“Video killed the radio star.”

29 07 2013

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading a lot of insufferable technological determinism aimed in my direction ever since that Slate article came out. Of course, there’s been, “How dare you resist progress?” and “Don’t you understand business history?,” or, my favorite…well, let’s just say it gets even worse from there. Since I only title blog posts in order to amuse Ian Petrie now, I’ve decided to call the belief system that motivates these kinds of arguments, “The Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.”

Under this system, progress marches on from one technology to another (like video killing the radio star), always getting better. Under this system, the people who lose out need to just stand aside and accept their obsolescence without making a peep since the dead are silent. No mention of political decisions (like chronically underfunding higher education) or power structures (cough…contingent faculty…cough) or even the actual history of technology will be tolerated! And God forbid you mention the self-interest of your own profession, because that will invalidate your argument immediately since it proves that you’re biased.

Of course, MTV no longer plays any videos anymore, but that just proves their point doesn’t it? After all, if the people want “Teen Wolf” or “Buckwild” or reruns of “Jersey Shore,” then the history of MTV proves that capitalism works. After all, I can still watch any video I want on YouTube (such as “Video Killed the Radio Star”) whenever I want to see it. I can even embed it in a blog post. Therefore, the people have spoken!

That’s all well and good, but how do we know that students actually want MOOCs? Sure, tens of thousands of people will sign up to access MOOCs for free, but what evidence do we have that anybody, especially college-age students, will actually pay for them? I’ve covered potential problems with the MOOC business model in this post. What I want to do here is expand on what was point #3 there: Whether paying college students will be willing to put up with being treated like faces in the crowd.

In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot more evidence that they won’t. For instance, here’s Rob Jenkins writing in the Chronicle:

It’s true that during the past decade, the number of students enrolled in online courses grew at a significant rate. But according to a recent study, that growth started leveling off in the fall of 2010, when about 31 percent of all postsecondary students were taking at least one online class. Researchers concluded that “the slower rate of growth … compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau.”

Moreover, a survey conducted this year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students at two-year campuses, in particular, prefer face-to-face over online instruction, especially for courses they deem difficult.

So while some students want, need, and benefit from online classes, the argument that students in general are clamoring for them doesn’t exactly hold up.

This is just for online courses, the ones in which students can actually be treated as individuals. Student attitudes towards MOOCs inevitably have to be worse since they aren’t treated as individuals at all. [Don't worry, MOOC Messiah Squad, you can always just hold your hands over your ears and chant "access" until all the bad news goes away.]

Then there’s what happened in my own state. My friend, fellow cog in the CSU system machine and future debate partner Historiann reminds of this in her most recent post on MOOC Madness. Here she quotes an absolutely appalling op-ed from the Washington Post:

What about that experiment to offer dramatically reduced tuition for MOOCwork courses at Baa Ram U.? It’s even more hilarious than you can guess [Historiann's emphasis]:

Colorado State’s Global Campus advertised last year that it would give credit to enrolled students who passed a MOOC in computer science. This would cost students $89 instead of the $1,050 for a comparable course. There were no takers. Seven additional institutions are set to make similar offerings in the coming year. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, they expect only hundreds, not thousands, of takers.

But why are prospective students so reluctant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon when 10% of them stand to learn so much? Why is it only a few tenured edupreneurs at prestigious universities who are pushing MOOCs by reassuring us that they’re inevitable “for good or ill?” But why? Santy Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why? Even the not-very-intelligent commenters at the Washington Post have called bull$hit on this advertorial: my favorite is the one that says “Yeah, and blow up dolls are a good substitute for a wife…”

I still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but students aren’t stupid. That’s why I wonder how much market research any of these schools are doing. What if “hundreds” turns out to be “a handful?” Where will that leave the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology?

Unfortunately, there’s one way that the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology can be rescued from the dustbin of horrible edtech punditry: Make sure that most students have no other option but MOOCs, and the people running the show can still make money even if many students do forego college in droves. However, that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s still early yet in the process of MOOC-ification. We can still rewind. We haven’t gone too far. Those of us who haven’t given themselves over to the Cult of MOOCs simply have to make sure that anti-MOOC remains the new black until the providers all come crashing down courtesy of their non-existent business plans. Cathy Davidson is right. If all the MOOCs went away tomorrow, higher ed would still be in a world of hurt, but at least those problems couldn’t get much, much worse much, much faster than anybody imagined before MOOC Mania began.





