Saturday, February 9, 2008

Time For MoneyBall

at the University of Minnesota?

Or, A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations
And So Do University Administrators

Mr. Bonzo is a great fan of the website MoneyLaw, The Art of Winning an Unfair Academic Game. One of the contributors to this site, Jim Chen, is Dean of the Brandeis Law School at Louisville and a former member of the faculty at Minnesota.

From the site:

The Jurisdynamics Network is proud to introduce a new blog, MoneyLaw. Inspired by Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, many law professors have pondered the extent to which this profession can learn from Billy Beane's approach to winning baseball games for the Oakland Athletics.

This is a great site even for non-lawyers and there are some valuable lessons to be learned here for the current occupants of Morrill Hall.

Since our ambitious aspirations to be one of the top three public research universities on the planet do not seem to be panning out, e.g.:

"Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory."

Senate Research Committee, October 8, 2007

perhaps it is time to start thinking about how to play smart with the cards we’ve got and employ some of the concepts of MoneyBall instead of a lot of noise and finger pointing elsewhere?

The recent attempt by President Bruininks to lay another large tuition increase at the feet of the state legislature is getting to be SOP at Morrill Hall. Didn’t the legislature in the last session treat the U pretty well? Isn’t that what we heard from him?

How is it that MNSCU is only going to raise their tuition by 3.5% whereas the U will raise it either 5.5 or 7.5% depending on family income?

Obviously there are ways that the administration could keep tuition down. How much did the endowment go up last year? And how much additional money went into student aid? Dr. Bruininks has acknowledged that the average debt is $20,400. For emphasis – this is just the average. I know students who owe a lot more than that, especially first generation college students in, say, the medical technology program.

So what do we hear from OurProvost?

There have been a lot of false statements made about tuition increases. He [Sullivan] said the discussion should focus on the marginal average cost to students of a tuition increase, factoring in tuition discounting, scholarships, fellowships, and other financial aid support.”

Faculty Consultative Committee
Thursday, January 24, 2008


Is it fair to send our students out into a rapidly developing recession with this sort of debt load. And God help the students who are not in science and engineering where, hopefully, they can find a job to begin crawling out from under the debt rock. What if you are an English major, or took a degree in Philosophy? How the hell are you going to pay off that mountain of debt in a reasonable time?

When I graduated from Northwestern – which at that time had the highest tuition in the country – I owed exactly $1300 and had forever to pay it off at something like 1.5% interest.

So where is the money going if not to keep tuition reasonable? You cannot raise the expectations of everyone about resources, bleed money from the core to finance new initiatives, spend money on going green, finance a new honors program (and it will cost money) and manage to keep tuition down. This last item needs to be a priority, not just an adjustable parameter that is moved up or down to make the budget come out right.

As OurLeader himself recently said: "We can't be on a rollercoaster at Valley Fair every year."

Continuing to make noises about being number three, given the current situation, is absurd. When the advertising campaign is over, the faculty have left, and the tuition has continued to go up faster than inflation, citizens and legislators are not going to be very happy with the U. Not when they can look over at Madison and ask: "What is going on here?"

The state legislature cannot directly dictate tuition and the U has taken advantage of this in the past. They also have no direct way to force the university to do the right thing in paying its employees, witness what happened with the AFSCME raise.

But the state legislature can do what the Governor and Peter Bell have done, namely to state a figure and require that certain goals must be met. In the case of light rail, no money will be forthcoming if project financial goals are not met. Let's hope that the administration has finally gotten the message and does not make the whole University take the blame for submarining the project. It didn't take a rocket scientist or a university president to figure out how this one would turn out. We are reduced to arguing for a bad Northern option and will probably have to cave even on this.

So much for leadership at the University. As one of the attendees at the hearing on the Central Corridor put it:

University students will be in no more danger than drunken Vikings fans downtown who have to deal with light rail at grade. A transit mall will be the best decision ever forced on the U of M.”

This same brand of hard-ball (MoneyBall) may have to be played by the legislature. We will give you X$ and we expect that tuition at the U will increase by no more than inflation. If you do not meet this target, then next year we will give you (X$ - n$), where the magnitude of n is a function of how annoyed we are at you for continuing to pull this stunt.

Any other suggestions?

Ciao, Bonzo

ps. Nasty spam requires comment moderation for a while, sorry for the inconvenience.

(Imagine, spammed by an anonymous piglet - the irony of it.)


Slugger said...

Hi Mr. Bonzo,

I like this post. What I don't quite understand, though, is the relevance of the images from Pittsburgh. I love the Panthers and the Pirates, but I admit I don't quite get the connection here.

Best wishes,

Mr. B. said...

Hi Slugger,

My English composition teacher in college used to complain that I was too cryptic. This difficulty continues.

The University of Pittsburgh - symbolized by the Cathedral of Learning - has done a helluva job in snarfing up NIH grants (the med school) and in general being a fine public institution.

They have done this under extremely difficult circumstances, as only an old Pittsburgher could fully appreciate. Someone there knows how to play MoneyBall. And their administration is not whining about being one of the top three public research universities on the planet, unlike some other places we know.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were a helluva baseball team. Maz (Bill Mazeroski) and Roberto (Clemente) were Mr. B's. faves as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh. In that city every kid wanted to play right field, Clemente's position, which is pretty interesting since usually only bad fielders play in right.

Sorry to go on, but as a sports and academics afficiando, I thought you would appreciate this.

My first job was as a lab tech at the Pitt Med School. I worked in the microbiology department which at that time was headed by Niels Jerne, a future Nobel Prize winner.
Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine fame, worked there before going to Michigan and eventually the Salk Institute.

It is good to see a great public institution prosper. Let us hope that our own current institutions can do as well.

I owe you a dinner some day. I expect in return an autographed baseball bat.

All the best,


Mr. B. said...

ps. I will (of course) supply the bat.