Higher education is not available à la carte.

24 02 2014

Perhaps you saw this piece of clickbait from NPR’s Planet Money team last week? It’s called, “Duke: $60,000 A Year For College Is Actually A Discount” and it follows a familiar format: some people say this, other people say that, but – this being a Planet Money piece – they’ll tell you what’s really going on at the end of the report.

For reasons I don’t really understand, the reporter became fixated on the costs of doing academic research in the sciences. I guess this might seem particularly shocking to those not in the know:

Jennifer West is a professor of bioengineering and materials science with a long list of publications, awards and titles. To hire West away from Rice University, money wasn’t enough. She came with an entourage. “I moved a whole entire research group with me, so I had to move a lot of people and then we had to move a lot of our equipment and rebuild our lab,” she says. “They actually sent architects to Rice who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

West is not alone. Duke pays what it calls “startup costs” for a lot of professors, particularly in the sciences.

How much of that was paid for by government grants? How much of those costs were paid for by private companies? Certainly, with less support for higher education in general, a lot of what used to get paid for these ways is now being subsidized by tuition, but why is this a bad thing if the research is valuable to society?

The answer to that last question depends upon selfish individualism. Here’s the sound of the other shoe dropping:

Charles Schwartz, a retired professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who has been studying university finances for the past 20 years, takes issue with this way of accounting. He says it’s unfair to place the financial cost of professors like Jennifer West, who spend most of their time in the lab, on undergraduate students. “It’s just wrong to bundle all those costs together,” he says.

But how exactly are you going to pull those costs apart? If I were to underpay my taxes and write, “Please understand that the underpayment here is to avoid my having to pay for building those nuclear bombs that I don’t really support,” they’d lock me away. Or suppose I’m a racist. I don’t want to support African American Studies because I don’t believe it’s valuable. Can I withhold the portion of my tuition that goes to that? Of course not because, like government, higher education forces you to subsidize the whole hog because that’s the only way the whole thing works.

Don’t get me wrong. I think $60,000/year for a Duke education is ridiculously overpriced, but the implicit notion in that Planet Money report that students should be able to buy higher education à la carte is completely ridiculous. Why not do away with all graduation requirements then? After all, if I’m going to be a CS major why should I have to learn a foreign language? What good is a history requirement to a nursing major? A lot, of course, but this is the road down which this kind of consumerism will take us.


If I sound unduly sympathetic to Duke University’s ludicrously-high tuition, it’s probably because of a meeting with our Provost that I attended last Thursday. You might remember that during his first all-faculty meeting, our Provost joked that we faculty members only worked three days per week. This meeting went better than that one at first. For a while, it was actually valuable.

The first thing he did was report on the last meeting of our Board of Governors. Apparently, he told the assembled professors, they hate you all. Why? He wasn’t exactly sure, but he didn’t have to tell us. A copy of an e-mail from Chancellor Michael Martin to nobody in particular was circulating from faculty member to faculty member in the days leading up to the meeting. Here’s the part that contains the big tell:

“I would note that CSU-Pueblo students are currently paying fulltime faculty salaries for faculty not working fulltime…Participating in Denver South could relieve some of this unproductive burden on students.”

That’s why every last single professor on campus with out administrative duties or grant money has to teach an extra course starting next semester. We’re “unproductive.”

But, in fact, we’re not. You see, the only reason that faculty are not currently teaching the optimum number of courses by Chancellor Martin’s estimation is that policies exist in our handbook that allow faculty members to get release time for research. The vast majority of us (myself included) teach three courses each semester because we actually do research. Chancellor Martin wants to unbundle that function from our job description so that students won’t have top pay for it.

Unfortunately, even this financial justification for this policy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. During our meeting with the provost, somebody (OK, it was me) pressed him about how exactly faculty losing their research release time actually saves money. The first thing he mentioned was that faculty with higher loads will replace the $290,000 worth of adjunct faculty that we’re in the process firing. Of course, that’s a pittance in the overall university budget. Nevertheless, my fellow tenured and tenure-track colleagues, never forget that the ability to hire someone to do the only part of their your job that an administrator cares about at a fraction of what you cost is a constant threat to your employment and your quality of life.

