Monday, August 20, 2012

The New Plantation

             The New Plantation

I retired from academia in 2010, after 40 or so reasonably succesful years. I was glad to go, because the ideals I originally thought to serve have almost entirely been replaced by something I find repellent.

What is the ideal of a university? It should be a community of scholars existing to create knowledge, communicate that knowlege (including the skills to acquire and evaluate it), and lend expertise to society. In short, research, teaching and service. Faculty are hired, retained, promoted and honored based on how well they do each of these things. Students come to acquire knowledge and skills which then contribute to their success and thus the welfare of society. Administrators exist to facilitate these goals.

Yeah, right. The proper metaphor for the university is no longer the "ivory tower," a shining refuge from daily life that promotes creative thought---if it ever was. A better metaphor is something more down-and-dirty. Like any metaphor, it only goes so far, but in its limited way may aid our understanding. 

The modern university is a plantation.

I'm defining "plantation" as a large agricultural enterprise that raises and sells livestock and crops for profit. Antebellum Southern plantations were defined by slaveholding; after the War Between the States those that were left shifted to a different but hardly more moral system. This is what characterizes modern public research universities. Consider the parallells between universities and plantations:

Undergraduates are livestock. In an actual plantation, livestock are raised and sold for profit.
How much profit depends on quality, numbers and value. Undergraduates bring money in two ways. First is tuition and fees, and is the lesser contribution. The last estimate I heard, from two separate schools, was that tuition and fees accounted for 15% of the operating budget.* The greater contribution comes from State funding, which pays some number of dollars per student credit hour. This accounts for 35% of the annual budget, according to the same sources.

What's important here is that moving undergrads through the system is how universities make a great deal of money. The better the students and the more of them, the more funding.
Some schools depend more on quality to attract students (or a reputation for quality, which isn't the same thing), some more on perceived value for tuition money, whether that includes classes or party time. The principle is the same regardless. Profit (how much is left over from direct expenses for salaries, new buildings, fancy office furniture and so forth) depends on spending as little as possible on livestock production while maintaining a salable product. What's the outcome? Large classes taught by the cheapest employees. Dependence on online services instead of real (and responsive) human contact. Discarding hands-on laboratories in favor of computer simulations. All of these make undergraduate production easier and cheaper.

There are, naturally, exceptions: elite scholarship programs, athletics, various non-research graduate programs like the Master's of Business Administration and the "Executive" MBA.
These offer individual attention, smaller classes, and a certain amount of pampering. These students are the equivalent of prize bulls, racehorses, fighting dogs and exotic chickens. Fancy, expensive livestock to be sure, but livestock just the same. 

An important aspect of raising livestock is keeping them docile. The plantation needs the stock to fatten up nicely, stay healthy and grow large so they can be marketed easily and profitably. Even the more high-strung or aggressive "sporting" stock must be manageable, and they are only allowed to run, jump or fight under controlled (safe and profitable) conditions. If the livestock wanders off, makes its own decisions, or learns to take care of itself outside the barn, pasture, kennel or henhouse, profits decline. If students were, for instance, able to defend themselves against the predation common on and around urban campuses, they might get the idea that they were able to do other things for themselves. Learn, for instance. That would never do.

If students are livestock, what corresponds to crops? Research grants and contracts. Not research itself, but research done in order to receive outside money. Most people outside the university don't know that grants, whether from Federal or State agencies, foundations or industry, cover not only direct costs such as equipment and salaries, but "indirect costs," expressed as "overhead." Overhead was originally intended to cover such necessities as building maintenence, lights, water, heat and so forth. Today overhead may add 45% or more to the cost of a grant. If, for example, direct costs amount to $1,000,000, the grant must be written for $1,450,000 or more.  This $450,000, minus actual overhead, is what corresponds to profit, and can be used by administrators for pretty much whatever they want. Overhead from grants and contracts amounts to another 35% of operating budgets.

In the modern research university, obtaining grants is a requisite for employment. Yes, one can do research without external funding, but that doesn't count, at least not for much. An assistant professor in science or engineering must obtain grant funds to receive tenure, regardless of other contributions. A tenured associate or full professor can't be fired out of hand (most places) for a lack of funding, but can be punished in other ways. Forgoing raises, for instance. Having one's teaching load increased and being assigned to basic undergrad classes, for another. Losing office space, lab space, or travel funding for conferences. Having fewer grad students. These may not seem terribly severe penalties to non-academics, but trust me, they're very effective. 

The crops grown on the plantation are the ones that will sell. Research, likewise, is done on the topics someone will pay for.** Typically that someone is the government. Since research funding is political, that means two things:
One, that the topics chosen correspond to political, not scientific or intellectual priorities, and
Two, that the results of one's research had better agree with whatever position the current set of politicians and bureaucrats favor. They're the customers.
Additionally, if one expects to publish (necessary but not sufficient for grants and advancement) one's results had better support the prejudices of the journal editors and reviewers. It's not so much that fraud occurs, though it sometimes does, but that the questions that are asked and the methods used are biased toward a particular end. If the buyers don't like your brand of cotton, you're stuck, so you'd better plant what they want. The system works like agricultural subsidies, for the same reasons.

I wrote all the above so I could discuss, finally, the roles of faculty and grad students. There are no slaves on the post-bellum plantations. The faculty are sharecroppers. If their crops are bountiful, the livestock fat and numerous, they get to share some of the profit. This comes in four ways:
One, reduced teaching. Grants pay part of one's salary. It's not unusual for a professor with major funding to teach only one class, and that a seminar in his or her specialty to fewer than 10 students.
Two, raises, promotions, endowed chairs and other honors.
Three, in some fields at least, lucrative consulting contracts.
Four, mobility. Lots of schools will want you, and that means more of one, two, and three above.

