Friday, December 30, 2011

Course Correction in Higher Education


Course Correction in Higher Education

"To save the U, Bob Bruininks had to destroy it," declared Minnesota Monthly in its July 2011 report.  The administration prefers to refer to this destruction as Transforming the U.   
Here are some suggestions for a course correction.

1.  Scrap the "high tuition high financial aid" experiment and roll back tuition.


This experiment is described in the July 2011 report in Minnesota Monthly aptly entitled The Man Who Slew the U.   In practice this model has been a financial disaster for students and their parents.

This method of financing undergraduate education works for students only if financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants keeps pace with the increases in tuition.  For most students this never happened.  Instead, students were forced to borrow more and more to pay the skyrocketing tuition.  See the October 14, 2011 report in the Star Tribune on Generation Debt.

The administration used part of the skyrocketing tuition for scholarships for students from lower income families.  This method of providing access to the University by shifting the financial burden to other students raised questions of fairness.  See the June 29, 2011 report in the Star Tribune on Tensions Rising Over Cost Disparities at U.
On December 8, 2011 chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter informed the Finance & Operations Committee of the Board of Regents that his office has now developed a method to calculate the cost of instruction and to allocate the sources of revenue available to pay that cost.  The report of the Committee notes that "this type of analysis has not been presented to the Board of Regents in the past."  See  p. 4 of the report of the Committee.  So over the past 10 years the senior administrators and the Regents made a series of decisions that doubled undergraduate tuition without having such a basic analysis.
How does one determine whether increases in tuition are necessary and reasonable without knowing either the cost of instruction or the allocation of other revenues (such as state appropriations) to pay that cost?  The senior administrators and Regents who have done so are so far removed from the economic lives of most students and parents that they are oblivious to the hardship caused by skyrocketing tuition.
This ill-conceived experiment for financing undergraduate education should be abandoned before it creates an entire generation of indentured students.  Rolling back tuition is the most effective and efficient way to provide financial aid.  We need to once again make higher education affordable for all students.

2.  Reward quality teaching as much as quality research.


The current system rewards professsors for their research.  So enormous amounts of time and effort are dedicated to research that does little to advance knowledge.  See the December 4, 2011 commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education on The Research Bust. Those professors who do produce valuable research are rewarded with fewer classes and with graduate students to teach the classes.

Professors who care about teaching should teach undergraduate students.  They should devote their time to improving their classroom instruction and to meeting with students.  Their pay and promotion should be based primarily on the quality of their teaching.
Those who care about research should be research fellows in a separate Institute of Research at the University.  Their pay and promotiion should be based primarily on the quality of their research.

The few who have both the skill and the time to excel at teaching and research should be paid a bonus.  They will have earned it.

3.  Roll back the costs of administration and restore the ideal of public service.

During the past 10 years the administration has increased spending on operations at the University by 50% to $3 billion per year.  This is due, in part, to the explosion in the costs of administration since 2005.  See section 3 in University Inc. Part II.  This explosion includes the extravagant compensation of senior administrators that now far excceds the compensation of their fellow public servants in state government who have similar qualifications and duties.  See On The Cost of Administration.

Skyrocketing tuition also provided a gusher of money to hire numerous additional administrators to report to the senior administrators.  We now have an administrative structure that is incomprehensible even to the insiders.  See Rube Goldberg Administration.  The "cost pools" used to support this structure have become financial black holes that drain tens of millions of dollars from the colleges at the University.  See Stop Using Students as ATMs.
There should be substantial reductions in the compensation of senior administrators and in the sheer number of administrators.  Those senior administrators who believe that they should continue to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and benefits each year would be free to seek such compensation in the private sector or at other universities whose leaders fail to ask Questions of Value.  There are many qualified persons in our state who are still dedicated to public service.

4.  Give real authority to the faculty senate and eliminate most of the faculty committees.


At present the administration is able to simply ignore the faculty, as it did when it combined the positions of medical school dean and vice president of the academic health center and when it reorganized the graduate school.  See Faculty Governance is an Oxymoron  and An Offer She Can't Refuse.

Every major proposal of the administration should be subject to the approval of the faculty senate.  The administration should be able to submit major proposals to the Regents only if it is able to successfully make its case to the faculty.

