Sunday, April 27, 2008

Academic Economics

A recent article by Dean Dad (mirrored in his regular blog and on his IHE blog) drew a fairly naive set of comments by "SoonUnemployedAcademic" on the IHE version. Although I commented on them there, I thought I should elaborate on my answers here. [That is why I linked my signature to my blog.] My comments were running a bit long on IHE yet didn't begin to address most of the questions raised there.

Up here at the top I should also add that there was a carryover discussion on adjuncts and academic economics in DD's blog about shopping for value at a CC. I refer you there for things I will not discuss here. A comment by EliRabbet towards the bottom, for example, illustrates the economic situation at a mid-tier university. In the spirit of both of DD's articles, I will be looking at the issue primarily from the CC side but will also add my insight from my many years on the research side of a major R1 university.

I'll take up the rhetorical questions and observations from two separate comments by "SoonUnemployedAcademic" one by one:

[B]ut why don’t departments simply refuse to teach any students they cannot afford to teach with tenure-track faculty?

Short answer: It is not their choice. A professor who refused to teach a class required by their contract would be fired, whether "tenured" or not. Further, the faculty in a department have no role in deciding whether adjuncts or t-t faculty are hired or not. That is up to the chair or the Dean. A department chair who didn't do what the Dean or Provost asked would be fired and sent back to the classroom (if tenured) or out looking for a job. A Dean who didn't do what the President or Provost asked would be fired and have to look for a new job. And a President has to work with the resources provided by the legislature and/or the Board and serves at the pleasure of the Board. Granted that does not explain the decisions those administrators make that impact faculty and students, but you might guess that the unnatural selection process makes those decisions fairly predictable.

Longer answer for an R1: The premise that t-t faculty were hired to teach students is false. They were hired to generate funds for the university while creating new knowledge through research. (Granted I am looking at this from the science side, but this is also true in the social sciences. Liberal arts faculty, such as English, are probably always in the red on the Provost's spreadsheet. The others make up for that.) The research budget at an R1 is much bigger than the income from students, even including legislative funding. The cynic would say that an R1 views students as a justification for faculty numbers. (The cynic and scientific observer in me says that this becomes increasingly true as you move up the admin ladder.) The high quality of an education at many of those schools results from the dedication of the faculty, not tenure decisions or resource allocation.

Obligatory self-contradiction: At the R1 where I did my undergrad work, every instructor I had was a professor - with the sole exception of a senior grad student who taught me differential equations in my very first term as a freshman. He did a first rate job. While there, I taught recitations as an undergrad TA. This was also an important part of my education and was well supervised. I'd agree that the first group probably lost on the deal, but they got more than their money's worth by the time I was a senior.

Longer answer for a CC: We are an open admission college. We do not have the luxury of turning away students because too many show up. We only have the luxury of running out of classrooms. (I am not exaggerating. I need to move a class from one hour to another this next fall and it was a logistical nightmare. Every room was being used.) Our faculty are here because they value this environment and the opportunities it offers. (OK, some are here just for a job, but others are dedicated to teaching HS material to an audience that sometimes actually wants to learn it this time and most take the "from where they are to where they need to be" CC motto really seriously.) The idea of doubling or tripling tuition to reduce the numbers is anathema. We could pay part-time instructors a salary with benefits if we got more resources from the state. Otherwise we could only maintain our enrollment within our current state budget and tuition levels by doubling the student-teacher ratio ... and cutting student contact with faculty in half. This is not an option.

We refuse to have classes larger than 50 or 60 and (when recitations are needed) we put the same professor in the recitation that is teaching the lecture. We cannot teach 8-10 classes per semester and deliver the service expected of us. All of our organic chem labs, half of my physics labs, and about half of the intro chem labs are taught by a full-time professor. The others use adjuncts whose qualifications are higher than those of the 1st year grad students doing labs at the nearby university. The trade off for our smaller classes is the need for adjuncts to cover sections that must be opened due to the current level of demand. The universities already have high tuition and restrictive admissions and big classes for those who prefer that option.

Other institutions fall in between these extremes.

If the administration forces a department to hire adjuncts or takes punitive action, well, then the department can make a big stink — go to the press, the ranking reports, etc. Then the horrific exploitation that is ruining the promise of university education is on the administrators’ hands.

That is exactly what the faculty do, although most of them know the blame lies well above the administration and address the real problem: falling appropriations for higher education. IMHO, most of the blame lies with those who underfund higher education so they can reduce taxes on their supporters. Every change I have seen on the budget side of a college has reflected the reality of state budget cuts and (for universities) increased reliance on research grants to "grow" the institution. Our biggest problem at ICC is the per-student funding we get from the state.