But the provost admitted that that small scrap of money wasn’t the real motive. During my portion of the conversation with the provost, I proposed the following scenario: Imagine two identical courses with the same professor teaching both, fifteen people in each of them, but the room holds thirty. Can we cancel one section and merge the class? After all, it wouldn’t cost any money. No, the provost said, because that would be political suicide. Yes, they’re making us teach a 4-4 because the Board of Governors of the Colorado State System doesn’t think we work hard enough, not because it does anything for the budget or anything for education. Still no word on whether they feel the same way about Fort Collins.

It’s enough to make you nihilistic, don’t you think?


Last week, Bob Casale of Devo died. Coincidentally, I was teaching Jeff Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive in my 1945-Present class. The book is about the death of the working class during the 1970s, and it’s quite wonderful in large part (but not exclusively) because of it’s many astute cultural references. While I was surprised that my students had never heard of Archie Bunker (who I had thought of as a kind of Mickey Mouse-style cultural icon), I knew that I was going to have to tell them about Devo. That’s right, Cowie explains the politics of Devo.

If you haven’t read the book, to save time I’ll just tell you that those politics revolve around nihilism. Yeah, I missed that too when I was in high school, but really the politics are there. Here’s the video I picked to illustrate Devo’s philosophy:

This is the key lyric, at least for me:

In ancient Rome there was a poem
About a dog who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

You just know that Mark Mothersbaugh had OD’ed on Milton Friedman by the time he wrote those words. In the video, there are two guys dressed as Caligula, one holding this dude in a cheap dog suit by a leash. To me, this sounds like the perfect metaphor for cheap higher education. Freedom of choice? In fact, when both choices are bad you get no real choice at all.

Why are both choices bad? That depends upon who exactly is holding the leash. Here’s Planet Money again (this was their snide little aside at the end of the story about which position you should actually believe):

If you’re engaged in research and capitalizing on your professors’ expertise, maybe you’re getting something that’s worth more than what you paid. If you’ve got a good financial aid package, you’re definitely getting a good deal. But if you’re a full-paying student, who’s not learning much from professors outside the classroom, it’s the university that’s getting the deal.

But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do any research at all?

Any notion that higher education is available à la carte is a complete illusion. Behind Door #1 is austerity. Behind Door #2 is more austerity. There is no Door #3.

What too few of us understand is that faculty are facing the same rotten choices that our students now get. Faced with numerous vocal complaints about our pending 4-4, the provost told us that you make time to do what you love. That comment was met by the loudest series of groans I’ve ever heard from all over the room. Oddly enough, while workers during the 1970s may have forgotten their class consciousness, professors at CSU-Pueblo seem to be discovering theirs again.

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8 responses

24 02 2014

I believe the question of tuition supporting research is known as “cross subsidization” in administrative jargon, and it’s a complex issue. I think (as you write) it’s entirely appropriate to have part of student tuition support the research enterprise, because that’s what colleges and universities are: communities that researches.

That said, when rising tuition in effect replaces declining state research funding, or worse, when it actually subsidizes corporate research successfully off loaded by private concerns onto the public dime — that’s when we get into dicey territory. Students paying their fair share is one thing; students subsidizing public goods the public should pay for, or private gain, is another.

So while I agree that the “unbundling” idea is dangerous, it’s also tugging at a moral tension that is quite real. Public funding is part of the glue holding universities together because expecting students to pay for the whole thing places too much of the research burden on them.

And it’s very rare that federal, etc., grants cover all research. Yes, I know that accounting can make it look like they cover all research and provide a slush fund for philosophers to dip into. But when you add in the fixed costs incurred in order to getting into the game, it ends up being a lot like high level sports: occasionally in the net black, often in the red, usually more about prestige than profit. To take just a random example, I once calculated that the college of liberal arts and sciences at my school pays 35% of its budget back into the common university coffer for power and upkeep, while engineering pays 17%. The campuses are about the same size and there’s no way LAS uses more power or technology. It’s just that we have a steady revenue stream (i.e. students) and they don’t. We’re bonds, they’re stocks; we produce steady income and can hold the fort down when the market crashes; every once in a while they hit (but often in a way that ultimately gets privatized).

