversy among the institution's alumni, who have been fighting the idea since it was raised in 2011. The college will cut in half the full tuition scholarships it offers its students starting in the fall of 2014, leaving a tuition bill of about $20,000 a year, but administrators said they would continue to provide need-based aid, including full tuition scholarships for students eligible for federal Pell Grants.
The move toward charging tuition began 18 months ago, when newly installed Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha announced that the college would seek new revenues to make up for an escalating structural deficit that had grown to about a quarter of the institution's operating budget. The deficit was driven by a combination of an increase in the cost of educating students and a decrease in the average return on the institution's endowment, which includes rents on the Chrysler Building.
A year ago Bharucha announced that the college could start a series of fee-based graduate, online and continuing education programs, as well as ramp up fund-raising, to generate the needed revenue. But given the size of the deficit and the minimal revenue potential of those programs, many Cooper Union students and alumni felt like the college was moving toward charging undergraduates.