Monday, April 11, 2005

What colour is the sky on Planet Consultant?

Oops. Righteous Anger time again.

An OpEd by a S.R. Goodman, Educational Consultant, in the Washington Post calls for Hey, Profs, Come Back to Earth.

Er, we were here. Where were you?

First some choice quotes:

"...increasingly resentful of paying sky-high tuition for colleges they see offering their kids a menu of questionable courses and politically absurd campus climates that detract from the quality of a university education."

"If colleges don't tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence."

"They're flabbergasted by courses with titles like "Pornography and Evolution," "The Beatles Era," or "Introduction to Material Culture," as well as educational values that appear only tangentially related to the reality of their lives."

"While the median income for a family of four is just a little over $62,000, middle-class families are regularly expected to come up with nearly $200,000 per child for four years of college."

"321 colleges and universities are sitting on endowments of $100 million or more"

"I'm not arguing that universities should teach only engineering, business and computer science. Liberal arts courses, taught in the context of free speech, have always helped open young minds to the excitement of the marketplace of ideas and to the value of even unpopular opinions. But that tradition seems to have been stood on its head. There is a world of difference between challenging students to think more broadly and trying to shoehorn them into a more narrow spectrum of thought, which many parents feel is happening."

"Recently, I was advising an Eagle Scout who was justifiably proud of his accomplishment and wanted to highlight it on his college applications. But I worried that the national Boy Scouts' stand against homosexuals as scout leaders might somehow count against him in the admissions process at some schools. So I suggested that he get involved in an AIDS hotline to show his sensitivity to an issue often linked to the gay community."

Where shall we begin.

  • Colleges are not politically active; the level of activity on campuses is at a 50 year low. Students are apathetic in bulk, and if the faculty appear to be stirring things up it is out of frustration at this apathy. Young people should care about something.

  • Yes. Universities are expensive. First, state support for public universities is down from ~ 50% of their budget to typically less than 15%. This money has to be replaced from another source. Namely tuition. The arithmetic is brutal, if you want cheaper schools, then either you need bigger classes, or you need higher workloads on the faculty. The private schools are expensive because they have better faculty to student ratio and lower teaching loads. The State Universities with high tuition are holding down the faculty teaching loads to let the faculty do research. If that changes, then the faculty leave. You get different faculty, possibly even better teaching, but not better education, and a loss of a national resource.
    Oh, and state funding is earmarked - it typically does not broadly subsidise tuition but is targeted (eg a powerful rural legislator may direct funding to Dairy Science - and that is appropriate; but doesn't help the cost of running a psychology major).

  • Why are costs increasing so fast? 1) Benefits, especially health care. 2) Infrastructure costs - buildings put up rapidly to accommodate student number expansion in the 60s need maintenance or replacement now. 3) Unfunded mandates. Federal and State regulations need staff for compliance. This drives up administrative cost. There are secondary issues like cross-subsidies of other activities (notoriously athletics) and research (usually a gamble - spend to get research going so research income and prestige goes up, leading to payback in the long run)

  • So what about the big endowments? Well, first of all, universities are racing to pad those out to compensate for income lost from State funding. Several universities are considering going independent. The constraints associated with State funding are just not worth the hassle. Secondly, endowment can't be spent arbitarily. It is for the most part seed money, with only the income from the endowment spendable (so the $100 million only buys you $4 million income per year).
    Further, endowmenet has restrictions - some is for buildings (which then cost to run); some is for such specific things as undergraduate tuition scholarships (or, athletic scholarships! those count too).

  • Liberal arts are not taught to showlight the marketplace of ideas or value of unpopular opinion. They are taught to so that students learn to think, to challenge received knowledge, provide context for the world they live in and to learn to learn.
    The "stupid title" course are fun to pick at; but you know what - pornography is a very large and very lucrative industry, and one that is very sexually dimorphic. Maybe there are evolutionary drivers for male fascination with pornography, and maybe it is worth trying to understand what is going on there. Similarly the Beatles are now art history; up there with Mahler, Armstrong and Mozart.

  • The purpose of a university is not to propagate the values of the parents; that is a task for the parents. If you don't like that, don't go to university and maybe the opportunity cost you recover makes that a cost effective decision. If that is what you value.

  • Oh, and university admission committees don't look down on Eagle Scouts. Certainly not on sincere committed Eagle Scouts, doing it because the embrace the values of Scouting. Admission committees discount students who became Eagle Scouts only because they thought it would look good on their CV. The young man Mr Goodman advised should get involved in an AIDS hotline, should do so IF he sincerely cares about it and thinks it is important enough to spend his time on it; not as empty piece of resume padding. That shines through an application and makes admission committees wonder just what sort of student they're getting.

Grr. Universities are not perfect. But they're doing a much better job than bleedin' Educational Consultants.

