08 June, 2012

A Modest Proposal: Lutheran Higher Ed of the Faculty, by the Faculty...and for the Students

A series of recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed has pointed out that the burgeoning costs of higher education are frequently related to the explosion in the size of administrations. If you’re in higher ed, I’d love to hear from you. Look back a decade, look back two: what’s the size of your administration today compared to what it was then—and how does that compare to the size of the student body? I estimate, based upon anecdotal evidence, that there’s been a nearly three-fold increase in the size of administrations in the last 20 years. I think that’s a conservative number. And it’s no secret that the Lutheran schools are not immune to it.
What’s behind all this? A number of things. First, the push for “productivity” as measured by research and publication. Let’s face it: most undergrads—even Ivy League undergrads—benefit very little or not at all from their professors’ publication and research. In fact, one could say there’s an inverse relationship between faculty productivity (so conceived) and student benefit. Nevertheless, this kind of productivity is a driving force in the rising cost of higher ed in the States and among the Lutherans.
Why? you might ask. Because faculty loads are computed by courses, and to get more research time means reducing course loads. Suppose that in 1992 your history department ran 12 sections a year of American History. Staffing needs would have run 1.5 FTE (4 courses per term per prof). Today, with course load reductions, the same 12 sections now require 2 FTE (3 courses per term per prof). That’s an increase of 25%. But that’s not the only place the increase in research time has been felt.
Research has also placed demands on what is called “service.” Service is made up of those student-facing, committee, and administrative tasks that all faculty do, today less than before. If teaching faculty no longer have time to advise students, advisers must be hired and advising offices created and administered. If teaching faculty can no longer serve as registrar or assistant dean, then a full-time registrar and full-time assistant dean must be found. You get the picture. The basic needs of a college are, well, very basic. But when those who are there don’t attend to those needs, others have to step in to do it. So that’s the impact of the research thrust.
Another, equally devastating force that has been brought to bear on higher ed, from which Lutheran colleges are by no means immune, is that of legislation and accreditation. This has led to a dramatic increase in administrative overhead, simply because of the complexity of the entire thing. There’s FAFSA and FERPA; and there’s SACS and NCA and state boards and the Department of Education, and the list goes on. To address problems created by bureaucracy, they bureaucratize. And bureaucratization means nothing if it doesn’t also mean more bureaucrats, meaning: administrators.
Now, this isn’t to say that all administrators are bad. They aren’t. Most of them are good people, but most of their jobs are just, well, unnecessary. Which isn’t to say that all administrative positions are unnecessary. We still need presidents and deans and registrars—just not so many of them, and just not so many who don’t also teach.
In short, higher ed, whose only goal it has to be to educate students, as well and as cost-effectively as possible, has relinquished its control to others who have other concerns. Let’s face it: if the English prof who’s working on the next article she hopes to get into PMLA doesn’t—can’t—care about the rigor of her writing class, the dean of admissions sure doesn’t, either, because rigor frequently doesn’t mean happy students (that’s just an example; multiply your own). When the faculty have relinquished control and relinquished their responsibility, the responsibility for the enterprise falls into the hands of bureaucracies. But as high-minded as bureaucracies can sometimes sound, bureaucratic high-mindedness must (it’s a law of bureaucracies) give way to what is “sensible,” and “sensible” doesn’t always, and frequently fails to, equate with what is best—even, and especially, for the student. If you don’t believe me, consider how we got to a place where students today do 50% less homework than they did 20 years ago, are faced with a tuition that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is 100% greater than 20 years ago, and leave college saddled, on average, with nearly 200% more debt than 20 years ago.
This is why we need a Lutheran higher education of the faculty (that’s a subjective genitive) and by the faculty—so that, at the end of the day, it might also be for the student. What that means is that faculty will control the curriculum—not just the part of the curriculum in which they teach, but the entire curriculum.
Of course, this requires a faculty dedicated to higher education the Wittenberg way, not a faculty patched together to meet the fleeting needs of social and economic ephemera.
And in the end, what would it look like? It’s hard to say. I imagine a simplified, concentrated curriculum. I imagine an almost embarrassingly low tuition. I imagine students who seek an education for the education, and not the chimaera on the other side of the valedictory speech. I imagine a dedication to the Lutheran way that is unabashed and unapologetic. I imagine an education that is challenging and rigorous and instructive in timeless things and not ephemera.
And I imagine the time is coming. The mavens of higher education understand that the status quo of the last 40-50 years (see above) just cannot continue without falling in on itself. If I may be permitted, I’d like to put in writing what I’ve said many a time: the next “bubble” that will burst is higher ed. The question is whether the Lutherans are going to follow the Pied Piper or have the foresight to do something dramatically different (see above).
I hope we’ll choose the latter, because what I really hope for is a Lutheran higher education of and by the faculty and for the students, with all that really entails.


Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes said...

Nice to see you writing again, Jon.

Carl P.E. Springer said...

Thanks, Jon, for a carefully thought out critique. A seasoned university administrator once observed in my presence, without elaboration, that academic administration tends to expand like latticework. I’ve been thinking about that analogy ever since. Both are easily (and infinitely) capable of multiplication and division. It seems, on the one hand, that there are always more areas that need to be supervised, made more efficient and accountable, and the more administrators there are, the more such areas are discovered. It expands geometrically. (This is more often, from my experience, the result of the best of intentions, not conscious efforts to try to get away with something.) Administrators breed more administrators in another way, too, often hiring them to do part of their own job because it has turned out to be so complex or time-consuming. The job is divided and subdivided.

The problem with such expansive and intensive growth of administration, as you observe, is that the essential work of the university, teaching and research, needs to be done, not just assessed or facilitated or organized or supervised. Administration isn’t only expansive; it’s expensive. Administrators make more than most faculty, and often it is the most productive and effective faculty who are recruited into administrative roles thus reducing their time in the classroom, library, and laboratory. One solution to reversing this trend (if we were serious about doing it) is simple, but one which I have never personally seen included in any university’s strategic plan: pay faculty more than administrators! Another, practically heretical notion: pay more attention to performing fundamental academic activities than to assessing them. Speaking of assessment: there’s a story going around about a veteran farmer who once observed to someone who suggested that he weigh the pigs he was raising for market more often to keep track of their growth: “No pig ever got bigger by weighing it.” Maybe we in academe should get a tee-shirt that says: “Feed the pig; don’t weigh it.”

Steve Gehrke said...

Hi Jon,
I just happened to check on RenMus today and was happy to see your continued interest in this subject and happy to have my thinking about higher education provoked by your ideas once again.

However, I'm not clear about whether you are providing commentary on US higher education in general, or Lutheran colleges specifically. I think that the graduate programs of research universities are important components of the American higher education system. However I agree that in such universities it is difficult to maintain an appropriate balance between undergraduate teaching and research, and to control the growth of the administration needed to support faculty and students in these pursuits.

However, apart from seminaries, what are the examples of Lutheran research universities? We visited St. Olaf this summer as a possible college for my son. They emphasized that because they did not offer graduate degrees, they were able to maintain their focus on undergraduate education and that was one reason they believed they offered a superior education to that offered by research-intensive universities. While we did have a very positive visit (except for considering the cost of that education!) I was not convinced by the argument that absence of a graduate program (read: emphasis on research) necessarily meant a superior undergraduate education.

I know that your emphasis is on undergraduate education, but I wondered what role you saw for graduate education in a Lutheran university - if any?

I trust all is well with you and your family.

Steve Gehrke said...

BTW, I do agree strongly that the current model of higher education is on an unsustainable trajectory in terms of cost, and that it ought to be possible to offer a high quality education along the lines you suggest for a much lower cost than is currently available-speaking as a father of high school age children, though not as a professor in the process of moving my labs into a brand new $25 M research building while writing here as a break from writing an NSF proposal to pay for that research and generate the 49% overhead needed to help pay for that building!

Steve Gehrke said...

Prof. Springer-
I agree with your general observations. However, there aren't many faculty (and no rational ones) who would take a pay cut in order to move into an administrative position. From both personal observations and personal experience, there are few people happier than a department chair in his or her last month in that role before returning to the faculty as a regular professor!