Reminds me of Wile E. Coyote.

22 07 2013

“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

- George Santayana, Life of Reason, 1905.*

The big story in the MOOC-iverse last week was undoubtedly this one, an IHE exclusive about San Jose State and Udacity putting its MOOC-ish remedial math classes on hold because so many students flunked them. Of course that sounds awful, and all the people I usually agree with pounced. Erik Loomis, for instance, wrote at LGM that this was a:

“pretty powerful piece of evidence suggesting the vast inferiority of MOOCs for students.”

Like Tenured Radical, I agree that blaming students for the failures of your course isn’t cool (particularly when the course apparently does stink), but in order to conclude what Erik concludes you’d need a representative sample of college students enrolled. The CHE coverage of the same story makes it clear that they didn’t have one.

I think an extended excerpt is in order:

“Sandra Desousa, a lecturer in math at the university**, was one of those instructors. Ms. Desousa has taught developmental math in a traditional format for seven years. This spring she and Susan McClory, another math lecturer, taught an adapted version of that course on the Udacity platform.

The instructors played to two audiences: 3,500 learners who had signed up for the course as a MOOC through Udacity, and just under 100 others who were taking the course for credit, about half of whom were enrolled at San Jose State. The two groups watched the same video demonstrations and completed the same routine assignments. The only difference was that the students taking the course for credit also were required to complete three online examinations, with monitoring by ProctorU, the online proctoring company.

Only 29 percent of the San Jose State students in the credit-bearing section passed the course, along with 12 percent of the non-matriculated students, according to Ms. Junn’s slide show.

Those rates might seem quite low, but Ms. Desousa said they were “not bad” for her developmental math course, especially given the online format. Every university-enrolled student taking the course had already failed the traditional version once, she said.”

[Emphasis added]

But why on earth did Udacity welcome students who’d already failed the course into their MOOC in the first place? Putting them in MOOCs was the functional equivalent of dropping non-swimmers into shark-infested waters 5 miles out into the Pacific and telling them to do the dog paddle back to shore.

Don’t worry, though. Next time, Udacity is going to change the “pacing” of the course. This is Udacity’s Sebatian Thrun from the Udacity blog:

For example, we are interested in innovating around the pacing of these classes. In our pilot, we stuck to a traditional, 15-week semester timeframe. While that schedule may work for full-time students on campus, we know it doesn’t for everyone. As we broaden the base of students we reach with these classes, we should broaden our perspective on what a “semester” looks like. Imagine a world where you could take these classes for credit, while setting your own pace and deadlines to fit within work schedules, within times when you have access to computers, or within high-school classes schedules.

The last line of the LA Times coverage offers a much more obvious suggestion for improvement:

Educators elsewhere have said the purely online courses aren’t a good fit for remedial students who may lack the self-discipline, motivation and even technical savvy to pass the classes. They say these students may benefit from more one-on-one attention from instructors.

Gee, ya think? Students without a college background or who failed a class already need MORE access to the professor, not less. This is so frickin’ obvious it hurts.

“We are experimenting and learning. That to me is a positive,” Thrun told AP. Sounds to me like they’re starting from an awfully low spot on the learning curve already. I’m not arguing that Thrun is stupid here. Otherwise, I would have titled this post “Sebatian Thrun: Super Genius,” in the same ironic sense that I throw the term superprofessor around. I certainly couldn’t have invented the self-driving car.

However, it appears to me that Thrun shares the same sense of fanaticism (in the way that Santayana defines it) that Wile E. Coyote or the modern Republican Party possesses. In the same way the GOP proposes tax cuts as a solution to every problem under the sun, Thrun is going to make MOOCs solve everything wrong with higher education whether they’re suited to the task or not. If I were one of his investors, I’d be scared out of my mind right now – not because MOOCs are by definition inferior to any regular college class (although I think they are), but because apparently the head of this education company knows very little about education.

* h/t to my old friend Frank Brock, who used to have a poster of Wile E. Coyote with that quote under it which I always coveted dearly.

**Since San Jose State has not been transported to Great Britain, that means she’s untenured, right? That can’t be a coincidence.





“Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home?”

16 05 2013

Has a backlash formed against MOOCs? Well, yes and know. Certainly non-stop MOOC-mania has started to become peppered with bad publicity for the first time. However, it’s important to remember an important distinction: There are universities that produce MOOCs now and universities that will consume MOOCs (mostly) later. If schools like Amherst reject being MOOC producers, that’s not a backlash. That’s Amherst being Amherst. If schools like Duke reject giving credit for MOOCs, that does not prevent them from continuing as MOOC producers.