I also think the decision to use adjuncts in an intro lab for a "service course" so that full-time faculty are available to teach a small upper division class is generally supportive of the promise of a university education. Besides, that grad student should be learning something in front of the classroom, something that is also part of a university education, and some might even agree with me that adjuncts are not always bad teachers. I can think of several instances where adjuncts appear to do a better job of getting students to learn than some full-time faculty.

Side remark: One of our organic chem profs is worshiped by the students as a fantastic teacher. This person was an adjunct at Wannabe Flagship before being hired to teach here at ICC, and came with glowing recommendations. (That does not stop some advisers at Wannabe Flagship from lying and saying that our chemistry program is inferior to theirs because ... we use someone they regretted losing?) Every top notch professor was, at one time, an adjunct in one form or another. One of our long-time adjuncts went straight from his PhD to a faculty position at a mid-tier teaching-intensive university.

Why do faculty continue to do the dirty work for grossly-overpaid administrators (I mean that relatively, not absolutely: faculty should all be paid in the range of mid-level administrators or, in other words, what used to be a middle-class salary decades ago).

Several false premises here.

First, we don't do any of the dirty work for administrators. A few faculty are in quasi-administrative roles at our CC because we don't have department chairs who don't teach. However, they do not have final hiring authority and do not make the decision on whether a new section can be opened. At a university, most department chairs are administrators and some could even be hired as a "head" rather than a faculty member. They do have hiring authority, but they are not "the faculty". They serve at the whim of the Dean.

Second, the faculty at our CC make more money than mid-level administrators, although I could be confused about what the writer considers "mid level". The number of admins making more money than our faculty is far fewer than the number of faculty. (I am not counting professional support staff with MA degrees who some might count as part of the administration. Our counseling and academic support staff are part of the faculty pay system and exist to further our classroom mission.) Our mid-level staff are paid squat.

I also don't know what the writer thinks is "middle class". The $100,000+ salary plus full benefits typical for a professor at a major university is solidly in the top 20% for household income in the US. The starting salary at our CC is solidly in the middle of household income in the US (and substantially above the median family income in our region of the US, a better measure of the cost of a given lifestyle). Our faculty are already middle class. I think some confusion results because the middle class circa 1960 seemed better off because they weren't house poor (real interest rates were low and houses were smaller) and they didn't waste money dining out or impulse shopping.

The sad fact of the matter is that administrators have been given an impossible task. There is no immediate exam that will measure outcomes across-the-board. Education is much more complex and long-term than that and the more administrators kow-tow to corporate trustees, the worse the system gets for everyone.

That is a straw man. Only Giant-Bureaucracy Republicans seem to think there is a one-size-fits-all-majors exam that would measure college success at the lower division level or upper division level for every state in the nation. I believe there are good measures for outcomes at a CC, ones that take into account the long-term nature of the process, but I'm not going to blog about them today. I'd rather hear what a Dean thinks they are, so I can compare his views to those of my Dean and Provost. I've asked DD several times, so I hope he will talk about it.

What I meant was why do tenure-stream faculty accept that it is their job to meet the outrageous demands of administrations?

Most un-tenured (tenure-stream) faculty will do and say whatever it takes to earn tenure. You can guess why. At research universities, that means doing research, earning grants, and publishing papers. Elsewhere it might mean passing students who don't know the material to keep retention at the expected level, or what they think is the expected level. Most people call this "keeping a job" by "meeting expectations". I have heard that people also meet the outrageous demands of their bosses out there in the business world, but those are only rumors here in academia. [Maybe The Thomas could enlighten me, anonymously in the comments if necessary.]

Why do they acquiesce so readily to administration demands, especially when they know that it shortchanges students and even themselves (lecturing in front of a classroom of 200 students surfing the internet who will really be taught by grad TAs really sucks the lifeblood out of teaching).

None of the above applies in our CC because we don't have any 200-student classes and we don't use TAs in recitations. It also contains the false premise that any professor is shortchanging a student when it is the student who made the conscious choice to surf the internet rather than engage in the class. That student is shortchanging himself or herself, by choice. It is called personal responsibility.

When the budget is cut or the department loses a tenure line, why do faculty do administrators’ dirty work by hiring adjuncts or teaching increased class sizes?

We don't do that. Well, some actually ask for an extra class or a bigger class because they need the extra money (we get paid extra if our teaching load exceeds what is in our contract), which actually reduces the need for adjuncts.