Doesn't sound much like a verse from "Ol' Man River," does it? It's not. No totin' barges or liftin' bales. No plantation store to keep you in debt.  Faculty as a group have very nice lives. 
I did, even without grant money on my curriculum vita. That's not the point. The structure of the social and economic systems are similar, and it creates negative consequences for society. For example, there are few more conforming people than university faculty, despite their job security. They often seem terrified to oppose the prevailing opinion of other professors, let alone their bosses. Don't believe me? Read these:

There's a lot of forelock-tugging going on there. It's hardly an environment where creativity can flourish, or one in which students can learn critial thinking.

What about graduate/doctoral students? Ideally they're apprentices and journeymen, learning their profession by serving as research and teaching assistants until they become "masters" in their own rights.  What they are really is field hands. They do the work the sharecroppers don't want to do or don't have time for, hoping for their own little plot someday.
Once again, this is metaphor. Their lives are hardly oppressed, they're paid relatively well and have benefits, but they do serve at their advisor's pleasure and depend on the advisor for their futures. It's no wonder most never stray very far, intellectually, from their bosses. Too often, their job is not to develop their own ideas but to advance their supervisor's interests. Sadly, most prefer it that way, as (to mix a metaphor) it's a lot easier to do a paint-by-numbers exercise than to attempt a "masterpiece" of one's own.

Every plantation needs overseers, bosses who enforce rules and dole out the rewards and punishments. In universities these are department chairs and deans. They are rewarded in turn with money, position and power. Years ago, being a chair or a dean was temporary; scholars took the jobs on out of necessity and returned to their real work as soon as they could. Today they are career options, stepping stones to higher administration. Some overseers are better and more humane than others, of course, but their rewards are for "making the numbers" of grants, undergraduate majors, students graduated, costs contained and the like, not for promoting learning, independent thought, and necessarily rare intellectual accomplishments. After a while, the system has an effect.

Who are the "owners?" Really, the government, of state schools, and nonprofit entities, for private ones. A better question is who acts like a plantation owner? These are the high-level administrators, the chancellors, vice presidents and presidents. The university president gets a large income and a mansion. He (sometimes she) also gets deference, entertains dignitaries, raises money, determines policy, and adjudicates disputes. Yes, presidents and others can be fired for a variety of reasons good and bad. Graham Spanier of Penn State and
Lawrence Summers of Harvard come to mind, respectively.*** The metaphor isn't perfect. But in marketing the plantation's goods, raising money, dispensing rewards to the faithful and punishing the rebellious, lazy and incompetent the university president is more the master of Tara than the ink-stained scholar.

Having ranted on for this long, I ought to present some solutions. Sorry. I don't have any. I have opinions about what should happen but no clue how to make it so. Still, here goes:

First, there is too much college. Not everyone wants to be a scholar and not everyone should be, yet this is the fiction behind the "college for everyone" mantra. There is honor, dignity, deserved pride and a good living in learning to do something well, regardless of what that is. Being a carpenter, plumber,machinist, woodworker, salesperson or what have you also does not mean one is "uneducated." In fact, just the opposite, since lifelong learning is part of any successful career. Most universities today teach most students neither useful skills nor critical thought, nor do they promote a desire to learn.

Second, there is too much research. By that I mean that the contents of most journals are unimaginative and trivial, not adding anything to our knowledge. Publication is for career-building, not knowledge enhancement.  Department chairs and deans count articles as they would sacks of cotton, the more the better. If funding agencies simply quit paying inflated overhead the pressure for grants would be reduced, talk at faculty lunches would be more about ideas and less about money and publication strategy. Just perhaps, what was published would have more solid content.

Third, the big plantations should be broken up and replaced with someting more akin to family farms. By that I mean smaller institutions that are free to innovate, developing new approaches to both research and instruction. They would compete in a marketplace of skills and ideas, where "diversity" would be a real and useful concept rather than the sham universities currently promote.  

Fourth, perhaps governments should get out of the education business, including the student loan business, which is just another subsidy. Let a real market emerge in which students pay for value received. If governments need research let them build laboratories or contract privately. In short, let people freely develop and market their intellectual products. You know, that's so crazy it just might work...

* A recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that 50% of the university system's  budget was tuition and fees. I don't know where they got their figures. I got mine some years ago from a talk by the then-Chancellor of Georgia Tech, and from a University of Illinois alumni mailing. Things change and I might be wrong, but in any case it doesn't hurt the argument.

** Two anecdotes:
In 1971 I interviewed at Purdue University. Talking with two eminent professors, I was asked what I would do if funding in my research area was cut. I said, given that I thought it was important, I'd find a way to do it without grants. They told me that was the wrong answer; the right answer was to switch areas. I responded that I didn't think research was a game. A few minutes later, introducing me to another faculty member, one said "This is Jack Feldman. He doesn't think research is a game." Then they laughed. I didn't get the job offer, which was too bad because I wanted to turn it down.
In 1986, shortly after coming to Tech, I was at a social event with a group of engineers. They were talking about a colleague whose grants had disappeared with a change in funding priorities. I asked why, given that he still had a lab and students, he didn't continue the work regardless. They looked at me as if I had grown two extra heads and then carefully explained, as if to a slow-witted child they didn't especially like, that one didn't do research unless some outside agency paid for it.

*** Although I'll admit in Summers' case it was fun to watch a mob of liberals turn on one of their own.  They really do eat the wounded.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. If you have an interest in writing about the top quality research that academics produce these days, you might want to start with this --


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