Two Harsh Views Of The University

We still owe you the consolidation piece on university systems but these two comments are interesting and related.  Both take an important issue and overstate the significance of it.

Barton Swaim is reviewing The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress in the WSJ.  Barton, and many of the folks in Herb’s book have had a tough time in academia.  Barton says:

Unless your child attends an elite liberal-arts institution, during his first two years—and maybe even in his third and fourth years—he will almost certainly be taught mainly by graduate students or contract workers with no permanent connection to the institution.  [Emphasis added]

Over at the Corner in NRO, George Leef is worried about faculty in the North Carolina System being evaluated by students for teaching awards.  We called it Student Evaluation of Instruction (SEI):

For one thing, each of the  system’s constituent institutions selects one faculty member as its best teacher and that individual receives a cash prize of $12,500. But as Hennen notes, exactly how the selection committees make their selections is unknown. Do they just rely on student evaluations, which are of very dubious value since many students give high scores to faculty who are entertaining and give high grades for little effort and low scores for demanding ones. If the way to get yourself in the running for an award is being popular, that would tend to be counter-productive.

In our 40 years in academia we have had exposure to lots of different schools: two year, comprehensive, private, and flagships.  As department chair and associate dean we have looked at data on many more.  We have significant experience with hiring and SEI scores.  Wisconsin has useful terminology of faculty, meaning tenure track, and instructional academic staff (IAS) for those not on the tenure track.  Full-time IAS almost always have a connection to the university.  For business schools and others it is a way to bring in practitioners.

The one place we haven’t taught at is an elite liberal-arts institution so we don’t know if Barton is right about that.  We don’t know if he thinks our undergrad school was one of them but we weren’t keeping track of the contracts of the instructors.  In retrospect, we especially wonder how the contracts with the clergy were constructed.  What is true, if you go to a flagship school with PhD programs you will get many grad students as instructors.  It is also true there are some schools that use a higher percentage of part-time adjuncts.  Quality comprehensive schools don’t.   Accreditation standards ensure that certain ratios of IAS to faculty are met.  Accredited business schools have much more detailed standards.  See here to download.

Sidebar One: We spent time deciding on the adjective “quality” and are not entirely happy with it.  We don’t have the data to say most.  End Sidebar One.

At quality comprehensive schools you will have full-time folks with a connection to the university.  It doesn’t take away from the problem of the treatment of grad students and IAS by some schools but good consumers can avoid it.

One way to avoid these problems are SEI scores.  Students are in the classroom every day and should have a voice in evaluating instructors.  Students aren’t perfect at it but neither is anyone else.  There is little evidence of what George suggests that students are enticed by high grades or little effort.  Our research has found no relationship between grades and SEI scores.

Sidebar Two: Sometimes there are bad SEI questions.  At one school they asked for an numerical response and a written response to “The instructor is enthusiastic about the discipline.”  The written responses showed that the students misunderstood the question.  They thought is was about enforcing discipline rather that the discipline being taught.  End Sidebar Two.

George and Barton point out two serious problems: It is hard to evaluate instructors and some schools treat instructors and/or grad students very poorly.  We think both George and Barton are too harsh.  George needs to recognize that SEI scores need to be part of evaluating instructors. Barton needs to recognize that part-time IAS are going to be part of the instructional portfolio for most departments and grad students will be part for some.  Consumers, accreditation bodies, and oversight bodies (like the Board of Regents or the legislature) need to see that departments don’t abuse them.

Universities have many areas to clean up.  George and Barton have identified two of them but we don’t want to ignore other problems by going overboard on these.

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Vacation In Venezuela

We provide transportation to four-year-old kindergarten for one of the grand-deGloves. The letter of the week was V and one of the teachers said today’s subject would be Vacation In Venezuela.  In fact, they liked Vacation In Venezuela so much that they extended it to two days.

Of course, our immediate thought was why are you glorifying that hell-hole? Yet we refrained from comment despite the facts.  On the Heritage ranking of economic freedom it is 179 of 180.  Six countries are not ranked.  To put it kindly, it is a violent place without a reliable government.  About a year ago the LA Times said:

Venezuela’s violent crime epidemic appears to be escalating into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The precise dimensions are hard to know, however, because along with the collapse of the economy and widespread hunger has come a near blackout of reliable government crime statistics.