25 02 2014

Do students and their parents vote? If they are allergic to taxation and vote that way, then how else are universities to survive?

There’s an old expression: pay me now, or pay me later. Paying later is usually more expensive than paying me now. That’s what a lot of students and parents in my state are finding out. I don’t feel too sorry for them because they’re the cause of their own pain. If they hadn’t fallen for the conservatarian fantasy of “privatization” and “more for less,” then they wouldn’t be burdened by higher tuition and student debt.

FTR, anyone who has a degree from a public college or university and who votes against school levies and funding higher education is a total and complete opportunist and hypocrite.

25 02 2014

I like to tell my students that I’ve had the best of both worlds. Abbreviated version: “When I was your age, my tuition was essentially free (Cal State system), because my elders paid high enough taxes to make that possible. My generation has lower taxes, and you guys have to pay through the nose. It’s great to be me, and it’s great to be whoever’s gonna collect all that interest on your loans, but it sucks to be you. Personally, I think the old system makes a lot more sense than the new, but then again, I’m not a Republican.”

24 02 2014
Contingent Cassandra

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that NPR report, especially the end, either. As anon. points out above, the accounting is pretty complicated, but at least one missing piece is state support for research. I somewhat like the idea that students should make more effort to get the most out of what they’re paying for, but I know that won’t be the takeaway for many listeners, and many of my own students — and, I suspect, students at most state universities catering to the lower-middle and working classes, barely have time to do the minimum of class work in between the paid work they do to try to pay for those classes while minimizing loans (I heard a student-age worker at our campus starbucks this morning say: “Friday’s the day when I work 19 hours, because I both open and close at my other job, and work here, too.” And the legislature wonders why we can’t fill classrooms on Fridays.) There’s also the tendency of non-grant- (or corporate-) funded (i.e. humanities) research to fall between the cracks in discussions of research, even though such research probably costs the university less money (because outside funding simply doesn’t cover the whole cost of research. At least at my university, neither the president nor the provost have any illusions about that, and are quite willing to talk publicly about the costs, even as they set raising the university’s “research profile” as a goal).
The unusual thing about your provost, I think, is that (s)he is resistant to the idea of creating much larger classes. As far as I can tell, from observation at my own university, and anecdotally in conversation with faculty at other institutions (including one this weekend with people from a couple of different state systems), doubling or even tripling class size is a very common way to increase professorial workloads without officially increasing their “course load.” At my own institution, tenured faculty on 2/2 loads have very deliberately absorbed the worst of the pressure to increase class sizes thus protecting junior faculty who need to publish to get tenure and non-tenure track faculty who already have 4/4 loads (we’re pretty much exempt from teaching the largest sections unless we volunteer, and we aren’t pressured to volunteer — well, not much; one colleague who managed to come up with a very popular approach to the core lit course experienced some pressure to create a version of the class that could be enormous and use TA labor). I’m not sure why your provost thinks that increasing class size would be such a political problem. As far as I can tell, no one’s really paying attention. And faculty certainly pay attention to their official workloads.
Finally, however you slice and dice all of the above, the idea that faculty should/will make time for research if/because they “love” it is insulting. Of course, my research has, from a financial standpoint, been a hobby ever since I defended my dissertation, but I’m also not being evaluated on research (though I am teaching a class that one might legitimately call research methods light, so, yes, it feeds my teaching). And, realistically, many faculty who do do research do it in the summer, when they aren’t being paid. But if they’re going to make it official, I very much hope your junior faculty are no longer expected to do research in order to achieve tenure.

25 02 2014
“I liked this blog much better when he only wrote about MOOCs.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] Speaking of our provost, David Dillon of our chemistry department sent this letter to the President, cc’ing every employee on campus, early yesterday evening: […]

28 02 2014
Jane Fraser

Jonathan – a small correction. I recently rewatched the Provost’s talk to us all in the fall. He clearly was NOT joking when he said we work only 3 days a week. Jane

3 03 2014
21 03 2014
How to do shared governance badly. | Academe Blog

[…] denial that we support the 4-4. Speaking personally, being told I have to teach more because I was “not working fulltime” made me angry (because I certainly am). Being told it was my idea (or even simply my […]

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