Shake Your Moneymaker

Murray Sperber writes in Declining by Degrees that an “Academic Arms Race” began in the post-Sputnik boom-era for higher ed. Colleges aspired to be universities, and universities competed for prestige by building up their research programs and feeling “impelled to grant advanced degrees in almost all areas.” That is, they followed the federal money.


July 11, 2007

Murray Sperber writes in Declining by Degrees that an “Academic Arms Race” began in the post-Sputnik boom-era for higher ed. Colleges aspired to be universities, and universities competed for prestige by building up their research programs and feeling “impelled to grant advanced degrees in almost all areas.” That is, they followed the federal money.

But when that funding dried up in the ‘70s, schools didn’t trim back research or refocus on core strengths. Instead, “schools forced-marched undergraduates from small classes into huge lecture courses, along with some reasonable-size classes sprinkled into their schedules. [F]or an increasing number of classes with fewer than twenty-five students…schools began hiring lowly paid non-tenure track faculty or grad students to teach them and generate a small profit.”

To my understanding, this is also when schools began in earnest to leverage the scientific research done in their facilities into technology that could be patented and licensed, with proceeds going back (at least in part) to the schools. (I’m told Northwestern called a meeting recently for its Board of Visitors—influential donors—to explain how they’re pushing tests on some serum that would regenerate tissue in spinal cord injuries if administered soon enough after the trauma. Think of its monetary value.)

Other units at universities generate income beyond tuition and fees. To see which ones, look at new construction on campus. Colleges of business, law, medicine, even agriculture are looking good in their new digs. Pity the poor liberal arts, which have failed to package a saleable product. (The asbestos abatement in Hinterland’s English department was performed by two guys from Facilities, who came over with black plastic garbage bags, several rolls of duct tape, and a wet-vac. They left a layer of dust on every surface in my group office that remains to this day. If I wind up with mesothelioma, let’s be clear about the cause.)


Has every entity always been expected to find its own way economically, or is this an accelerated trend? Mrs. Churm and her colleagues in study abroad were expected to recruit aggressively, not only to drive up the numbers of students going abroad—now a standard measure in evaluating schools—but also for the money they paid in fees. Her boss made it clear that their unit was considered an independent contractor within the university, and their salaries, their offices here and abroad, and operating costs, were all dependent on selling study abroad to kids. Recruiting numbers needed to grow each year, too, as with any business. With the constant pressure, she said, which began to take away from being able to concentrate on making the experience what it could be for those already signed up, she felt she might as well be working for commission at a used car lot.

I asked a “low-level administrative functionary at a Big 10 school, speaking only for him/herself,” if my impression that this was an escalating process was correct.

S/he said that what I describe has been true of certain auxiliary services for a long time. Housing, dining services, parking, etc.—all of these units are supposed to balance their books at year's end. Imposing this logic on units that provide “public goods” (the library, study abroad) has been more recent. And now deans—everywhere—are looking at ways to cross-subsidize college activities by developing offerings (such as online courses and degree programs) that turn a profit.

Executive MBA programs, s/he said, are probably the paradigm case. One problem, of course, is that developing revenue-generating programs requires an upfront investment that is risky. When new programs fail to perform as anticipated, or fail altogether, a unit can end up in worse shape than ever. Question is, how do you handle failure? Must everyone in a unit share in failure when it happens (say, in the form of a reduced raise pool for everyone)? Or should the risk (and, therefore, also any potential rewards) be concentrated?

(I wonder, too: How generous will higher ed be with their online moneymakers? The free or reduced tuition for faculty and staff taking traditional classes has always been a problematic benefit; if you work full-time, especially in an office, the choice of classes that fit your schedule is severely limited. Online courses seem to solve this problem, but will universities preclude employees from taking them for free, given they might sign up for them in droves?)

There is a technology lab here, in a college that isn’t Liberal Arts and Sciences, which has been a terrific teaching resource for me, especially since the campus-wide Excellent Teaching Center shut down its resource room and gave away all its aging equipment. If I needed a portable projector, for instance, to show students video or Web sites, it was only available at this lab. I took English students to those facilities to digitally edit short movies as part of a project on reconstructing narrative. The director had hustled for a grant that allowed the purchase of millions of dollars worth of hardware and software, and the hiring of people who could help students, faculty, and the community to use them.

To my understanding, the new dean refused to let the unit re-apply for the grant; in any case, the people and resources are dribbling away. A recent visit found six of them crammed in without even cubicle walls, and they have to discourage visitors—IM instead, please—to keep traffic and noise down in their inadequate space. A corporate job, supposedly nothing to do with their mission, was forced on them, and an administrator wants them to become a “profit center.”

“Maybe when we make our first million, we can buy our office furniture back,” the director told me ruefully.

Let’s recap: Science sells. The College of Business can forecast and peddle models. Architecture can consult. Even the Theater Department can stage charity events—for the uni, of course.

But poor pitiful English. What are we to do? We already teach all freshman comp classes, which could as easily be parceled out to the individual departments (Finance TAs would teach writing to Finance majors, etc.), and we do it with grad and adjunct labor. Still, “Money money money!” we cry. Maybe we’ll serve as in-house ad agencies for our own institutions, or ghostwrite speeches for political candidates and corporate heads. Most likely, we’ll continue to depend on the kindness of strangers, but for how long?


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