Nothing we have seen suggests the situation has improved since then.  We are convinced that it was appropriate to leave this as a politics free zone.  There are not many countries that start with V: Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Venezuela.  The kids are just four.  The discussion is not about governments but geography and letters.  We are happy with our choice.  The question is when should we speak up?

Life And Career Advice

Jonah Goldberg has some life advice in his weekly newsletter.  We concur but would like to use it to discuss your career.  Jonah said:

So, as I prepare to enjoy a vacation weekend away from politics, here’s some advice: Don’t invest that much of your soul in politics. In fact, don’t invest your whole soul in anything.

Folks that invest their whole soul in something make for interesting entertainment but the reason is that their lives are a mess.  You make choices to give some of your soul to, among other things, your spouse, children, vocation, and avocations.  These percentages usually vary widely over your life.

Let’s use an accounting example with a sports comparison.  Going to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms is like being a Division I athlete.  It is not exactly the same but in both cases you give much and, if that is what you want, you get much.  Even within these areas there is wide variation.  You could be Dan Gable.  He would be an example of somebody who gave much more of his soul than the program asked and they ask for lots.

Part of this discussion must be about the nature of your soul.  Is size of the soul pie fixed or can it be expanded?  The plays we have seen in the last couple of weeks are The Grinch and Christmas Carol and we agree with those shows that as the former says explicitly your heart can grow three sizes.

Because your soul is large it is important to give parts of it to lots of folks and places. Work, even part-time work, family, school, handball (and all sorts of avocations) , all can be better as you become more involved in them and keep you from being obsessed with one thing. When the interviewer asks what your passion is you should have several of them.  Don’t give all of your soul to politics, work, family, or even handball but do give your soul to several of them.

Assessment At The University

We have often made the point that we, the faculty, are our own worst enemies in making us look bad in public.  Usually, we can blame it on the left but the right is not immune at George Leef proves at the NRO Corner:

In the not so distant past, college professors graded their students’ work (tests, papers, and things) and that was that. But then along came one of those ideas so typical of American education “experts,” namely that while grading might measure how well students had performed in the course, it didn’t necessarily measure their learning. Naturally, that opened the door to the growth of a new movement with campus bureaucrats eager to impose “learning standards.”

George approvingly quotes an article by Erik Gilbert at the Marin Center that starts off with this:

Universities have been assessing students by grading their work since the Middle Ages.  Sometimes students complained that the professor wasn’t fair, but nobody thought the system was fundamentally flawed.

We quoted both George and Erik to make it clear that they are fundamentally opposed to assessment from a conservative view point.  It is Colbert Conservatism and should be roundly mocked.  The difference between inputs and outputs is not nearly as complex as Arthur Thomas and arbitrary allocations.  It should be obvious to everyone that learning is different from teaching.

Sidebar One: There is a real issue of who assesses that both George and Erik mention but, as the quotes show, they are against assessment and the who problem is a just a by-product.  Part of the problem of who assesses is that some faculty members refuse to assess. It is amazing that academics, people who think for a living, can’t distinguish between inputs and output.  Why are they not interested in evidence of the outcomes of their teaching?  End Sidebar One.

Sidebar Two: Many of them also distrust student evaluation of instruction or SEI.  SEI scores, like assessment, are evidence of what goes on in the classroom.  Many faculty members seem to be evidence averse to what goes on in the classroom.  When confronted with the evidence like, “In our department SEI scores are unrelated to grades,” they will continue to believe the opposite.  End Sidebar Two.

Where George and Erik go wrong is that faculty use grades to assess overall learning.  Universities are now, correctly, being held to higher standards.  We expect the school to investigate if students are learning.  We expect that the faculty have a strategy for getting students to learn and that they evaluate its effectiveness.

Sidebar Three: For an extreme example, there were three tests and all students got 98 percent on the first and third tests and 44 percent on the second test for a nice B minus average of 80 percent.  Do you think all students have a B minus knowledge of the course material?  End Sidebar Three.

