17 August, 2010

Bankrolling Academia--Or Bankrupting It?

A truth-telling op-ed piece on higher education financing appeared in The New York Times this week. In "Academic Bankruptcy," Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, tells a story of two academic institutions, his own and NYU, whose spending is prodigal even as sources for such spending seem to be drying up.

But the Columbia/NYU arms race is probably more a symptom of a systemic malaise in North American higher education than anything else.

In the face of this malaise, higher education the Wittenberg way is in a unique position to be able to do something radically counter-intuitive and, in fact, countercultural. A higher education the Wittenberg way doesn't require vast resources and can actually thrive with a leaner, meaner curriculum.

I was just doing a little number-crunching. A well-staffed, adequately-resourced Great-Books and radically-liberal-arts oriented curriculum can be put on the ground comfortably and cover annual costs necessary to run it (by which I mean underwriting instructional costs) at $10,000/year per student. If such an institution had a 15:1 student:faculty ratio, each faculty member would "bring in" $150,000 per year. Subtract $100,000 for a complete faculty package (salary + health insurance + retirement), and you're left with $50,000 for support functions per faculty member. In short, an institution with the physical plant paid off and a modest endowment adequate to maintain, manage, and run the physical plant, can deliver a bracing, intellectually-challenging, traditional, and rigorous education on the back of a bare-bones curriculum that focuses on what's necessary, not "what would be nice," at a quite modest cost.

This is the case that needs to be made to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. While programs that have the appearance of enhancing our appeal proliferate, the core has evaporated. And yet the core is precisely whence Lutheran higher education takes its energy and that for which it exists. Are there Lutherans of goodwill out there willing to support such an endeavor? Can a wealthy Lutheran businessperson, for example, look beyond narrow business interests and projecting himself or herself upon Lutheran higher education and come to the conviction that Lutheran higher education doesn't need the bandaids of new programming, but surgery to restore core health? I think so. I think this makes, well, business sense--and sense for the Church.


Matthias Flacius said...

My questions:

How big of space would you seek?

How do we pay for the physical plant?

Where do we get the endowment?

Could you define more precisely what you mean by the core?

If I chose the subjects:

History, English, Theology, Philosophy, Science, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, Spanish

If you could pay me $100,000.00 I will contribute to my own healthcare and retirement. Perhaps, we could have a consortium, but let me pay for it myself.

Jon Bruss said...

Dear MF, all good questions and ones that need serious exploration. But let's just take a stab at some of them.

Other responders to the whole idea that underlies much of my blather on this blog--that of starting afresh--have rightly said that this will not be an education for everyone. So when you start paring things down, I think you're talking about a realistic student body of somewhere between 200 and 600. Divide those numbers by 15 and you end up with 18 to 40 faculty to keep the kind of ratio that's maximal. It seems like anything above 20 acres would be adequate, with at least 60,000 square feet under roof FOR ACADEMIC PURPOSES.

We pay for the physical plant by finding dedicated, pious, generous, wealthy, Lutherans who want LUTHERAN higher ed. We win them to the project by demonstrating (a) what Lutheran higher ed needs to look like at its core (and that it is, finally, just that, its core--basically what you outline above) and as it's extrapolated from Wittenberg theology and Wittenberg humanism; (b) in what ways what Lutherans presently are doing is missing the boat (I needn't recount that here); and (c) the business savvy of such a plan.

And I actually think we can do this. Basically, Lutherans support (or not) the higher ed institutions that we have because they're all we have. There are no choices. And, with some very small variations here and there, all of them can be painted with pretty much the same brush. From a marketing perspective (and this isn't at all the reason I've even come to this way of thinking), something radically other and better will prove, for many, a real attractant.

So far my thoughts.

Jon Bruss said...

Oh, as for your health plan. Gottcha. In fact, a strong case could be made to potential donors if we were to move in that direction.

Steve Gehrke said...

Surely absence of mathematics from your list of core subjects was an oversight? What sciences would be considered core? What preparation level in languages would be required for admission? I don't see how would a curriculum would handle six languages as core subjects unless students were expected to come in proficient with at least 3 (English, German or Spanish, Greek or Latin).