Really, the only sure sign that I’ve seen of any institutional backlash from a potential MOOC consumer is that eloquent letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. Perhaps this explains why Michael Feldstein decided to attack it:

The collective effect of these rhetorical moves is to absolve the department of all responsibility for addressing the real problems the university is facing. By ignoring the scholarship of teaching, the department missed an opportunity to engage the MOOC question in a different way. Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community.

Seriously, you can’t learn more about education technology anywhere than you can over at Michael’s blog, e-Literate. However, that post is probably the clearest indiction that I have ever seen that faculty have to look out for their own interests rather than depend on friends in any other part of higher education to fight for them. After all, it’s not the San Jose State Philosophy Department’s fault that the California legislature won’t raise taxes. More importantly, it’s not Feldstein’s job that’s under threat of being unbundled. I’ll call this the “Wait ’til you get home” option because we all know what the outcome of this kind of dialogue will be: unbundling and unemployment.

On the other hand, there’s the “Shoot him now! Shoot him now!” option, which I warned about in my first Inside Higher Education piece almost a year ago. Sadly, things have only gotten worse since that time. Perhaps the best indication of that is the hysterical (in more than one way) Pearson-authored report, “An Avalanche Is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead.”

I must confess that I didn’t bother to actually read this report until I wanted to find new evidence to illustrate this way of thinking. You won’t be surprised to learn that it really is as bad as it sounds. “In the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat,” the authors write at the end:

with a keen eye trained on value. For institutions, deciding to embrace this new world may turn out to be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.

Of course, if the learner is in the driver’s seat, faculty aren’t. In fact, since you can literally pick up online instructors from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection, professors will have far less power in Pearson’s utopian future than they do even now. As the authors remind us:

For traditional universities, a dramatic rethink of how faculty use their time and how they interact with students will be central to future success.

Adapt or die. Nothing more. Nothing less. The fact that this report was published by what claims to be the UK’s “leading progressive think tank” literally makes me sick to my stomach.

Luckily, a third way of thinking about MOOCs is coalescing. I’ll call it the “End Duck Season altogether” option. From where I sit, it’s taking many forms. For example, you can humiliate Elmer for knowing absolutely nothing about hunting. I think Bob Meister did this very well in his recent open letter to Coursera’s Daphne Koller. It’s not like he’s saying, “Your MOOCs suck” (even if sometimes they do).

Then there’s a sort of arched eyebrow accompanying the question, “Have you people really thought through the implications of what you’re doing?,” approach. Aaron Bady’s masterpiece, delivered at UC-Irvine last week and published on his blog yesterday, will remain the gold standard in this genre for a very long time. By all means read the whole thing, but here’s my favorite part:

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

So, for example, when Georgia Tech creates an entirely online master’s degree in computer science and charges $134/credit, it is no longer open. That means it is not a MOOC. It’s simply a cheap graduate degree with coursework graded by machine. The cloud of MOOC hype is designed to distract attention from the fact that the pedagogy involved here is actually a big step backwards.

Another way to prevent Elmer Fudd from shooting you in the beak is to attack the basic assumptions behind his weapon of choice. This guest post at Historiann’s place is particularly brilliant in that regard:

At the moment, the classism of the MOOCs is most clear in the central unexamined assumption – that the “best” teachers are at the “best” universities. Now, it is true that the most prominent scholars tend to teach at the most prominent universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country. Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present. However, the high cost of developing MOOCS means that only faculty at America’s most elite universities have the opportunity to employ those technologies. The wealthy and powerful thus become the purveyors of knowledge and culture to those less privileged across America and around the world. MOOCs are not, in fact, cheap, but the money goes to technical staff at the elite university, rather than to instructors at less resourced ones.

[emphasis in original]

The authors also attack MOOCs along gender lines, an argument that I have been woefully bereft at developing here at this blog.

Whatever way you want to go about trying to end open season on college professors, you need to recognize that you’re going to get attacked for being uncivil. That doesn’t mean that you’re not being polite. All it means is that the MOOC enthusiasts are angry because you’ll no longer accept their monopoly on determining the parameters of the MOOC debate. If we can accomplish that change, then maybe we’ll have a real backlash against MOOCs on our hands.





