Making Public Universities Private

Richard Vetter has an interesting article at Minding the Campus with a strange start.  You should read the whole thing as vouchers for college is an interesting idea.  Near the beginning of Let’s Privatize State Colleges he categorizes colleges:

Some of them are renowned highly selective research institutions like the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Michigan, while others are relatively obscure schools with an open admissions policy. But all receive some degree of subsidization from the state government where they are physically located.

Writers love groups of three: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear.  In Bonanza there is Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.  In the Brady Bunch there is a dad with three boys marries a mom with three daughters.  When you add in the Brady’s housekeeper there are three groups of three.  Perfect.  Yet Richard has just two: Berkeley and open admissions.  It is particularly strange because the middle, what we will call comprehensives, is almost surely the majority of state college enrollment.  Here is a 2016 story for the University of Wisconsin System.  There are (rounding) 43,000 students at Madison (a Berkeley clone), 11,000 at the colleges (they have open admissions or close to it) out of 179,000.  The remaining 125,000 or 70 percent are enrolled elsewhere.  To call the 125,000 comprehensives is slightly expansive but that is what we are going with.  States will vary but comprehensives are likely a majority of enrollment nationwide.

Sidebar: The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee has 26,000 students and doesn’t fit as a comprehensive because it has a significant doctoral program but it is not, sorry, Berkeley.  The Carnegie classification is much more detailed. Check the numbers at the link.  There are 130 doctoral schools with very high research and 741 masters degree schools which is the traditional definition of a comprehensive.   We will use the term comprehensive to include these second tier research programs and some schools without a masters program.  We know there are more categories.  End Sidebar.

The comprehensives, as defined in the sidebar, are the biggest group of students.  Richard is not just talking about Berkeley.  Richard has a neat idea: Let’s give money to needy and/or accomplished individuals rather than schools.  He says:

Why don’t we provide vouchers for college attendance like some states do for students going to K-12 schools? The aid could be more explicitly targeted to kids who are either relatively poor or who excel academically.

We like vouchers for K-12 but are not supportive of Richard’s proposal for three (there is that number again) reasons: gamesmanship, lack of confidence in the state, and it is not a priority.  First, there is the opportunity for gamesmanship.  Do 529 accounts count? Is your parents’ income and assets considered if you go into the armed forces and then return to school?  The current system has enough of these challenges.  Making the potential returns bigger will only exacerbate the current challenges.

Second, we are expecting each state to come up with and adjust a system that prevents gamesmanship and deals with grad students, veterans, varying programs, and finances.  For example, 150 credits are required to sit for the CPA exam in most states.  Do you get five years in accounting but four years in finance?  We are not confident that the state will make things better.  Colleges have employee contracts that are set up before enrollment.  Under Richard’s system when a college does not reach enrollment targets there will be a big financial problem.  What will be the state’s plan for short-term versus long-term financial problems.  Will contracts be honored?

Third, and most importantly, state college vouchers should not be a priority for conservatives.  The reason vouchers for K-12 are a priority is to encourage competition.  Comprehensives are already intensely competitive within state and sometimes among states and they often have a program or two where they compete with the flagship school(s).  The flagship schools compete among states.  There is lots of overlap in the Wisconsin (Madison) and Minnesota application pools.  College vouchers might increase competition but there is already intense competition.

If we are going to spend our time on education we need to worry about (of course, three things) K-12 vouchers, union issues, and free speech, especially in college.  Vouchers for colleges is a fun topic to kick around among  conservatives (why not allow students to use them at private schools?) but it shouldn’t be a priority.



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.

Consolidating Universities

Anthony Hennen at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal has an interesting article using the University of Georgia as an example that consolidation can improve student performance.  Anthony says:

But these mergers and eleventh-hour survival moves have another benefit: consolidating campuses and university services can save a college money and improve student outcomes. Even for state college systems in relatively good financial shape, consolidation could make them fiscally leaner, help students learn more, and improve graduation rates.