For a real example, we had a research oriented faculty member that had students write a 30 page research paper.  Did it prepare our students for the type of writing assignment they would get in the accounting profession?  It influenced their writing skills but, unless they went to grad school, they would never write anything like it ever again.  What it did, however, was to improve their research skills with various data bases and that they would need again.  There were excellent outcomes that the department supported but they were not exactly what the faculty member envisioned.  It is difficult but we should all be evidence driven in our teaching.

There are serious questions about who should assess but assessment is something that conservatives should insist on.  We want to know what students are expected to learn and if they are learning it.  Every faculty member should support assessment and that will reduce the overhead.

 

Two Tales Differing By Three Zeros

Recently we went to our old school to see some of the presentations of Money Smart Week.  One was from Adam Carroll about student loans.  Another was from Billy Corben on his documentary Broke about financial failure among professional athletes and especially successful ones.  They were great speakers with interesting stories to tell.

Upon reflection, Adam and Billy’s stories only differed by three zeros.  The athletes were typically in their early twenties when they found ways to destroy millions of dollars and wreck their financial well-being.  The students were in their late teens and early twenties when they laid waste to their financial futures by mounting up thousands of dollars in student debt.

Billy and Adam tell the same story.  Young people have been asked to make complex decisions that few people are equipped to make.  They often over borrow or over spend or both.  The usual cause is failure to understand compound interest and it is exacerbated by poor or dishonest advice.

The actions by the students were less catastrophic for them because most of them could survive their bad decisions but more catastrophic for the rest of us.  When a few hundred athletes wreck their lives it is a disaster for them but not for us.  When a generation has to put off having children and buying houses it hurts everyone.  There is lots of money in fixing the athlete problem.  There is less money in fixing the student loan problem but it is more important.  The first step in fixing the student loan problem is getting good data.  We know about the overall numbers but how do they come about?  Are they just for tuition?  How much is accumulated living expenses.

Adam talks about playing offense (making money) and playing defense (not spending money).  Because tuition has gone up everyone seems to think that that is the sole cause of student debt.  It might be.  It surely is part of it but it seems likely that once you borrow a large sum adding on a non-trivial sum is easier.  We would like to have better evidence.

Student debt is another reason for teaching financial literacy in college.  It might be a required course like personal finance, presentations like Adam and Billy, woven into the curriculum, or all three.  Money Smart Week is a great idea but the turnout at the sessions we attended were disappointing.  It is another area where colleges need to do better.

College Professors And Departments

George Leef has an article taking aim at college administrators.  Those folks have a lot to be humble about but George has a hit and and a K.  First, the hit:

His story begins in 2005, when Gouws was asked by the Springfield English department to teach a course entitled “Men in Literature.” It turned out to be a rather popular course and Gouws, who holds tenure, taught it eight times between 2005 and 2015. But in 2015 a student lodged a complaint against the course with school leaders. It wasn’t that Professor Gouws had mistreated her, but simply that the course content, focused only on men, bothered her.

In a sensible era, officials would have said, “Well, then take something else if you’re offended,” but “progressive” academics seem incapable of insisting on common sense from students these days, especially if they’re in one of our supposedly oppressed groups. At Springfield, the result of the student’s gripe was to trigger what Wood terms “a feminist jihad” against a veteran, highly capable faculty member.

It is the responsibility of the department chair to deal with student complaints.  What the chair should have said, perhaps in addition to George’s comment, is that the department is responsible for curriculum decisions.  It should not go any higher up the line.  One thing that rings a bit tinny is that Gouws’ “standard request” for a sabbatical was denied.  Sabbaticals cost the department manpower and money. The quality of any faculty request matters.  So we agree that the administration and particularly the chair failed to maintain departmental control over curriculum but the sabbatical request is less compelling evidence.

George’s second example is the other side of curriculum and grading:

Next consider Nathaniel Bork, an adjunct professor at Aurora Community College in Colorado. He’d been teaching philosophy and comparative religion at the college as an adjunct professor since 2010, without any incident.

Now Bork has lost his job because he didn’t agree with the administration’s efforts at making introductory courses easier to pass.

As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, in September of last year Bork took a call from the chairman of his department, who told him that his employment was immediately terminated. The reason Bork was given for his abrupt termination was his supposed “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum design.”

George reports that Bork had a different explanation:

He maintains that the reason for his firing was that he had complained that the department had dumbed down the introductory “gatekeeper” courses in an attempt to increase passage rates, thereby encouraging students to continue on at Aurora.