Ground rules for the MOOC Monster.

29 04 2013

So a giant, hairy, orange monster has shown up at the door to your classroom. Maybe you invited it, but more likely your dean or provost invited it into your department for you. What are you going to do? Are you going to let it inside and risk being eaten alive or are you going to try to bar the door?

Recognizing that plenty of people are not in a position to bar the door, I thought I would suggest a few ground rules for living with the MOOC Monster. After all, monsters are such interesting people. Maybe you and it can learn to get along. And rather than making these rules facetious (like “Don’t let him eat anybody,”) these are (mostly) serious:

1) The Monster is not allowed to get between the professor and the students.  In other words, every student must maintain access to the professor.

Public education does not mean education only for the self-motivated or the quick to pick up on things. Public education means education for everybody. That means every student must be able to ask questions of somebody who knows the answer. TAs are helpful in this area, but even students caught in a 500-person face-to-face lecture hall still require access to the professor. In theory, they have it. MOOC students, on the other hand, certainly don’t. Instead they’re barred in the syllabus from e-mailing the superprofessor or the superprofessor holds a lottery so that students have the privilege of participating in a Google chat with them. This is not good customer service.

Neither is pawning the inquisitive off on other students and calling that a “learning community.” Yes, there are plenty of things that students can learn by working together. There are also plenty of things that they can’t. Anybody who thinks that the entire college experience can be transformed into an interactive group activity is either an edtech entrepreneur or rolling too many of their own jelly babies.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Achilles Heel of endeavors like these is peer-grading. That’s where the lack of access to the professor hurts the learning process most because correcting essays is where most writing-based instruction occurs. Rather than quote myself, I’ll offer up an extended excerpt from this post at Degrees of Freedom:

But when paid graders have to go through thousands of submissions for AP History (for example), they are not simply e-mailed a rubric and a bunch of essays and told to get on with it. Rather, they are all flown into the same location and put through hours or days of training to ensure they are all grading consistently.

This usually includes sharing examples (called exemplars) of essays representing each score on a rubric (giving graders models to work from). It will also include mechanisms for sharing and confirming scores between graders and bringing in additional evaluators to break ties or settle disputes.

The point of all this activity is to squeeze as much inconsistency out of the process as possible so that the major source of subjectivity in a rubric-graded scoring exercise (idiosyncrasies between those doing the grading) is minimized.

Needless to say, no such training or collaboration is available when I’m scoring 3-4 essays from my home in Boston (and applying my own extra rules – such as the non-native English one mentioned above) while someone else is scoring their 3-4 from their villa on the Turkish coast (and applying his or her own idiosyncratic rules as they work).

This is not good customer service either. Indeed, if you actually care about learning, this kind of crapshoot would probably drive you to drink. Perhaps, just perhaps, the MOOC Monster could be a model party guest while visiting a math classroom, but if the course has anything to do with writing I don’t see why we shouldn’t kick the creature out before it comes in and trashes the place straight away.

2) The Monster must be kept on a leash. The professor must hold that leash at all times.

Technology, the cliché goes, is neither good nor bad. That depends upon how it’s used. How it’s used depends upon how much you know about where you plan to use it. Over the weekend, Michael Feldstein, fresh off a conference full of edtech startups and VCs wrote:

The prevailing attitude in the Valley seems to be, “Hey, we built the internet. How hard could education be?”

That’s right. Education is your career, but the capitalists of Silicon Valley are convinced that they can do your job better than you can. I wouldn’t trust my history classroom to a psychology professor (nor they to me, I hope), yet the guy who used to run Snapfish.com and his venture capitalist buddies are convinced that they can recreate the Ivy League online. It would be hilarious if so many people weren’t assuming that this sort of thing was even remotely plausible.

If you need brain surgery, call a brain surgeon. If you want an education, then there better be some educators involved or you’re probably flushing your money down the toilet. I’m not talking about the venture capitalists here. If gullible administrators willingly give them guaranteed contracts then their profit is in the bag. I’m talking about the students. Professors serve as quality control for higher education endeavors. If your professor is about as accessible as the pope or Thomas Pynchon, then you can’t perform that function no matter how well-meaning you happen to be.

I am not a Luddite (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I try to learn technologies that I think will be useful to me in my life or in the classroom. I eschew technologies that won’t help, or which I know I can’t control. Also over the weekend, Derek Bruff asked, “Why isn’t the digital humanities community building great MOOCs?” I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Its members want nothing to do with a technology that they can’t control.

