3.2.15

MAYBE THE MINDSET OF MATRICULANTS MATTERS.

Wisconsin's governor Scott Walker has proposed to reduce University of Wisconsin system appropriations, suggesting that the university reallocate resources by, for instance, asking professors to take on more classes.  Milwaukee radio talker Charlie Profscam Sykes  has been reading excerpts from a public salary database, making invidious comments about the undergraduate classes taught by the highest-paid faculty, who are almost all on the Madison campus.  But then his affiliated Right Wisconsin site performed an analysis of completion patterns at the state's universities.
According to their own data (including in-system transfers between schools) only 31.4 percent of freshman students who began in the Fall 2009 semester received their diplomas by Spring 2013. Of students who started in 2007, 65 percent of them will have degrees at the completion of their sixth year in the system.

Breaking the numbers down even further to the UW System’s five largest schools – Madison, Milwaukee, Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Stevens Point – and you see an interesting discrepancy. Of those schools, only Madison gets a majority of students (56.4 percent) out in four years.

Three of the other four (La Crosse 39.2 percent, Eau Claire 31.1 percent, and Stevens Point 27.6 percent) are the near the national average. Trailing the pack is UW-Milwaukee, where a paltry 15.9 percent of students get diplomas in four years.
Thus, the highest completion rate is at the flagship campus, where all those high-salaried research professors are hiding from undergraduates. What's going on?
Now, no doubt there are a number of reasons for this. Switching majors, in-semester internships, dropping a class, and any number of personal issues can all delay graduation. But something else is going on here, something that goes well beyond Madison’s status as the flagship school in the UW System.

Perhaps the more logical reason is that Madison has the administrative sense to have enough faculty and course offerings to get students out on time. Search through any semester registration catalog and you’ll notice a number of "Semester-only" classes being offered; particularly in the 300 and 400-level courses taken by upper classmen. The traditional thinking is that a student will take something like "CHEM 311, Microbiology I" which is only offered in the fall, and then use the knowledge learned there to take "CHEM 312, Microbiology II" in the spring.
Wait a minute, isn't the knock on Madison that the faculty aren't teaching enough courses? Perhaps there's something else at work, something like students who are ready at the end of the preceding spring semester to sign up for Microbiology I when the fall semester rolls around?

Here are related observations, from Sam Goldman at Minding the Campus.
Due both to the standards they have to meet for hiring and promotion (which are overwhelmingly focused on publication) and to the quasi-monastic character of many graduate programs, professors tend to see research as their primary responsibility. Students, members of the public, and politicians, on the other hand, would like them to spend more time in the lecture hall and less in the lab or archive.

There’s nothing crazy about that preference. But it’s important for critics of academia to understand that putting into practice would require much bigger changes than increasing teaching loads. In the first place, hiring and promotion standards would have to be modified. It is neither reasonable nor fair to expect faculty members who teach five or six courses a year to publish as much as those who teach two or three.
But that happens to be exactly what happens at the compass direction state universities and their converted teachers' college counterparts in Wisconsin: greater teaching expectations, even of new assistant professors, who have greater interaction with students who didn't make the cut at the flagships.  Social stratifications will emerge.
As a result, it would be more difficult to recruit or retain the kind of academic superstars who bolster their peer rankings. That’s a disadvantage in the ongoing prestige arms race. It’s easy for outsiders to laugh at this competition, in which the stakes often seem vanishingly small. But that’s because they don’t understand that most universities’ financial model depends on attracting a precisely calibrated mix of students, who balance ability to pay with academic ability in the appropriate measure.
Yes, and sometimes that model becomes the sub-prime party school.  Professor Goldman's focus is on how the governor's plans would move Madison down the pecking order.
Professors who had to teach more undergrad courses would have less time to devote to graduate seminars and advising. More importantly, the university would have less need for the cheap instructional labor that liberates the tenured faculty from teaching.

Applied unilaterally and over time, these policies would alter the culture of the UW system, particularly the flagship in Madison. What the faculty like to think of as a “world class” research university would become a more regional, teaching-focused institution. And that’s not what many of them were originally trained or hired for.

In short, Walker isn’t just challenging scheduling practices. He’s challenging the labor model on which the modern research university depends. There’s a good case that this model is financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive—and it would be nice to hear a politician make it explicitly. But making ill-informed jabs at lazy professors is not the way to do it.
Complex proposition alert!

First, the Madison campus seems to be doing a better job with student completion than its counterparts.  And its enrollment management is responding properly to constraints.
Suppose for the sake of discussion that Madison is adapting to the excess demand for perceived quality by admitting more out-of-state students, thereby enhancing its own coffers (the out-of-state tuition is calculated on a fully allocated cost basis: allocate on the basis of a small bucket and admit a large bucket and you're money ahead) and compensating for the state's stinginess, and at the same time displacing Wisconsin residents who on the basis of the small bucket of Coasties would have a space at Madison to Milwaukee.  It is then likely that Milwaukee is admitting students who could cut it at Madison, and to offer them a less demanding course of study is to shortchange them.  Thus the policy discussion Wisconsin ought to be having is whether Milwaukee is set up to serve strong students.
Or perhaps it's Oshkosh or LaCrosse ought to be reconsidering its course offerings.

Second, precious few Ph.D.s originally trained for a gig at a teaching-focused institution.  The Ph.D. is a research degree, and the academic job market has always been one in which aspirants do their work at the best possible place, and take the best possible job available.  And yet there are more graduates from Harvard or M.I.T. than the top five departments will take, and so on down the pecking order.  The real issue might not be the number of students a professor teaches, but the caliber of the students taught. "We're all in the same business, and the rubric of low-net-worth-first-generation-minority-nontraditional-access does not have to be a low-level expectations trap."  Too often, though, it is.  And the locus of financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive tendencies in education includes everything that goes on before the kids hit college.  How, though, to persuade the universities that the strategy to deal with tight state budgets is to not apologize for being selective?

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