16.4.09

WE'RE IN THE SAME BUSINESS AS MICHIGAN.

The New York Times does a feature on Arizona State's ambitions colliding with economic realities.
But this year, [Arizona State president Michael] Crow’s plans have crashed into new budget realities, raising questions about how many public research universities the nation needs and whether universities like Arizona State, in their drive to become prominent research institutions, have lost focus on their public mission to provide solid undergraduate education for state residents.
That research-focus-shortchanges-undergraduates seems to be a common theme in these articles.
“What’s happening, everywhere, is what’s happening to Michael Crow,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, an organization that studies spending by colleges and universities. “The trend line is states disinvesting in higher education.”
Disinvestment, however, is not the same thing as productivity or accountability.
“Universities aspire to prestige,” Ms. Wellman said, “and that is achieved by increasing selectivity, getting a research mission and having faculty do as little teaching as possible, not by teaching and learning, and taking students from Point A to Point B.”
I'd be more convinced that the prestige aspiration was misguided if Harvard or Michigan reported empty seats and development officers scrambling to recruit and retain students. That leads me to question an observation the Times reporter makes.
So it is a real question how many public research universities the nation can afford, and what share of resources should go to less expensive forms of education, like community colleges.
Economists recognize trade-offs, and the reporter has some sense of them.
Finding the right balance between improving academic quality and serving state residents is not easy.
The problem, however, is one of treating the two as equivalent, not in tension. It's simple, really. Insist that the elementary schools inculcate the Habits of Effective People. Bill the high schools for remedial courses in college. Stop enabling failure with the access-assessment-remediation-retention approach to college. Recognize that if professors wanted to do special education, they would have obtained special education certificates, not research degrees. Do all of those things, and I can pipe down, and Cold Spring Shops will be all things that run on rails, all the time. Well, less of the time. Look for more things that run on rails after the semester ends.

As a side note to the press: perhaps interview a few professors. The article suggests undergraduates at R1 institutions and the wannabes have little access to tenured professors. There are many scheduled office hours that I can use to catch up on reading or scribble a few lines of derivation, and I suspect my experience generalizes. The students have to make the effort. (I don't know if I'm excessively conscientious, setting some office hours at times I know aren't prime time for classes.)

Timothy Burke comments.
I agree with the basic thrust of the article, which was to suggest that the conventional formula for building a top-tier R1 just isn’t sustainable when you multiply it by 50 states, that there’s room for a few public university systems to build that kind of institution but that they don’t make sense as a generalized aspiration.
So go back to the hypothetical scenario: you’re a new president and you want to build up a public institution, and not just have it be a under-resourced, haphazardly organized, third-order imitation of the University of Michigan that is mostly seen by regional communities as the provider of football and basketball. That you want to think about how to combine public mission and excellence without trying to stuff your faculty full of supposedly world-class researchers.
I'm not persuaded. Yes, the supposedly world-class researcher criterion is probably overrated, and it can produce the kind of great-in-seminar, lousy-in-classroom research star that gives the education part of higher education (all the way back to Profscam, if not earlier) a bad name, as well as the Glass Bead Game in which a faculty member at a wannabe can claim that a large number of derivative papers in Rivista Internazionale Numere Due di Bovini is at least as prestigious as a breakthrough in American Economic Review. Those difficulties are small, however, compared to the problem the dean at Anonymous Community picks up.
Research universities exist to produce breakthroughs, and they pay the bills with adjuncts and football; I get that. Elite SLACs sell exclusivity and high standards; I get that, too. Schools with specific religious niches or curricular foci justify their existences by their differences from everyone else. Community colleges exist to provide the basics for either transfer or work. But the 'comprehensive' midtier public college that tries to be a little of everything strikes me as doomed. I can't help but wonder if some of the animus directed at administrators in the four-year colleges derives from their personification of what's really a very confused mission. You have an opportunity to hire one of the world's leading specialists in nuclear basketweaving; she's brilliant, well-published, and utterly incomprehensible. Do you hire her? At Flagship U, yes. At a cc, no. (So much for 'meritocracy'!) At a midtier school trying to raise its profile? Uh, maybe...
He starts to unpackage the problem. (I would note that the community college is being meritocratic, as well as helpful. A good researcher ... without a tenure-track appointment at an R1 or wannabe ??? ... in a teaching environment is unlikely to be happy, let alone meritorious of the job.)
As barriers to entry keep coming down in all areas of life, I just don't see the “all things to all people” model as sustainable. When people have so many options, the way to stand out is to pick a particular niche and do that really well.
The confused mission at the mid-major is simply a misunderstanding of the market. Recession or no, the waiting lists are still for the Northwesterns or Michigans. There's room for more of the comprehensives to emulate those models. There may even be a social-justice argument (as a left perspective would have it) for doing so: do the first-generation kids and the returning adults and the place-bound people deserve to be fobbed off on the access-assessment-remediation-retention muddle?

Or the false economy at Western Ontario.
There is a report that some of the senior admins here think that even having a ranking of 64 is too high for a university whose overall ranking in the world is somewhere between 100 and 150. They think this department is too good and commands too many of the university's resources. They see that top new PhDs in economics draw big salaries at top schools, and so they want us to hire lesser people and fall in the rankings.
Do the math. We'd be quite happy to pass Western Ontario in the economics league tables even if by default, particularly with the skimpy resources we have. But to deliberately move the university downscale, which is what happens when you derate the top departments in your faculties, makes no sense in light of the waiting lists.

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