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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Research University Must Evolve

Students paying faculty to not teach is not a good thing. CU Boulder may be showing us a (partial) future.

December 9, 2020

Like a lot of other observers of higher education, I blanched when I first heard the news of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s intention to replace 50 tenure-track faculty members with 25 instructors.

I have been bleating about the messed-up labor structures and incentives of higher ed for quite some time here and knew that this kind of thing was inevitable, particularly since it had already been happening at a more deliberate pace for 30-plus years.

The unconscionable (and since apologized for) remark from a dean that one should “Never waste a good pandemic” seemed to put the motivations into full relief. This was a move to gut the faculty in the name of the bottom line while providing administrators more “flexibility.”

Upon reading additional context from the reporting of Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty, I now have a somewhat different perspective on the move and believe that it could point the way forward to a sustainable future for public higher education institutions.

There are some caveats to this belief, which I will get to, but first some observations.

This era of the public university, particularly the public research university as we have known it, is over. We are at an end point, and we can use this CU Boulder situation as an example as to why.

Just over 40 percent of CU Boulder’s entire budget is funded by student tuition. Less than 5 percent of the total budget comes from the state.

For tenured faculty on 2/2 course loads, it is undeniable that some proportion of student tuition is paying those faculty to not teach. This is true at every similar research university. Because of the complexities of accounting and cross-subsidies and other administrative voodoo, it can be difficult to determine exactly how much student tuition is being funneled to support faculty research -- pay faculty to not teach -- but a study by emeritus professor Charles Schwartz of UC Berkeley argues that at Berkeley, a full 40 percent of undergraduate tuition goes toward departmental research.

I am a believer in the important link between research and teaching, and it’s probably defensible for some portion of student tuition to go toward funding unsponsored faculty research time, but it ain’t 40 percent. I don’t think it’s even 10 percent, personally.

When the public research university was conceived, it was supported by public money. In 1960, nearly 80 percent of the University of Michigan’s budget came from state support. In 2020, the state funds only 14 percent of the budget.

Now, at public universities, student tuition is the predominant source of funding, in some cases reaching over 50 percent of total funding and over 90 percent of the general education fund.

We cannot raise tuition further. Students paying faculty to not teach as students accrue debt that will dog them for decades is, let’s just say, wrong. Backfilling instruction with low-paid adjuncts and nontenurable instructors has left institutions primarily staffed by the workforce of the precariat, while those who do maintain some measure of security through tenure find themselves with steadily increasing amounts of institutional duties.

It hasn’t been sustainable for a long time, but the pandemic has pushed institutions over the edge. Ratings agencies have a “dour outlook” when it comes to higher ed revenue. There is no recovering from this that hews to the old model.

As I argue in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, the only route forward is a return to publicly funded institutions. That money will come via a federal/state partnership where federal money will be contingent on states maintaining their appropriate share of effort.

The money from the federal government will replace what students currently pay as tuition, which means it must go toward the cost of instruction, rather than subsidizing faculty to not teach.

No doubt, this would change the composition of research universities, particularly R-1s. (It will be less disruptive for institutions where existing faculty already teach more.) Research faculty may be many fewer in number, replaced by instructional faculty as CU Boulder is doing here.

But if the funding of the institution is dependent on the mission of instructing students, that funding should go to that purpose. It’s pretty straightforward.

So, in a way, CU Boulder is reorienting around their likely future mission in a manner that will reflect the origin and purpose of the funding. There’s a few problems, though, which illustrate why we need to think about these problems holistically, and from the ground up.

1. The dean’s crass remark betrays a mind-set of considering these problems through the lens of revenue and operations, rather than mission and values. This leads to shortsighted thinking that fails to reorient our method for making decisions around what we actually want and need the institution to do. Most of Sustainable. Resilient. Free. concerns the kind of reorienting that I believe is necessary to go to a mission-up rather than operations-down mind-set.

Changing the composition of faculty need not be seen as an abandonment of the mission. Done sensibly in the context of other moves, it could even be a revitalization of the mission.

2. One key to this shift in mind-set is to stop thinking about institutions having a revenue shortfall. This is untrue. The difficulties public higher education is facing are not because of failure to generate sufficient revenue, but because of lack of funding. This distinction is important.

3. If we are working from a place of values, as these teaching faculty positions take the place of traditional research faculty positions, we will be able to avoid the expansion of an immiserated contingent workforce. These faculty are also faculty and deserve the protections of academic freedom. This requires rethinking how we tenure and support faculty, but it shouldn’t be an impossible lift.

The only way to survive this period is to evolve. The best chance to evolve in a way that preserves the values we want our colleges and universities to embody is to consider the mission first.

My hunch and my hope is that if we can return to a model of public funding for student learning, positive sentiment for our public institutions may return, which will, over time, bring more funding back to the research mission.

The sooner we recognize not just what’s coming, but what’s already here, the better.

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