I'm an engineering professor, I've been interested in how such a curriculum might function as a foundation for 2 years of engineering to earn a BS at a state institution. 4 semesters of math past algebra and 6 semesters of science would probably be minimum. I know this isn't the same goal that most of you have for this concept, I'm more of an interested and sympathetic bystander (but with a 9th grade son interested in theology, music, math and science). Maybe it is my own parochial bias, but I would think that a solid base in math and science would be necessary for anyone to be considered well-educated. Weren't these subjects part of classical education?

Steve Gehrke said...

The 2010 LCMS convention workbook (p.97) lists the endowment reports from a fund raising campaign for the Concordias totaling $197M, ranging from $3.4M at Selma to $40M at Seward. However, these totals cover an indeterminate time period, p.96 implies that a total of $46M had been raised over the past triennium for all Concordias together. 18-40 faculty at $150K/yr is $3-$6M range annual expense. Seems in a doable range by your estimates, not considering the cost of the facilities. Some of the "arms race" is also due to student expectations of better-than-spartan facilities.

It is interesting to read the reports in the Workbook of the Concordias. CU-Irvine has some discussion about deliberate introduction of Lutheranism into the institution and some novel pairing of philosophy with math, biology with theology, and history with literature (though there is more information given on athletics). Concordias have added a new law school, pharmacy school, business school, and some nursing programs. There are a lot of hyper-specialized new majors and programs that wouldn't be acceptable at a state university like KU, including things like:BA degrees in Food Retail Management, Pulmonary Science and MAs in Coaching and Athletic Administration, Educational Technology, Sports Leadership, and PhD in Educational Leadership.

So it wouldn't be hard to make the pitch that your concept would be heading in a very different direction from the CUS system. However, in my experience wealthy businessmen are very vocationally-oriented and would favor the CUS direction. How would you sell someone like that on your concept? Cost effectiveness? As a model institution for de-escalation of the 'arms race' referred to in the article, and dragging down costs of higher ed generally?

Steve Gehrke said...


I note that you cited Luther on another thread:

"I would gladly agree to keeping Aristotle's books, Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics...But the commentaries and notes must be abolished...In addition to all this there are, of course, the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, as well as the mathematical disciplines and history."
Luther, To the Christian Nobility, AE 44:201-02.

So I assume that the absence of mathematics from your list was in fact an oversight?

Luther doesn't mention sciences in your excerpt, but you likely know better than I that the peak age of Lutheran influence on the sciences was perhaps the century after Luther. After that, Lutherans (or at least Lutheran cultures) seemed to excel and lead in engineering. I've long been interested in exploring the theological compatibility of Lutheranism and engineering.

Jon Bruss said...

@Steve's comment 2 above: that's just the rub, that is, putatively wealthy businessmen being interested in vocationally-oriented programming. Several thoughts come to mind. First, in the support of Lutheran higher ed, we've let them get away with that, probably as we would not at the parish level, where giving, generally, is directed to parish goals, not the givers' goals. There are, of course, exceptions to that, but I think you'd agree? Second, Lutheran colleges and universities need to learn to "just say no." If money comes with conditions that shake, attenuate, or threaten the center/core, or, in fact, just take attention off of it, the best answer is, "No thank you." Third, and this is something you and I talk about quite a bit as something we're aware of: Lutherans actually want to be Lutherans and do Lutheran things Lutheranly. They really do. A huge part of helping them do that is teaching them. So part of this program here has to be laying out, i.e., "teaching," the case for such a program.

I think we can tap the Lutheran mind here. Already real, classical Lutherans do, as we must admit, some pretty odd and counterintuitive and countercultural things: liturgy when you can have praise band? Law/Gospel preaching when you can have 5 tips to successful living? Word and Sacraments to feed faith when you can use psychological manipulation? You get what I mean. The argument for renascentes-Musae type education, for Great-Books, radically-liberal-arts programming is, likewise, the Wittenberg argument: backing into the future. We COULD rush forward and seize the future; but the Wittenberg way is to back into it.

That's the case; and I'd love to have the chance to try it out.