Come to think of it, the fact that MOOCs don’t do anything to improve the quality of education may have something to do with it too.

3) The professor is the one who gets to decide if the Monster has overstayed its welcome.

In real terms, I’m talking about assessment here. I hate assessment. I think it’s nothing but a fishing expedition for an excuse to punish higher education by defunding it, thereby making it even less effective than it already may be. Yet, for some reason, MOOCs seem to immune from all this assessment talk that dogs face-to-face classes. “Don’t mind the 90% dropout rate,” the MOOC enthusiasts tell us. “It’s a new technology. We’ll figure it all out down the road.” Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I still want to know why MOOCs deserve a pass while face-to-face classes don’t.

I think this is where that whole “Be a maker not a hater” business comes in. I have no problem with making things. However, if a professor can change their assessment rubric to value outcomes rather than individual student learning, they are cooking the books. Of course 95,000 students are going to do something, but doing isn’t necessarily the same thing as having every student learn what they need to know.

The digital humanities allows us to stretch the nature of our disciplines and of what students need to learn in college. I’m certainly fine with trying some of what this new subdiscipline has to offer in some of my classes. In fact, I just got a small grant from my university to try a class along these lines next spring. However, too many edtech startups and superprofessors are running down what most of us do every day in an effort to justify whatever disruption makes them rich, famous or both. Perhaps whatever tech that happens to be hip that week is a good thing. Perhaps it isn’t.

I say let the people who do the teaching be the judge.

***

But what if we can’t? What if the powers that be won’t let us kick the MOOC Monster out of our classrooms? Congratulations, if you understand that this is the likely outcome of laying ground rules for the MOOC Monster, then you understand that professors are employees, not entrepreneurs. Everything we do takes place within an industrial relations system in which most of us have very little power.

Nonetheless, I think there’s value in forcing the MOOC pushers to go on the record with their anti-education views. These simple ground rules aren’t unreasonable. They are reflections of the should-be-uncontroversial principle that educators know what’s best for education, not VCs or tech geeks. To argue against these rules would clearly reveal that the actual agenda of the MOOC “Revolution” does not involve improving the quality of education for anyone. Maybe then we professors might start paying more attention to the threat that the MOOC Monster embodies.

Monsters may be interesting people, but you can’t engage them in meaningful conversation if they’ve just swallowed you whole.





Meanwhile, back in my real job…

17 04 2013

I’m told that I make my debut as a talking head on this Rocky Mountain PBS program about the history of my adopted hometown of Pueblo, Colorado:

I’ve also been told that I didn’t bring shame upon my university and my family name, but I’d still rather watch these Talking Heads than watch me.

You are welcome to take either option. We all stopped making sense a long time ago.





“Ethel…I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

12 04 2012

In 1910, the famously liberal Boston Lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Louis Brandeis lobbied before the Interstate Commerce Commission against a railroad rate hike under a surprising rationale. Brandeis had just discovered Frederick Taylor’s system of scientific management. He was convinced that if American railroads instituted Taylor’s system, they could save a million dollars a day. That would be enough to keep rates low, profits up and railroad workers well-paid.

Like so many well-meaning liberals of that (or any other) age, Brandeis hadn’t thought this idea all the way through to the end. Most companies who instituted the Taylor system in the subsequent decade kept the profits generated by more efficient production entirely to themselves. Worse yet, once they discovered upon instituting Taylor’s piece rate reforms that their workers could work harder, they lowered wages too. This forced workers to to work harder still in order to keep their total paychecks at about the same level. While highly influential, especially in Japan, Taylor’s system proved so unpopular with workers that it created more industrial relations problems than it ever solved.

I thought of Brandeis when I read this piece about automated grading by John A. Casey, Jr.:

Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills. He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Once you demonstrate that you can handle 50 essays per week with this new automated tool, they’re not going let you start assigning two essays per week. They’re going to double the size of the class to 100. Why? Because they can, that’s why.

Since I’ve got other things to do myself before the end of the afternoon, I think I’ll just quote myself from the last time I brought up automated grading software:

You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a living, breathing person does. You do it because it’s cheaper. Much cheaper. More importantly, the labor cost savings can go to football, climbing walls in the gym or just higher administrative salaries. And Pearson doesn’t make out too badly either.

