Friday, November 19, 2010

Commercialization Is Not the Problem

in Higher Ed
Too Much Emphasis on PR and Administrative Bloat? 

(at the University of Minnesota...)

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves...

Having served for over three decades in higher education and almost a decade in publicly held corporations, I have always found the assertions about the dangers of commercialization curious at best, since the way colleges and universities are run bears no relationship to the way corporations are managed.

Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality, forthcoming from Edward Elgar, Ltd.

We in higher education do have major problems with cost and quality, and they need fixing. But commercial forces are not the problem – our own internal practices are. A major factor in the persistence of our cost and quality problems is too much emphasis on public relations and too little emphasis on introspection.

With respect to quality, I am aware of no scholar who makes the case that the quality of undergraduate education has increased over the past three decades. Furthermore, graduation rates, grade inflation, declining student study time, and lower prose, document, and quantitative literacy among college graduates all suggest at the very least that quality has not improved despite lower teaching loads and smaller class sizes for tenure-track faculty.

Our problems with cost and quality have an internal origin. ... there has been an ongoing clash of values in higher education for the past three decades. The conflict is between traditional academic values and the values inherent in public relations. 

The combination of reputation competition and public relations governance makes introspection an improbable task. Building image conflicts directly with candid discussions about campus problems. Without serious introspection, even the best institutions cannot get better. The first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem. 

The reason the public relations people came to dominate campus administration is that reputations rule and reputations are built (at least temporarily) by public relations. 

 A recent study, written by Jay Greene and others at the Goldwater Institute, documents the growth of “administrative bloat” in higher education. 

Overhead cost (the cost of administering colleges and universities) should benefit from economies of scale and from the significant technological progress that occurred over the last three decades; as “output” increases, the overhead cost per student should decline. Unfortunately, overhead costs per student grew significantly and steadily during this period. By my calculations, as much as two-thirds of the increase in total cost per student came from increased overhead costs.

As the size of the administrative staff grew relative to faculty members and as the administration replaced tenure track faculty with contract faculty, the tenure-track faculty’s governance role declined. Curiously, the dominant public narrative concerning what ails higher education is that tenured and pampered faculty members obstruct all the good work proposed by administrators and governing boards; the reality is that most of the cost increases come from rising overhead costs, and tenure-track faculty play an increasingly smaller role in determining how the campus employs its resources.

Other things equal, one would expect that faculty governance would be stronger at research universities than at teaching colleges ...

... in 23 of the 198 Research I universities studied, instructional employment grew faster than administrative employment. It is revealing that many of these institutions were elite research universities such as Harvard, California Institute of Technology, Rice, Emory, Cornell, Chicago, Princeton, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia, where faculty governance is stronger than it is in the rest of the academy. Hence, it is likely that growing administrative bloat is driven, in part, by weak faculty governance; precisely the opposite of public perceptions about higher education. 

There are two ironies here. First, contrary to public perception, higher education’s chronic cost problems have at least as much to do with administrative decisions as they do with faculty members behaving badly. Second, if the corporate model had been applied to higher education, administrative bloat would not have happened. If governing boards closely followed overhead staffing patterns with respect to numbers and salaries, the explosion in overhead costs could not happen. The mystery is why governing boards did not monitor overhead cost. 

...priority is to reinstate the faculty’s role in shared governance. Governance is shared in higher education because each group (faculty members, administrators, and boards) is supposed to monitor the behavior of the others; since administrative bloat accounts for two-thirds of the cost increases and, at best, the quality of undergraduate education has not improved over that same period, academic governance has not succeeded.

In the end, these are our problems and it is our responsibility to solve them. Denying problems exist betrays our students in at least two ways. First, beyond just teaching value added, we claim critical thinking skills, social responsibility, justice, citizenship, etc. are important parts of what we teach students. How can students take us seriously if we are unwilling to critically evaluate our own behavior and our institutions? Second, by our inaction, we deny students access to college. Uncontrolled rising real costs make it impossible for society to ever fully fund college access. 
This post really resonates with me...


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