Parents, stop gaming the system; prospective students - be honest about your abilities and interests and go take classes that interest you, not ones that reinforce your parents prejudices. There is nothing that makes some of us cringe more than the student majoring in "something practical" just because the parents insist that that is what they ought to be doing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Steinn --

Although I agree with you 98%, I've got to object to a post that leaves the impression, however inadvertant, that the purpose of research funding is to gamble on increased future funding or increased prestige. There are lots of reasons a state university like yours or mine funds research, and should continue to fund it even if the "return on investment" goes to zero. Research improves the quality of the faculty and of the educational experience of the students, it serves the economic interests of the state and nation, and, we hope, improves the health and social well being of people around the world. And, not least for the astronomers, it satisfies a primal need to try to understand the Universe.

One thing that critics of modern universities fail to understand is that we aren't all about educating their undergraduate kids. We should be working hard at that and doing it well, but if it is all we are doing then we are failing at the broader mission that has been around as long as universities have been around.


11:20 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Hey Steve,

Sorry if I gave the wrong impression here.
Generally research is self-supporting, and sometimes even a net "profit" activity for a university.
There are two exceptions: one is where a university weak in research, or looking to expand into a new field, makes a committment to buy-in. This is often rationalised as being cost-effective in the short run because of the grant money that will come in, but some arithmetic suggests that the grant money will never directly compensate for start-up cost - unless the university lands a 8-9 digit one off facility, which is not a rational gamble in most cases. But, the prestige and name recognition of buying into such research activity does generally pay off in the long run, through alumni, public recognition and additional donated money. IF there is a long term committment both of resources, administrative good will, and genuine excellence. The other difficult case is with some State Universities, where, to be blunt, the overhead on research grants is not enough to cover the true cost of supporting the research and there is effectively a cross-subsidy (eg the public universities are notoriously bad about getting overhead cover for building maintenance and replacement, whereas the private universities darn well know they need to).

Either way, I agree that research is a public good that public institutions ought to support, even (especially) if the benefit is an uncaptured externality (like a nationwide better educated public). I also agree that you can get better education at research institutions. Not because the faculty there are better teachers, but because of some ill-defined (but definitely real) synergy between research and teaching. Pure researchers are vulnerable to going stale. Pure teachers may lose touch. Truly good, dedicated teachers consciously compensate for this, which is why small private liberal art colleges offer the best undergraduate education. But you can get as much or more out of the big research universities, it is just that you have to go get it, it won't be delivered to you.


1:35 PM  
Anonymous Ragnhildur said...


What you say seems to make sense from my 'undergraduate kid' perspective, but I would say that people poke fun at the 'mickey mouse' courses for a reason. As far as I can see, they don't really tie in with the things you say about research etc. Here in Edinburgh, I've even heard faculty from various departments poke fun at History of Art (a perfectly valid 'old-school' academic subject) because of the sort of people it attracts. I think many people in the University here - students and faculty alike - would be pretty shocked or even angry at the rerouting of funds towards a course in "Beatle Studies" or "Pool Hall Management".

If people are already having a go at History of Art and Sport Science (which is incidentally one of the few routes by which to become a physiotherapist in the UK, the UK being exceptionally backward in this particular area), how would even less traditional subjects stand a chance?

What courses would you like to see the back of at Penn State?

- Ragnhildur

p.s. I don't like The Beatles that much, a few good things, revolutionary et cetera...either way, Paul McCartney is objectively mediocre!

8:47 AM  
Blogger Steinn said...


Well, there are courses with "funny titles", which are easy to poke fun at, but often mask serious content (like "Pornography and evolution" is potentially a very serious advanced class); and then there are "mickey mouse" courses, which often have very bland, "serious" titles and their reputation is word of mouth among undergraduates. The "pick on the title" effect also happens with proposals, which is why I am perhaps more sensitive to it.

When I was an undergraduate, Art History was a major notorious for attracting students who like to sleep past noon and discuss post-modernists over a siggy and bad red wine; and those students got their ordinary, or a generous Desmond, and moved on. BUT, if you take it seriously, Art History is one of the hardest majors, typically you need proficiency in 2-3 modern languages, a strong grap of cultural history, some knowledge of materials and geometric techniques, and an extraordinary memory - which is hard.

Anyway, there are two separate issues here, the Beatles were in our lifetime, so it seems funny that they are the subject of academic study (but Kissinger is studied in history, and expect Damien Hirst is already studied in Art History); the point there is not whether any one person likes them, or even whether they were good, but one whether they made a difference. And whatever else you can say about the Beatles, they were certainly transformative for the field! On the other hand, "Pool Hall Management", is arguably not an "academic" subject, except we already have business schools in universities, and running Pool Halls is a specialised skill, which it may be also instructive to study, and it is part of a major economic and social activity. The equivalent here at PSU would be Golf Course Management (and just knowing what grass seeds to use probably takes 1-2 years of study).

While I am not entirely averse to controversy, I think I will wait until I am a Full Professor before starting to single out which courses "should be eliminated"; or the Resident Dean can comment authoritatively ;-)

I don't think tenure would protect me from the wrath of the faculty who developed their course if I said publicly it ought to be eliminated.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I am not entirely averse to controversy, I think I will wait until I am a Full Professor before starting to single out which courses "should be eliminated"; or the Resident Dean can comment authoritatively ;-)

After a month in the office, the resident dean already knows better than to try to eliminate any course, for any reason. There is just no percentage in it. Sometimes one can shift things into extension, though....

11:16 PM  

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