At the same time most of the faculty committees should be eliminated.  The numerous committees produce much talk and little action.  Instead of spending time in committee meetings, the professors should devote the time to the instruction of their students.

5.  Repeal the Bayh-Doyle Act (the University & Small Business Patent Procedures Act).

This 1980 federal legislation enables universities to obtain patents for inventions even though though public funds are used for the research.  The mere prospect of profits has generated huge increases in the operating expenses and capital costs related to research.  (The U of M spends hundreds of millions of dollars on research each year.)  Federal grants cover only a part of those expenditures.  Only a few universities realize sufficient revenues to make a profit.  See  On The Hidden Cost of Research.

To make matters worse, the law of unintended consequences took effect.  The hopes of senior administrators for a huge financial payoff for their own institution promotes secrecy that blocks the free flow of information among scholars.  The quest for the advancement of knowledge has been submerged in the quest for profits.  See University Inc. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education by Jennifer Washburn. 

As costs have mounted and federal grants for research have declined, the universities have looked more and more to corporate sponsors.  See the December 10, 2011 report in the Pioneer Press on U Open for Business Research.  This has produced a blurring of the priorities of non-profit institutions of higher education and the priorities of for profit corporate sponsors.  See The Markinson Files and Continuing Disgrace. The increasing reliance on corporate funds can also cause senior administrators to attempt to block the public presentation of research that might offend major corporate donors.  See The Troubled Waters of Big Ags Influence.

Research is an essential function of the University.  But it must be done in the right way for the right reasons with the right safeguards.

6.  Leave busines to business.

As the senior administrators at the U of M looked for ways to increase profits, they decided to transform UMore Park into a unique combination of a commercial gravel pit and a utopian residential community.  They told the Regents that this new business model would produce from $3 million to $10 million in revenues each year.  This projection turned out to wildly unrealistic.  See section 1 in University Inc. Part II.

The gravel pit will be located on land that has been used for agricultural research that has produced hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy of Minnesota.  It appears that the senior administrators and the Regents made the decision on UMore Park without consulting either the professors who were engaged in the research or any agricultural economists.  See Rethinking MoreU Park.

This is what can happen in the new corporate university when senior administrators and Regents go moonlighting and use public funds to start business ventures on the side.  It is easy for senior administrators and Regents to take enormous financial risks on such business ventures as they are not using their own money.

7.  Transfer the major revenue sports teams.

In fiscal year 2009 the University ranked No. 20 in the nation on expenditures on athletics at $70.3 million.  The color of the financing is red.  Each year the athletic department continues to receive multi-million dollar subsidies from the general fund of the University.  Meanwhile, the administration plans to continue to eliminate academic programs and to replace professors with part-time instructors.  See Expensive Icing.

In the 20th century intercollegiate athletics evolved from club teams to big business, especially in the major revenue sports of football and men's basketball.  There was a transition from a game in which a limited number of coaches with modest salaries instructed local students to an annual $70+ million financial enterprise at the University in which numerous coaches with lavish compensation engage in the national recruiting of young men merely for their athletic skills.

The result has been an endless series of embarrassments for the University:  the on court riot instigated by some members of the basketball team of Bill Musselman; the cash doled out by Luther Darville to certain football players of Lou Holtz; the group sex in Madison by some basketball players of Jim Dutcher; the academic fraud during the tenure of Clem Haskins; the 2007 conviction of a Gopher football player for criminal sexual conduct for ejaculating on the face of a young woman intoxicated to the point of being unconscious; the star basketball recruit who arrived on campus in 2009 with a felony assault charge for allegedly breaking facial bones of a young woman by punching her when she had the nerve to resist his attempt to pull down her pants; the dismal graduation rates for the football and men's basketball teams.
There is a solution that would permit the University to disentangle itself from the big business of major revenue sports while allowing those programs to continue.  The football and men's basketball teams should be organized as separate corporations.  The University would grant a license to those corporations to use the University name for the teams. 
The fee for the license would be a percentage of the revenues the corporations generate from ticket sales, broadcasting rights, advertising, etc.  The University would use part of the license fee income to support the non-revenue sports it decides to retain, such as track and swimming.  This is a solution that would enable the sports fans to continue to enjoy the games and enable the University to focus on its academic mission--the reason for its existence. 

Michael W. McNabb

University of Minnesota B.A. 1971; J.D. 1974
University of Minnesota Alumni Association life member


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