We can’t agree with George.  We have been there.  Part of the department’s responsibility for curriculum is to monitor grading and that is one of the most complicated problems the department and the chair faces.  There is natural and unnatural variation among classes.  One large department at our former university used to open a few seats every day during registration so that the early morning and late afternoon classes didn’t fill last and provide unnatural variation.  One semester we taught a class that was opened late due to our poor projection of demand.  It was the biggest group of misfits we have ever taught.  Another department at another university had prescribed percentages of each grade because they felt that even an overall GPA for the class encouraged certain behaviors that we were not convinced of but they were.  We tried an A, B, F grading scheme to encourage quality.  It didn’t work.  There were many more grading issues that came up.

In short, it is the department’s responsibility to set curriculum and grading is part of that.  George is aghast that the department fired Bork in September.  We are closer to pleasantly surprised.  The department took immediate action to solve what they saw as a problem.  The department might be wrong but it is their choice.

Sidebar One: Our department’s grades were typically the lowest in the college.  So we might support Bork but it is the department’s, not an individual’s, choice.  End Sidebar One.

Sidebar Two: Our faculty gave the lowest grades but our students got the highest grades.  A bit counterintuitive but true.  End Sidebar Two.

We are not issuing an opinion that Gouws is right and Bork is wrong.  What we are saying is that administrators, and particularly the chair, were wrong to cede departmental control of curriculum to the students the Bork case and correct to maintain control over curriculum by the department in other case.

Bad Thinking In Detroit

The Detroit News has weighed in on the Wayne State (WSU) tenure battle (h/t Tax Prof Blog):

Mark Taylor of Columbia University calculated that one tenured professor teaching for 35 years costs a private university an average of $12.2 million and a public university $10 million. Universities in 2010 averaged $168 million in debt nationwide. Removing 15 under-performing tenured professors could put a college in the black.

Students should also reap benefits of a more effective tenure system. A Stanford University researcher found replacing the lowest-performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher could enable American students to catch up with those in higher-performing nations. Pearson’s 2014 ranking placed the U.S. at only 14th in worldwide education system rankings.  [Emphasis added.]

Where to begin?  Rarely have two paragraphs contained as much nonsense as these two.  The colors red and black refer to the income statement.  Being in the black means that you made a profit.  Debt is from the balance sheet.  The analogy doesn’t make any sense to start with.  Taylor doesn’t say where he gets his numbers from.  If you take him at his word, the total cost of salary and benefits alone for 35 years, then the division comes out to just under $350 K per year in a private school and around $285 K for public schools.  We wish!  Fringe benefits usually figure in at 30-40 percent.  Very few faculty in public universities are making $220 K.  There are zero at my old school.

If you eliminate tenured faculty what do you replace them with?  Taylor doesn’t want itinerant adjuncts (his term).  He wants seven year renewable contracts.  We would consider that option.  We can’t speak for all the colleges but in the business school (and highly likely in WSU’s med school), the Taylor Plan (not to be confused with the Taylor Rule) is going to cost money.  New faculty make more than old faculty in the business school and you are giving them less too.  As an example, we were the lowest paid PhD in our department when we retired.  So abolishing, limiting, or making more effective tenure is unlikely to save much money.  It might be more expensive but it has a chance to increase quality.

It might, however, benefit the students. The editorial first uses one reference about K-12 and then one that seems to be about K-12 to buttress its case.  Those are unconvincing.  The Stanford study is especially misleading because in that they are going to replace the worst teachers in K-12 and replace them with average teachers.  If tenure is abolished who will be the first to go?  Those that don’t publish as TaxProf says in the WSU case:

The five professors in question are in research-centric roles, officials said, and most had no publications in the past five years.

The connection between teaching and research is weak.  We have seen prolific researcher that are great teachers but our experience shows that quality of research and quality of teaching is unconnected.  Knowing administrators and the importance of accreditation, it is at best questionable that changing tenure will lead to better teaching to students.

It is a good thing to evaluate tenure and other rules at universities.  The editorial has done a disservice by the nonsense attack.  It is hard to avoid such attacks because university tenure is so special and those attacks are one of the reasons faculty defend tenure with such tenacity.