Conservatives want to be very careful about supporting consolidation as it often means centralization.  One of the reasons that American public universities are great is the intra-state competition as well as the competition among states.  Also students are different and it makes sense for them to have different environments to pick from.  Anthony is absolutely right when he says how a system consolidates matters and positive results are not guaranteed.  He is on less solid ground when he says:

Consolidation isn’t a matter of cutting departments and laying off workers; it’s a matter of reforming a college’s structure and getting workers to focus on the most important aspects of their jobs. Restructuring a college can eliminate duplication and micromanagement, and identify problems with keeping workers accountable. Doing it well means using a school’s resources better and doing more with less.

There are at least three inconsistencies in that paragraph.  First, there will be cuts.  Reforming a college’s structure and eliminating duplication will mean layoffs and it might mean cutting departments.  Do we need two German departments on the East side of the state?  One important part of implementation is that the solution is student centered and the pain is distributed.  There are lots of ways to divide up the university but administrators, faculty (teachers), (non-teaching) staff, and clerical is one useful way.  In the next post we will give you our experience with mergers in Wisconsin.  The short answer is that faculty, at least, never forgets a slight.  All of these groups need to see the merger as “fair.”  Another way to put it is that all of the groups, and especially administration, need to suffer.  It is important that administration suffer for two reasons.  First, everybody is looking at that group.  Second, there are lots of expensive people in that group.  Getting rid of a dean might have the same financial impact as eliminating five to ten clerical positions.  Some of the administration suffering must include central (or system) administration.

Second, eliminating micromanagement while keeping workers accountable seems the least likely outcome.  Increasing micromanagement to try to keep workers accountable seems a much more likely outcome.  From a faculty perspective there have been lots of additions fairly recently like assessment, accreditation, and post-tenure reviews that many view as micromanagement.  Graduation rates are another level of micromanagement that causes concern about academic freedom.  Concern about graduation rates sounds to many faculty like ease up on your student workload and grading.  That kind of pressure could cause a faculty revolt.

Third, doing consolidation well means using a school’s resources better and doing more with less. Essentially every faculty member will tell you that he is doing more with less already.  We think the other groups will too but we have less exposure to them to give you a percentage.

One might read our concerns about merger and consolidation and conclude that we are dead set against them. We are not but recognize the many challenges that can be summarized in two parts.  First, consolidation should not be chiefly centralization.  It is critical for long term success that institutions have the ability to compete.  Second, employees at the university are there because of the established relationships [yes, we know that was wishy-washy but otherwise this is going to take another 1000 words].  Mergers and consolidations will upset folks.  Many of those folks are extremely productive and most of them are highly marketable.  Implementing change is always a challenge but it is even more so at a university.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it but you need a quality plan to succeed.



Porn And The Regent

We recently wrote about Joe Gow’s, the Chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), failure to protect freedom of expression.  It is not far back if you want to look for it.  We had missed Bob Atwell’s, a Regent in the University of Wisconsin System, opinion piece on Joe and porn.  We have almost nothing in common with Wisconsin’s new governor but we see an opportunity..

We see now that the pressure on Joe was coming from the Regents.  We wish that he had the courage to stand up to them and, if necessary, fall on his sword.

Porn, like alcohol, weed, and gambling, to name a few, has all kinds of bad outcomes.  None of those things can be legislated out of existence.  We have tried and failed with all of them.  We can’t even define porn.  Inviting a former porn star or a current conservative doesn’t mean that the university supports either one.  Few people have been more wrong than Bob when he says:

There is ample scientific evidence that what [Joe] apparently admires as free expression, is in fact a massive public health problem.

I am hopeful this will result in a deep conversation about pornography rather than a shallow one about freedom.

