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.

Eric M. Jones


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.


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.

J Williams

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.


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...


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".


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????


What have we done to ourselves that makes it sensible for companies to offshore, factories to move and universities to start using temporary workers? Especially the universities, those bastions of liberal thinking.

We have regulated and fee-ed ourselves into a level of ossification that is unmatched in our country's history. To all those out there who have yearned for years for the US to be more like Europe, you got it.

"We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone, if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care." Nancy Pelosi, ~May 15, 2010, during the health care debate.

When a Speaker of the House thinks of that as an entrepreneurial pursuit, we're toast.


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.


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.


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.


Enter your name

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".


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.

Marcus Kalka

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 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.



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.


Jeff Yablon

Scary, but ... is it really a surprise? Between the inexorable crawl toward this position at every level of education and the ever-reduced funding levels at ... every level of education ... this just seems like "more of the same".

I'm far more concerned that both public schools like USC and private ones with so solid a pedigree as Columbia University are now offering online-only graduate degrees, charging the same amount they charge students in residence, and leading to diplomas that are indistinguishable from the ones that students who actually attend the universities receive.

Helps the university (revenue), but hurts everyone else; the student never makes the contacts s/he would by attending in person, and would-be employers need to add a whole new layer of questions to the rote scripts their already-overtasked HR departments follow when interviewing prospective hires.

Yikes. Trade School, anyone?

Jeff Yablon



"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?"

I am offended at this statement. I have taught (physics and astronomy) at a big research university, a small (and expensive) liberal arts college, and a two-year community college. The community college had the most dedicated faculty, smallest class sizes, and best support structure for faculty in terms of people and equipment. All faculty in physics and engineering department in the CC held PhDs. The focus was on teaching and providing the students the best education possible. In my opinion, the CC did much better than the big research university in actually *educating* students (no graduate student TAs, no auditorium style classes, lots of individual attention).

Please do not insult community colleges. They often do a good job and do not leave students saddled with debt.



Enter your name

This has also been my experience. I'm not sure that I've seen a community college that would even contemplate a thousand-student class. Even hundred-student classes are quite rare.

Most community college classes are about the same size as the local high school. This is hardly surprising, because back in the day, many old community college instructors had previously taught high school. That's one of the reasons community colleges have a reputation for having good instructors: they used to hire the most effective of the high school teachers, rather than some guy with a PhD, a good idea for getting a research grant, and no interest in or ability to teach undergraduates.

The local workload, BTW, is that the community college instructors teach 15 semester credits each semester. The median class size is about 30 or 40 students at the beginning of the semester, and it is not unusual for up to half the students to drop out by the end of the semester. This is three times the number of classes taught by a tenured professor at a research university, for half the pay and half the respect than said professor. It's also a lower workload for better pay than a high school teacher, even though all three might teach the same subjects (e.g., introduction to calculus).


Joshua Northey

Over supply in both students and faculty is leading to less value for both. Faculty have to work harder. Students pay more for less actual education. It is almost like I have read an economics book in my life!

When I was 20 and a TA for multiple classes at a major state university, there were several fantastic professors. There were also several professors whose teaching loads I could have performed better (reading a power-point summarizing the text 40 lectures in a row does not a class make!).

Tenure is the enemy of efficiency. It has some marginal value as a bulwark protecting academic freedom, but from an efficiency standpoint has almost nothing to be said for it. Believe it or not mastering the introductory text to a course sufficient for instruction is not hard, and a good 5% or more of the student body is capable of doing so. If professors were creating added value in their lectures you might want to keep them, but many do not.

"essentially choosing to convert a research institution into a mediocre equivalent of a two-year college?"

When 40% of a cohort had a high school degree and 10% went to college you had very elite institutions. Now 85% have a HS degree and over 60% go to college. The university isn't a place for the motivated middle and upper class men anymore. It is for the masses (for better and worse). Many students would be much better off at a vocational school, but as a society we have yet to catch on to that.

A lot of students take the easiest courses they can find and try to do as little work as possible because they are there for social reasons (parents/drinking/sex). Would the school be better of without them? Maybe from your perspective. But the school is there to make money and to grow, not to actually prepare people for life or educate them.

The secondary education system in this country is quickly turning into the late medieval monastery system. Something which once had some use, but is becoming a growing non-productive albatross.

Perhaps we need to completely divorce research/academics from a more vocational track? I get the feeling a liberal education is sort of a relic from that days of aristocracy when competency was less important. Most college graduates will be office workers of one sort or another, and frankly they come out completely unprepared for that.

Anyway the university system strikes me as a very flawed model (and I am someone who had a great and very intellectually rewarding time there).



Costs have grown to high relative to income. This is no different than any private company. A private corporation in financial distress would cut payroll and attempt to decrease its expenses to improve margin. Economists almost always call this making the firm more efficient. A university is no different.

Bottom line: the university is responding to market forces.

I doubt it's "ruining" the university. It may be changing it in a way you (or your friend) doesn't like. But even if it IS ruining the university, so what? Maybe the market is signalling that the benefits don't equal the costs. This happens all the time. It's called creative destruction... and its a central pillar of human advancement. Other competitors will develop better alternatives the market will price those services accordingly.