The goal of automation is not to provide a better education. It’s to save taxpayers and students money.

And if you somehow think that this isn’t headed for higher ed soon, you’re fooling yourself. The Obama Administration’s higher education policy (or as I like to call it when discussing all education matters, Bush III) is to make college as cheap as possible so that more people can attend, regardless of whether there are any jobs waiting for them once they graduate. They’ll never differentiate between an essay graded by a computer program and one graded by a human being in terms of quality because they only care about potential cost savings. Even if this grade-o-matic allows professors to assign more writing, doing so will be impossible in the new age of permanent austerity because that would slow down production.

More importantly, administrators and politicians of all stripes would be delighted to throw any number of professors under the bus if that’s what it takes to keep college costs down. Even adjuncts are more expensive than machines. Who cares if the faculty that remain have to stuff a few chocolates under their hats along the way as long as the production line keeps going?





Fractured fairy tales for furious faculty.

23 03 2012

I am not an accounting professor. I do not even play one on TV. However, I have learned something about how university budgets work over the last few years both because of my commitment to academics and out of naked self-interest. For both these reasons, I think academics should get a higher percentage of university revenue and a big part of academics is faculty salaries. Contrary to what seems to be a popular impression, however, faculty salaries are hardly the only things that cost universities money.

Let me illustrate this point with a story. A few years ago my university built three new dorms on campus. I asked my dean why we were building three new dorms on campus when the faculty didn’t get a raise the previous year, and he explained to me that the money for the dorms was raised through bonds. Future revenues from the students staying there would pay for the cost of their construction. You can’t do that with a classroom building and you certainly can’t do that with a new tenure-track line. When I mentioned to the President that now that the dorms were built it would be nice if raising faculty salaries became a priority, he explained to me that the money for the dorms and money for raises come out of different pots. There’s an infrastructure pot and an academic pot and it was wrong of me to link the two.

Then I read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. I’m not going to bother you with a synopsis of that most excellent book, but it did make me realize something really important: If the university was ever in danger of defaulting on the bonds that built those dorms, the bondholders would not accept “the money comes from different pots” as an excuse for failure to repay. The market (whatever that is) would force the administration to take money out of academics to make sure that bondholders still got their guaranteed returns. In other words, the university could always move money from one area of its operations to another if it really wanted to do so. The “pots” were just a construct designed to get faculty like me to quit whining.

While the existence of “pots” demonstrates one kind of magical thinking, another kind of magical thinking involves making these same “pots” disappear. This is from a recent e-mail written by University of Colorado-Boulder President Bruce Benson to the CU campus community:

We are in a market economy and are a people-intensive enterprise. Some three quarters of our expenditures are for people. Delivering a quality education at CU means investing in people. Additionally, our business has increased substantially during the recession, with an 11.5 percent increase in enrollment the past decade and record enrollment on our campuses. Degrees awarded over the same period increased 34 percent.

Top administrative raises accounted for a small percentage of the total salary pool. The vast majority went to faculty, who are critical to the quality of a CU education. More than 85 percent of those who received merit raises received less than $4,000.

When I cited that e-mail before, I was appalled by its aim to displace attention from administrative salary hikes to small faculty raises. Yet look precisely at how Benson is doing that. Perhaps the vast majority of the money raised by tuition increases that went to raises went to faculty, but if they’re only in less-than-$4000 increments I can absolutely guarantee you that the vast majority of the money raised by tuition increases didn’t go to raises. The heating bill alone in Boulder would boggle your mind, let alone all the other expenditures it takes to keep a university running. And to imply that three-quarters of total university expenditures there go to people requires blinders the size of Ralphie the Buffalo. Some pretty big pots simply aren’t being considered anywhere in that equation.

One more story along these lines from Down Under (via Kate’s Twitter Feed):

Speaking out over sackings is easier than demanding universities increase staff costs by converting casuals to permanent, if only part-time, employees. No one expects vice-chancellors to do this without a cheque from Canberra and just now the government is not dishing out the dosh.

Universities in Australia don’t necessarily need a check from the government to make causal labor permanent (although that always helps). They just need to make creating good faculty jobs a priority. That means better salaries for professors of all kinds would have to trump other priorities on campus, such as administrative salaries (like in Boulder) or (if Australia is anything like the U.S.) the number of administrators they hire in the first place.

Only when such priorities change can both students and faculty live happily every after. Students get better classes taught by professors who can devote more time to teaching because they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet.








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