How to Destroy a University

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A colleague elsewhere, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of retribution, has illustrated how easy it is to destroy a university. His is abolishing its economics graduate programs; introductory economics will be taught in sections of 1,000 students; professors do their own purchasing of supplies; and upper-division courses are being sharply reduced in number.

All this is a response to calls for greater efficiency in higher education. Is this really greater efficiency? Or is it a move to a different point on the production possibility frontier, essentially choosing to convert a research institution into a mediocre equivalent of a two-year college? Calls for professors to teach more to save higher-education money have consequences—there ain’t no free lunch here. Of course, too, such policies drive away faculty members who might be interested in doing research. Fortunately, not all public universities are following this troglodyte approach.

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    Daniel,

    So you are suggesting that Economics should not be applied to teaching Economics?

    Perhaps the graduate program was a money-loser and the professor should exercise his options elsewhere.

    Sounds right to me.

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    • Mariana says:

      It’s not that economics shouldn’t be applied to economics, economics is about efficiency, a professor teaching 1000 students might not actually be efficient, even if others believe that you are saving money because you are using less professor hours per course, you might actually have to use more as many of those 1000 won’t actually learn anything as they won’t be able to even ask questions for any doubts they might have and might have to re-take the course. Economies of scale do apply to some degree but there is always a limit to what you can do. I think 1000 students per class is an overstretch.

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      • Carla says:

        Yes, maybe some of the 1000 students won’t learn as much and may have to retake the course. Doesn’t that mean more tuition money for the university?

        (For the record I do not agree with the practice.)

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      • jeffreytg says:

        You seem to presumes that students at Universities are actually concerned with learning and that Universities share the same concern. I have not found this to be true for the the students anyway. For the most part, students are simply seeking a degree, not to learn.

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    • Andrew says:

      Efficiency and value are not an objective, absolute number. What is being measured as efficient? If the bottom line of tuition vs. cost is the measurement, then perhaps 1000 students is more efficient. If the measurement is the knowledge gain of the students, their ability to apply their knowledge, their ability to pass that course (or a future course), etc., then the move to 1k students might not be the most efficient any more. Nor the best value. At least for the students or for the (supposed) mission of the school and degree program. Economics is not just about measuring efficiency or value or something like that–it is about deciding what is the appropriate and proper method to measure efficiency and value.

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  2. J Williams says:

    Daniel, got give us this hooey about overworked Professors. I have one who lives down the street. He whines about only having 4 free days a week now to work in his yard. The man is paid $125 K a year to teach Tuesday and Thursdays. Tell me Daniel, given that tuition increases have far outstripped inflation for decades, how can our country continue to justify $125 K for teaching 2 days a week.

    STOP YOUR WHINING, ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, and contribute to the need for our country to work harder to get ourselves on the right path. Professors are overpaid and under-worked. That has to change.

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    • Thomas says:

      As my supervisor liked to say, academics are thought/paid to think. Working in your yard does not stop you thinking. Some of my “best” ideas have come on my cycle to work…

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      • BSK says:

        I am a teacher who needs tons of time to think, seeing as how I teach all day, every day. I have yet to read a post by Daniel that couldn’t be best described as whiney. He seems to think “economics” means “makes me happy”.

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    • JB says:

      Don’t overgeneralize – I’m a professor making 40% of that and teaching much more.

      I’m underpaid and overworked, particularly considering my level of education (Ph.D.).

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  3. Mark says:

    Consider that recently the number of college professors that are adjuncts exceeded the 50% mark for the first time in history. What does this do to our education system? What does it mean to rely on adjuncts? Note that adjuncts are ‘contractors’ so they are not protected by employment law. They work ‘part time’ for several different colleges, they can be fired at any time for any reason (including race, religion, etc.), they are not protected by minimum wage laws or other employee protections (example, I work 7 days a week, 51 weeks a year which is illegal in most states), they do not receive paid vacation, retirement, sick days, insurance or any of those niceties that McDonald’s employees receive. And so on…

    And this creates an exemplary higher education system????

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    • DaveyNC says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • AlexZ says:

        Uh, I”m pretty sure our current regulations are more lax than say the 70s or the 80s, when things like the Civil Aeronautics Board basically prohibited new airlines from being created and savings and loans were also regulated. In fact, people who complain that we’re in an age of regulation unmatched in our country’s history tend to have a very short view of history.

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    • James says:

      Perhaps we should ask (or perhaps you should ask yourself) why then are you working as an adjunct, rather than exploring the many openings in the food service industry?

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  4. Brian says:

    I think you now owe it to us to at least inform us as to what University this is, so that it can be avoided in the future.