Steve Gehrke said...

Just ran across this which has some specifics supporting your general view above:

"A second item from right around that same time period is an old article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on KU.

The Chronicle centered on how KU had changed from 1988 to 2008, when operating expenses more than tripled, but its enrollment of 26,000 students stayed almost exactly the same.

It was an interesting study.

“Throughout academe, college leaders often explain the rising cost of a college education as the inevitable result of an expanded menu of services that students and their parents expect, the higher costs of conducting and monitoring research, and the plusher academic and social amenities that professors and students now consider standard fare,” the article read.

In that time, KU added hundreds of counselors, student-affairs officers, “scores” of statisticians and technicians to run sophisticated laboratory equipment for research and renovated tons of residence halls and academic spaces.

Tuition during that time, by the way, increased five times over.

The article points out that while state appropriations to the campus nearly doubled during that time, the percentage of operating expenses covered by the state went down from more than 40 percent in 1988 to 22 percent in 2008. Interesting stuff, all of that."

Jon Bruss said...

Several interesting items to respond to here. First, I don't mean to imply that all administration is bad or unnecessary. There needs to be some. The difficulty arises when administration takes on a life of its own. The article Steve's last response points to demonstrates that.
But administration's growth is also linked to the higher ed arms race--the college or university that's the first to get to the 100' indoor climbing wall wins, but then everyone follows. The college that has the most beefed-up student support center wins, but then everyone else follows. The first liberal arts college to establish the R-1 publication record for tenure wins, but then everyone else follows. Costs are shifted: the 100' wall needs to be staffed, students need to be supported, and faculty administrative work needs to be done. What were perks now become needs. Costs rise even as the center-point of college attendance, learning from experts in the classroom, shoulder-to-shoulder, in office hours, and at the campus coffee shop, gets shifted to the outside of the circle. Students, then, pay more for less, while believing they're paying [justifiably] more for more. Meanwhile less becomes even lesser. FTE remains the same or increases even as full-time tenure-line positions are replaced with a patchwork of part-time adjuncts. Often blamed on the overhead costs of full-time faculty ("it's not just salary we're paying, but ever-increasing medical insurance costs," so goes the line), it's really a matter of where the resources are going. Resources driven into 100' climbing walls and the buildings that house them are resources that can't be used to be teaching salaries. Resources spent to pay teachers more to research more and teach less are resources that can't be used to support the FTE requirements of the college. Resources spent on administrative salaries and benefits do the same.
I just had an interesting conversation with my friend Erik Ankerberg, who, too, has come to the same conclusion: the present curriculum-staffing-funding-financing-physical-plant-administrative-overhead model is, to use a fashionable term, unsustainable. I think this is true on both a macro level (for the entire higher-ed "industry") as well as, and perhaps more pointedly, on the micro level that Ren. Mus. is concerned with: Lutheran higher education.
This is why the only sensible thing is a fundamental re-thinking of Lutheran higher education that is a reprise of what's central to the life of the Lutheran mind (see earlier posts, perhaps the first few of this blog). Pare down the curriculum (well over 70% actually distracts from learning to think like a Lutheran), beef up commitment of resources to that curriculum, focus on essentials, not extras. Deliver what you promise (an education, not a job). But do it all at a price that's affordable, more on which at a later date. But if one starts to do a little math with generous student-faculty ratios (like 15:1 or even 10:1) and reductions of overhead costs in the areas of administration and non-teaching positions, the numbers start to look pretty good for students, the prospects start to look really good for the life of the Lutheran mind, and an avenue opens up not only for the survival, but for a renewed vitality, of Lutheran higher education in North America.

Jon Bruss said...

Then there's this item in the Commentary section of The Chronicle of Higher Education by Robert E. Martin. Direct quotation from article followed by URL:

"On the administrative side, the ratios of executives to student and professional staff to student increased—the latter by 50 percent. In 1987, except at private research universities, where administrators outnumbered tenure-track faculty, colleges had approximately as many tenure-track faculty as full-time administrators. By 2008 there were more than twice as many administrators as tenure-track faculty at all types of institutions."