More Than a Few Tough Things (2)

In my previous post in this series, a response to a column my colleague Steve Pearlstein wrote in the Washington Post over the weekend, I discussed some difficult choices that public universities will need to make in the future as enrollments change, legislative investment declines, and options for students proliferate. And just to be clear, I’m very specifically talking about public colleges and universities, not other higher ed institutions, while Pearlstein generalizes across the higher education spectrum.

Less research, more teaching: It’s simply not the case, as Pearlstein erroneously claims, that the vast majority of work published in the humanities and social sciences is not cited by other scholars and so has no value. As Yoni Applebaum pointed out yesterday, PearlsteinĀ  is guilty of citing bad data when he repeats this claim. We don’t accept such carelessness from our students, so we shouldn’t accept it from our professors.

But, being wrong about one thing doesn’t make him wrong about everything.

I happen to think he is correct when argues that we should, “offer comparable pay and status to professors who spend most of their time teaching, reserving reduced teaching loads for professors whose research continues to have significance and impact.”

One of the questions the Ernst & Young report on Australian higher education asks is: “Can your institution maintain a strong competitive position across a range of disciplines?” [19] I would say that the answer is “no” for the vast majority of public colleges and universities in the U.S. There just isn’t enough money to go around in public higher education, and, really, how many doctoral programs in X, or MA programs in Y, or BA programs in Z, does a state higher education sector need?

But we all seem to want to offer everything to our students, leading to a lack of differentiation. The result is market confusion and, as the Bain report on U.S. higher education points out, “Who will pay $40,000 per year to go to a school that is completely undistinguished [from similar schools]?”

What’s the solution? First, as I argued in my previous post, we need to eliminate some programs, and downsize others. In addition to the examples I offered earlier (including my own department, which I argue should be downsized over time), I would offer up the examples of Geology and Philosophy. According the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, in the 2013-14 academic year, the top 10 public colleges and universities in the state awarded 108 bachelors degrees in Philosophy and 126 in Geology. Students graduated with Philosophy degrees from seven different schools, and those receiving Geology degrees graduated from five.

It seems (to me any way), quite reasonable to ask why in a state system, if only slightly more than 100 students per year are receiving degrees in a given discipline, it is necessary to staff up sufficiently (and allocate the physical space) to offer those degrees at five or seven different institutions? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to consolidate those degree programs and offer them at only three or perhaps four institutions? Courses in Geology and Philosophy could (and should) still be offered anywhere in the system as part of a general education curriculum, but given the general lack of differentiation from one university to another, it seems to make sense to focus our resources a bit so we can build stronger programs at fewer institutions.

In such a scenario we would then have to say to students who wanted a degree in Geology or Philosophy: “Here are your three choices in Virginia.” Would that be so wrong?

The Bain report calls this “differentiation” and the Ernst & Young report calls it becoming “niche dominators,” but the result is the same. Students who want a degree in a less popular discipline would have fewer choices, but those choices would be stronger, more diverse, and have more resources.

The second part of the answer, as Pearlstein correctly argues, is that we need a clear path to professional success–pay and status–for excellent teachers who are not productive researchers at our public colleges and universities. This is already the case at the majority of public institutions, but with each passing year, colleges and universities chase elusive rankings that revolve around research productivity by emphasizing research over teaching. Larry Cuban explained how this happened in history departments in a book published way back in 1999, and the story he told then just continues to repeat itself in a variety of disciplines across the country.

If the pathway to success at our top ranked public colleges and universities had two lanes — the research lane and the teaching lane — that led to the same salary, benefits, and other rewards, it’s quite easy to imagine that some significant number of our colleagues would opt for the teaching lane, even if it meant teaching more classes and more students. But the reward and status structure would need to be the same, or almost no one would make this choice when they could have more reward and status in the research lane.

If, however, we got the incentives right, and reduced, eliminated, or consolidated academic programs across state systems, cost structures at our public colleges and universities would look a heck of a lot better than they do today.