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  5. thehumble1 says:

    I think you are confounding two issues, one being research and the other being quality teaching. These don’t essentially overlap. By confusing these two ideas you seem to be saying that reducing research opportunities for professors, universities are reducing the quality of education, but your evidence to changes point to a change in teaching strategies and methods of education, which doesn’t have to do with research.

    Research professors are often bothered by teaching requirements and as such are poor teachers. This isn’t a rule of course, but I believe it to be a correlation in that the higher the professors research drive, the lower their teaching interests.

    Maybe the problems exist in part because we have a system wherein researchers are asked to teach and that teachers are required to also research. I don’t see how research institutions were doing all that well in the teaching front to start with (aside from providing research opportunities to a few highly-motivated individuals). This just seems like further movement away from teaching and toward a pure commission-type structure where professors are only as important as the grant income and research publications they produce and the sheer number of students they can pass along.

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    • Enter your name says:

      We need systematic, systemic change that determines whether the primary purpose of our largest public universities is “to teach” or “to research”. Society needs both tasks done. It does not necessarily need the same institution to do both. (The absence of students doesn’t appear to impair research work at the NIH even one little bit.) It definitely does not need the same person to do both.

      A person who is highly effective at communicating ideas and skills to the next generation deserves at least as much pay, status, and respect as a person who supervises a couple of research projects. The teaching task must be performed in a university; the other could often be moved to a think tank or research institute. But the critical step is hiring the right person for the right job: We need “Teaching chairs” to be explicitly separate from “Research chairs”.

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    • Clancy says:

      Also, consider the case that the higher education market might be better served by a “mediocre equivalent of a two-year college” Top notch research universities are great (I got my degree from one and I found it well worth the outrageous tution bills) but it’s not for everyone. Someone just looking for “a college degree” in order to get a job (any job) would be better served by a smaller, cheaper school rather than paying all that money for great research opportunities with famous scientists (and economists) that they will never make use of.

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  6. Matt says:

    It depends on how highly one values the Economics discipline. Considering the last few years of the economy, one could argue that Economics needs to reconsider it’s purpose and value to society (especially after watching Inside Job). Destroying the University is a bit strong of a statement, unless they were considering the same plan for all disciplines.

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  7. Marcus Kalka says:

    1. “[He] is abolishing its economics graduate programs; introductory economics will be taught in sections of 1,000 students; professors do their own purchasing of supplies; and upper-division courses are being sharply reduced in number.
    All this is a response to calls for greater efficiency in higher education. Is this really greater efficiency?”

    –It depends on if we’re looking at “efficiency” from the perspective of the professors, the students, or the university administration. It would seem as if the various parties have different interests at stake in pursuing efficiency that do not always align.

    2. “Calls for professors to teach more to save higher-education money have consequences—there ain’t no free lunch here. Of course, too, such policies drive away faculty members who might be interested in doing research.”

    –Exactly, but that’s the problem if you want a society where everyone goes to college and has a college degree: College degrees are not as valuable. There grows a wedge between having a college degree and being educated to the point of having the skills necessary for a job. This is a big part of the problem in our society today…in terms of higher education, skills-training, and the labor market. IS EDUCATION A MEANS TO AN END, OR AN END UNTO ITSELF? Professors, students, and university administrators may have different answers to that question. We try to help out students by providing guaranteed student loans that they may go to college and be educated [so that they can gain the skills necessary for tomorrow's jobs], but as Henry Hazlitt stated, “If we try to run the economy for the benefit of a single group or class, we shall injure or destroy all groups, including the members of the very class for whose benefit we have been trying to run it.” This seems to be a big part of the problem with higher ed today. The “efficiency” issues with higher education are more so a cultural problem than an academic problem.

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  8. Doc says:

    I agree that the widespread reliance on adjuncts is a problem. As essentially contractors they don’t get much in the way of support for teaching or innovation in curriculum. I wrote a piece in the late 1970s predicting the de facto end to tenure because of the rising use of adjuncts then. It has only gotten worse since. The irony is that basic courses taught by adjuncts may be better. The adjunct may have significant experience in the field, may be recently trained, and may be teaching with enthusiasm. My tenured colleagues over the years often saw teaching as a distraction to be dealt with as little as possible, but there were also some who were brilliant teachers as well as productive researchers. Those people were on campus 5 or 6 days per week, contrary to popular belief.

    I think that the movement toward multi-year contracts in lieu of tenure is a good idea. Most of us are not in a positiron to fear persecution over religious dogma by thirteenth century clerics. I gave up tenure twice during my academic career and felt confident that I’d survive.

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