If Bob is suggesting that Joe admires porn then he is dishonest.  He is correct that porn is a big problem.  His preferred solution, ignoring it, is not working.  Preventing a discussion about porn and all of the variants of near-porn is worthy of a deep conversation.  Bob doesn’t want one.  The conversation about freedom is anything but shallow.  Somebody needs to tell Bob that.  We hope Tony will use a pink slip to try and convince Bob about the importance of freedom of speech.  It would be our first opportunity to agree with Tony and a chance for him to show everyone that he is more than an empty chair.

Porn At The University

There is a big controversy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL) involving freedom of expression.  The facts are, as we understand them, that UWL invited noted sex educator and free expression advocate Nina Hartley to visit and speak at the campus.  Of importance to the tempest is that Nina is, or at least was, a porn star.  Here is the Wikipedia entry on Nina.  After Nina spoke to 70 students there was controversy and Chancellor Joe Gow took to the local newspaper to defend the decision.  As the answer to why did he invite a porn star to campus Joe said:

My primary motive in inviting Hartley was to help promote the UW System’s “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” implemented last fall by our Board of Regents.

You can find the Regents document here.  The Regents saw the policy as a restatement of what they said over a century ago:

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Joe’s response did not quiet the concern and he has taken action:

He agreed to personally compensate the university for Hartley’s $5,000 appearance fee, which was initially covered by student fees and interest.  He is also booking a speaker from Fight the New Drug, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit dedicated to “raising awareness (of porn’s) harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts.”

One of the strange things about Nina’s presentation came out in the story about Joe’s actions.  They said:

The event [Nina’s talk]did not appear on the university’s online events calendar and, unlike many events, was not made known to the press.

It does seem odd to hide away your freedom of expression speaker.

So what do we have to say about this sad story?  First, we think Joe fails freedom of expression 101.  We could have agreed that refunding the money to the students was a grand but silly gesture.  Agreeing to bring in the alternative speaker was absolutely a failure to back free expression.  The Regents say:

Each institution in the University of Wisconsin System has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation, and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them. [Emphasis added]

Joe failed to protect Nina.

Second, how did the initial situation happen?   We have suppositions but only those from knowing how universities work.  We do not have any inside details about what really happened.  We think that the administration was looking at the first part of the Regent quote above and realized they were at risk because they had failed to promote the debate.  The administration is heavily progressive so nobody wants to bring in a conservative and the available conservatives often like to stir up controversy and that can lead to violence.  What are the other choices?

Sex.  We can see the meeting.  The students like sex and having a sexy speaker.  The administration thinks we have met the Regents’ requirement without a big controversy of bringing an Ann Coulter type to campus.  Everyone is happy but it still turns out to be a disaster.  Now they have failed to meet the Regents’ expectation.

The answer is that we need to support Nina and Joe.  Freedom of expression is freedom of expression.  The statement says fearless exploration and deliberation as well as debate.  Debate is only part of freedom of expression.

Yet, at the same time, somebody needs to be responsible for some balance over time.  Let us use a real example.  As chair of the accounting department we had a speaker at the banquet each year.  We kept track of each speaker’s affiliation so that there would be a variety types of organizations (Big Four, other public, corporate, governmental/NFP) and actual organizations.  Some organizations would volunteer every year and we told them no.

It is easy to see why administrators fail at free expression.  It is a tough job.  It is also part of their job description.

Good Advice Depends On Circumstances

John Taylor has a fun column about opportunity cost, curriculum, and Tiger Woods.  As it happens Tiger was one of John’s students during freshman year at Stanford.  John says about Tiger:

With Tiger Woods just winning the Tour Championship, I have a wonderful example today of opportunity costs. Tiger took my course in 1996. He was the best economics student: As I have often said, he learned opportunity costs so well that he left Stanford and joined the pro tour.

