More Than a Few Tough Things

My colleague Steve Pearlstein’s weekend column in the Washington Post has generated more than its fair share of attention and, well, backlash. Perhaps the two most cogent negative responses I’ve seen were from Dan Drezner (Pearlstein’s WaPo colleague) and Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed. Both take Pearlstein to task in some pretty tough, and I have to say, deserving, language, pointing out numerous serious flaws and/or oversimplifications in his analysis.

I want to stipulate at the beginning of this post that I know Steve, I like him, have been a fan of his writing for years (which is not to say I always agree with him), and I know him to be a thoughtful teacher, devoted to getting it right in the classroom, because I have sat in on his classes and had long discussions with him about teaching and learning. In several conversations over the past few years I have enjoyed his fresh perspective on an institution where I have worked for 15 years now and on an industry that I have worked in for 32.

That said, like his critics, I found a lot to disagree with in his essay, especially when you drill down to the specifics. Like any good polemic, though, this column made me think, in particular about the future of the university as we know it. I’ve had a lot to say about that in this space over the years and so I’m indebted to both Pearlstein and his critics for prodding me to think anew about issues that have troubled me for quite a while.

My own perspective on the issues he raises (about cost structures, efficiencies, etc.) comes from a decade as an administrative management consultant in higher ed before I joined the faculty ranks, and more recently in various roles as an associate dean, the director of our largest interdisciplinary program, and as a fellow in both the provost’s and president’s offices over the past couple of years. In these various capacities I’ve had the opportunity to see how academic administration works at more than 80 institutions at a more surface level (as a consultant) and at a much deeper level here at George Mason.

In preparation for this series of posts, I actually read the Bain report Pearlstein cites in his essay, and I would strongly suggest that anyone involved in higher education should read it, as well as “The University of the Future,” a report by Ernst & Young for the Australian Ministry of Education. Sure, sure, these reports are written by “outsiders” and “accountants” and so are easily dismissed by those who want to have a knee jerk response to any assessment of what we do that is written by those who stand outside our industry. But the authors of these reports have done their homework and have some very useful (positive and negative) critiques of the business model of the modern university — and it’s worth noting that they are focused on universities, not community colleges or small liberal arts colleges.

With those reports, and my own experiences as background, I am writing a series of posts (because there is just too much to say in one post) in response to what Pearlstein wrote:

Cost savings. Pearlstein’s solution to cost control is to “cap administrative costs.” If only life were so simple. He is correct that administrators spend way too much time meeting with one another — I know from personal experience what a “meeting culture” we have in academic administration. And he is correct that we spend too much money on administration and can find efficiencies. But it is also the case, that a lot of the proliferation of administration in universities is driven by external mandates–from legislatures, the national government, and the welter of accrediting bodies that run us through the wringer every few years (or every year). Were I king of the world, I’d eliminate every single external accrediting body, wipe the slate clean, and then start over with a system that makes sense. The one we have right now makes anything but sense.

More useful than Pearlstein’s analysis is the one you can find in the Bain report he cites: “As colleges and universities look to areas where they can make cuts and achieve efficiencies, they should start farthest from the core of teaching and research. Cut from the outside in, and build from the inside out.” [p. 5-6] The Ernst & Young report similarly argues for a rebalancing of administrative expenditure away from peripheral activities and back to the core (teaching and research) that produce revenue. [17]

At the same time, public universities, like mine, should stop already with the amenities arms race. No more new fancy residence halls, no more lux dining or fitness facilities. Students who select a university for its amenities (and I suspect there are actually few such students) should just go somewhere else (and somewhere likely pricier). Public universities have a teaching, research, and economic development mission and amenities advance none of those three goals.

Just as important, however, we need to recognize that academic programs come and go — that their popularity and/or utility in the world we live in is greater or lesser with the passage of time. And this means we have to delete or curtail programs that once were more popular or more useful. Let’s face it, universities almost never do this. As the Bain report puts it: “As new programs are added, old programs often are not curtailed or closed down.” [6]

As a case in point, I offer two examples (from many possible dozens) from my own university. If you are an undergraduate student at George Mason, you can declare a minor in Urban and Suburban Studies. Declaring such a minor would be a mistake, because you will have to un-declare it at some point in order to graduate. Why? We don’t offer the three required courses in the minor, have not, to my knowledge, offered those required courses since at least 2009, and there is no prospect that we will offer them anytime soon.

When I was an associate dean, I tried to have that minor (and about a dozen others) deleted from the catalog. Ultimately, I was successful in having one — the minor in New Europe — deleted. How did I pull off that great administrative success? I had myself made director of the minor and then, as the director, applied to have it deleted. Not even my evidence that we have never graduated a student with a minor in Urban and Suburban Studies, nor had we offered the required courses for years, swayed the various powers that be to delete the minor.

Ah, but Mills, minors cost us nothing, the argument went. They are made up of existing courses (in most cases) and so just funnel a few extra students into those classes. If only this were a good answer. First, it ignores the fact that everything has costs associated with it, and that when aggregated, those costs add up. In the case of Urban and Suburban Studies, every time we update the catalog someone has to check the copy for that minor. And every time we update the website, someone has to update that page. These are tiny costs, to be sure, but when spread across the more than 50 minors we offer in my college alone, they add up, both as real costs and as opportunity costs.

Lest you think I’m picking on just one minor here, our associate provost for graduate education could give you a list of all the graduate degree or certificate programs at my institution that have never graduated a student, and of the (far too) many graduate courses spread across the university that have never been offered.

And, lest you think I’m picking on others instead of my own department, I would argue that my department (History and Art History) is one of those that ought to contract. Like many (most?) history departments around the country, we are in the midst of a long slow slide in majors, but even as we do slip down this slope, we have no intention of giving up faculty slots and will fight to hold on to what we have had in the past on the premise that getting smaller is bad.

We are very resistant to changes in our departmental size for a whole variety of reasons, some good, some bad. Pearlstein claims caustically and not entirely incorrectly, that getting smaller might mean an increase in our teaching loads and thus, take time away from our research activities. The main way we have managed to reduce teaching loads is on the backs of faculty who are not eligible for tenure — adjuncts and those on annual term contracts that include some benefits. In my department, for instance, over the three previous academic years, 64% of all undergraduate students taking a history course in the fall semesters were taught by faculty who are not eligible for tenure, and who are also paid much, much less.

Given our decline in majors, what really should be happening in my department (and in any other department facing a similar decline in student interest) is that we should constrict the number of upper level courses we offer and, over time, get smaller as retirements and departures happen. In essence, we need to rebalancethe size of our faculty with our enrollment of BA, MA, and PhD students, something we are very reluctant to even consider.

But consider it we must. And not just at George Mason. Back in June, Rebecca Spang, a historian at Indiana University and member of the university’s Faculty Council, said that some departments within the college “may have gotten bigger than they need to be,” and could get smaller. Spang pointed the finger at her own department as one that probably could contract.

Of late, Bryan Alexander has been calling attention to what he calls “Queen Sacrifice” at colleges and universities across the country. These sacrifices are happening and will continue to happen unless we take seriously the notion that as new programs are added, old ones need to close or be curtailed.

And, as the Bain report points out, on the administrative side of the house it is not at the top level or the front line service positions that need to be cut, it’s at the level of middle management [6-7]. The Bain authors are not wrong when they point out that while we can’t easily cut the number of people providing security, mental health counseling, basic tech support, and other similar front line service positions. But we can substantially reduce the layers between those front line service providers and the upper levels of our administrations.

If that means we have fewer or shorter meetings, I’m okay with that.