Why, to top it all off, do they then make up some fancy webpage crowing about the wonderful education they are providing?

The fancy web page is not made by faculty, nor is it approved by faculty. It is a pure creation of the marketing arm of the college or university. If there is a single question that shows the naivete of SoonUnemployed, this would be it.

Tenure-stream faculty can create a bottleneck of students who need a required course if they simply refuse to hire enough adjuncts to teach the number of students the administration tries to shove down their throats.

We could if we hired them, but we don't hire them. And no one shoves students down our throats. They simply drive up and say "I think I'll go to college today". This statement must reflect a specific situation at a specific school.

There is also the budget reality that you need to be pretty sure you will have the money to pay someone for 30 years or more before you put them in a t-t job. I watched some serious budget problems develop in the late 70s when the baby boom faded and student enrollment simultaneously moved from the social sciences into business and engineering. Since a Professor of Social Work can't teach engineering mechanics, this is a major problem.

NOTE ADDED: I am also watching some serious budget problems right now, but the present ones are economic rather than inherent in the structure of the college. The origin of the problem does not change the need for caution.

Tenure-stream faculty would, of course, have to tell students what the problem is in order to redirect student anger at the administration. Right now, most students treat the faculty as the primary cause of their woes — a reasonable position since student evaluations only rate instructors and not class size or setup, placing all the blame on instructors for the inadequacies of the system.

Those must be the students who are web surfing rather than paying attention in class. If they pay attention, they probably know they can write a free response to go with that evaluation form that addresses any of their concerns. They can even write a letter to the college's student paper. They could even register earlier and pick a smaller section.

And, yes, there is an accreditation issue here. Adjuncts teach some of the most difficult classes, the ones that require broad perspectives and years of insight to synthesize diverse topics and explain why boring (to students) subject X is important.

I see several different issues here.

The most difficulty upper-division classes were not taught by adjuncts at the few universities (all R1) that I have experience with. I never had an upper division class taught by an adjunct, although I did have one graduate class taught by one (he was a visiting professor from another university, but still an adjunct).

At our CC, the most difficult classes (including prep classes as well as majors classes) are generally taught by a 50-50 mix of full-time t-t faculty and adjuncts. We try to keep that ratio on the 51-49 side, but fluctuating enrollments and limited state money make this an on-going challenge. We compensate by tending to put fewer resources into general-education courses that are "terminal" (not required for another course) than we put into majors classes. This is unfortunate for public scientific literacy, but is a perfect example of the Academic Economics issue that is the title of this article. However, someone who wants to learn gen-ed material from an experienced professor (or adjunct) only has to register early for the right sections.

The assumption that a broad perspective and an ability to motivate bored students is acquired automatically over time is not well founded in my experience. The fact that the great prof you liked had more experience does not imply that everyone with that experience is great. That one person was probably selected for that class and the others sent where they could do less harm. (Teaching grad students is one common assignment.) And that one person might have been just as good a decade or two ago as a graduate student. Remember, only the top 5% (by some measure) get jobs at an R1.

But it could be worse. You could get a t-t faculty member assigned to an important class who (the Dean discovers much too late to do anything about it) is utterly incompetent at teaching it and even incapable of realizing he is incompetent. Been nearby, seen that.

Finally, this all begs the question of why a student chose to take up a major if that student is bored with it. Reminds me of a student who complained about having to take physics with all of those boring problems about forces when he only wanted to be an engineer. That kid is in the wrong major.

Say what you will about adjunct enthusiasm and devotion, but few adjuncts have the experience to critique the biases of master narratives and comprehensive approaches to their fields. And, they’ll never get it as adjuncts, spit out when the initial attractiveness of their Ph.D. is usd up.

Will they get it if they are hired into a faculty position? Then why wouldn't the same person get it as an adjunct? A better question to ask is why your particular university does not have an adjunct training program. My undergrad college had one before you were born.

Universities risk poor instruction from junior tenure-stream faculty because they know it is one of the start-up costs to getting a mature faculty member. What, aside from the financial savings, justifies less experienced instruction in gen. ed. courses? That has to speak to quality.

There is a non sequitur here. If junior faculty and adjuncts are equally bad, where is the advantage in replacing an adjunct with a professor? There is also a hidden assumption that a junior professor who is a bad teacher will magically become a great teacher after a few years. I think that is a bad assumption, particularly if at a university where the entire emphasis is on not wasting time on teaching that could be spent writing a new grant proposal. I can only think of one person who went from being an awful teacher to one who could at least communicate to seniors, but it took 20 years. Most people who knew him thought it was a miracle.