As John says, it is about the choices people make when faced with scarcity.  The stock answer to, “I am a good student.  Should I stay in school or follow my dream?” is stay in school.  But the back story matters.  If you have the proven skills of Tiger Woods

In 1995, he successfully defended his U.S. Amateur title at the Newport Country Club in Rhode Island[46] and was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year, NCAA First Team All-American, and Stanford’s Male Freshman of the Year (an award that encompasses all sports)

Then leaving school in 1996 looks to be the right choice before the fact and obvious after the fact.  Here are two of our experiences about advice and opportunity cost.  A student comes to our office and says she has a local offer that she likes because it requires less hours but she wants as much money as her classmates that will be working in bigger cities and working more hours.  Our answer is that that is the trade-off she wants.  She should jump at it.

Another student comes to our office and asks for a couple of days off.  We ask why.  Our expectations were a wedding or a senior vacation.  Instead we hear that he has been invited to the NFL combine.  We said yes and he went to the Combine and played in the NFL for several years.

Trade-offs matter.  Tiger and the other folks are in the best position to make their own decisions.  Those of us that give advice for a living should always recognize that the stock answer isn’t always the best.  We need to find out about the individual when giving advice.  Exceptional golfing skills, a need to stay local, or ability to make the NFL all change the typical answer.  Then, sometimes, we wander beyond the economics to all that other stuff.


Research Basics

After we commented on Cass Sunstein’s article about The Problem Of All Those Liberal Professors we recognized that we failed one of the standards of archival research.  You should aways check the original document(s).  The original document that Cass referred to is: Homogenous: The Political Affiliation of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty by Mitchell Langbert.  It was posted on the National Association of Scholars (NAS) website.  NAS is:

[A] network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. Membership in NAS is open to all who share our commitment to these broad principles. We publish a journal and have state and regional affiliates.

Yup, that basically makes them conservatives. It is not a surprise that Mitchell’s article showed up at NAS.  Other outlets might not be interested.

We were concerned that Cass understated the impact of the lack of conservatives on faculty because the faculty run the place.  They set the curriculum and the related courses.  They determine the research standards.  They hire (sometimes with a little help) administrators.  Most administrators were former faculty.  These administrators set accreditation standards.  In short, faculty run the place although not all faculty are equally involved in such activities.

So let’s see what Mitchell said about the impact of the lack of ideological balance in colleges and universities:

So pervasive is the lack of balance in academia that more than 1,000 professors and graduate students have started Heterodox Academy, an organization committed to increasing “viewpoint diversity” in higher education.4The end result is that objective science becomes problematic, and where research is problematic, teaching is more so. [Site added]

To an academic it is reasonable to include curriculum development in teaching but we don’t think that the general public does.  We think it is important to understand that faculty have somewhere between an extensive to exclusive say about what classes are taught and how, what research is acceptable, what outside speakers come to campus, and almost everything else that happens on campus.

Mitchell notes that West Point and Annapolis are two outliers in that they are more balanced that almost all the other schools.  We took a look at the history curriculum for Annapolis (US Naval Academy) and a local school that we have access to.  It should give you a feel for the differences between a school with balance (Annapolis) and one without balance.

Examples of history themes from the US Naval Academy:

Examples of topics include piracy, the development of national identities and the growth of capitalism.

Sidebar: We really, really want to take the course on the history of pirates.  Especially on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  End Sidebar

Here are some selected history course titles from a regional state school (yes we are aware that Mitchell was surveying Liberal Arts schools):

Women in the Modern United States: 1890-Present

History of Motherhood in the United States

U.S. Reform Movements

You can check the sites and see if you agree with us that the curriculums are very different.  Even when the titles are similar, Peace and War versus History of The Technology of Peace And War, we are willing to wager that the courses are very different.  Mitchell recognizes the connection of balance to research.  Without approved research a faculty member is highly unlikely to earn tenure.  If Military History is not part of the curriculum then military historians need not apply.  Too bad Victor Davis Hanson.  But the impact of the lack of balance is even more.  It is what happens in the classroom.  But it is also the classes that get taught, the speakers that come to campus, and the other services offered by the university.

Cass and Mitchell are right to identify the problem.  It is just bigger than they think.  It has an impact on every student in every major in every way.