Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Let’s have an Alternative Commission on the Future of the University

Since many faculty, students, and workers are very unhappy with the recent recommendations coming out of the Gould Commission on the Future of the University, it may be a good idea to hold our own alternative commission in order to stress the key goals of access, affordability and quality for the University of California. This alternative vision would show how we can increase enrollments, decrease fees, and improve the quality of instruction, research, and service. As an opening gesture, I will articulate some of the principles of this public agenda.

1) Provide more opportunity, not less opportunity for Californian students.

Since the university has increased its reliance on relatively inexpensive non-tenured faculty, while the sizes of classes has been expanded, the cost of educating undergraduate students in the UC system has gone down dramatically in the past twenty years. Moreover, the faculty-to-student ratio has gone up, and as I have previously shown, the campuses turn a profit on each student they enroll. We can therefore improve access and affordability by enrolling more students and lowering or freezing student fees.

2) Pursue cost savings by reducing the number of administrators

The Commission is already considering this need to reduce administrative costs, but this may be a slow and difficult process. A simpler strategy would be just to require each administrative unit to reduce its budget by 5-10% each year. After all, many academic programs regularly get this type of budgetary mandate, and so a generalized cut could motivate effective administrative cost savings.

3) Stop exploiting graduate students

Not only do graduate students cost four times more than undergrads to educate, but a recent study of UC doctoral students showed that only half of the students who start PhD programs actually get degrees within a ten year period . Moreover, only half of the students who do earn their doctorates and pursue academic jobs get tenure-track positions, and out of this group, less than third get positions at research universities. This means that most grad students are being trained for jobs that do not exist, and these grad students are really being used as cheap academic labor. Furthermore, one reason why so many grad students cannot get jobs when they graduate is that there are so many grad students teaching undergraduate courses before they get their doctoral degrees. If we fully fund grad students through grants, we can restrict the number of PhD students and limit how much they are forced teach. This strategy would help the academic labor market and allow doctoral students to graduate in a more timely fashion.

4) Increase the number of small, interactive classes
If you want to know what universities consider to be effective teaching, just look at what they say about their Honors Programs. They all stress how students are taught in small, interactive classes by expert faculty members. The UC could improve the quality of undergraduate instruction by having more seminars, but for some reason, the administration believes that it is much cheaper to have large lecture classes; however, I have shown that large lecture classes are often more expensive than small seminars due to the cost of having several small sections taught by graduate students accompanying the large lecture.

5) Allow Research Professors Not to Teach
Already many research professors use external grants to buy themselves out of their teaching duties each year, yet the university clings to the idea that everyone should teach and do research. Instead of forcing ineffective or unmotivated professors into the classroom, professors should have the option of being evaluated and promoted solely based on their research.

6) Provide Job Security for Instructors
The recent move to layoff hundreds of non-tenured lecturers shows that the university needs to provide permanent funding for instructors who have a proven record of excellent teaching. By creating a class of instructional professors, the university’s commitment to undergraduate education can be fortified. In fact, the university could simply agree to transform continue appointment lecturers into Lecturers with Security of Employment.

7) Resist the move to Summer Instruction

Most of the UC campuses use the quarter system, which means that classes only meet for ten weeks, while in most universities using the semester system, classes last at least fifteen weeks. In other words, in the quarter system, students have a third less time to study any particular subject, and faculty are pushed to rush through important subject matter. If more classes are moved to the summer, and these courses only meet for six weeks, it will become even more difficult to teach students in an effective and comprehensive manner. Instead of forcing students to pay extra to take required courses in the summer, the campuses should hold more classes at night and other under-utilized times.

8) Stop the Push for Online Instruction

While it is important to use new technologies in the classroom, most online programs result in higher costs and lower retention rates. If the university wants to be respected for its quality of instruction, it cannot make students take classes online just to save money. The faculty and students should resist this move and demand more effective instruction not less.

9) Make Sure Research Pays for itself

The Commission recognizes that many external research grants lose money and that the university should bargain for higher indirect cost rates. This recognition is an important step in making sure that research funded by external grants do not lose money. Another step would be to undertake a comprehensive study of how much research at the university actually costs and who subsidizes costly research programs.

10) Stop Using External Money Managers to handle UC’s Investments

Until 2000, the UC handled its own investments out of the treasurer’s office, and this not only saved money, but it helped to produce much stronger investment returns. Outside money managers charge huge fees, and they often bet against each other, while they undermine the ability of the university to maintain a diverse portfolio. Instead of threatening to constantly increase employee and employer pension contributions, the system should first look at its own internal investment practices. There also needs to be a strong effort to place faculty and workers on the pension board to make sure that the regents do not push the university to invest in the private interests of the individual regents.

11) Push the State to Support the University at a Higher Level

While the commission realizes the need to get more funding from the state, they fail to support any specific policies to make this happen. It is clear that some type of revenue has to be raised, and it is necessary to repeal the requirement that all taxes and budgets have to be passed by two-thirds of the state legislature. The university should also support AB 656 to tax oil extraction and use the funds for higher education.

Please post your comments, so we can begin discussing our vision of the future of the university.


  1. It's late for this, unless it's an exercise in blowing off steam. If we've learned anything, it should be that the current crop of UC Regents/President will not listen to the good ideas of well-meaning UC community members.

    Your item #2 is awfully glib. Are you lumping departmental staff pay in with UC executive bloat? Departmental staff salaries begin at $30K, not $300K. And, increasingly,
    dept staffing is at bare-bones level, management is toxic, and chaos hovers. With all due respect, Bob, hands off the salaries of front-line workers.

  2. I particularly like #5 and #6. I have long thought that UC should not force poor teachers into the classroom just on the principle that faculty need to teach as well as do research. I have also thought that UC should acknowledge the vital role that teaching faculty (i.e., lecturers) play in the educational mission of the institution.

  3. Regarding summer session, I've often wondered why not have year-round instruction? Students have complained to me that they have to sign 12 month leases on their rat-hole apartments, but can't get summer courses. Professors could redistribute their teaching schedule across 12 months. Classrooms wouldn't sit empty. Of course this would require making summer session function like other sessions financially.

    Regarding online education, I think the way to phrase this is: we want engaging teaching and learning environments regardless of "where" they are taught (in person, online, mixed). I think you're right that the drive to do this as a cost saving method is a dead end. I'm also dubious that online courses will create greater access to students beyond the campuses. It's just as likely that regular undergrads will take online sections for convenience, or because they think it might be easier (which is likely not the case, at least in terms of time spent on the class).

  4. Our commission should focus on the present, not the future... that's for those who want to avoid our current issues and, at most, provide quick patchwork solutions that will not solve the core institutional problems.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. No disrespect intended to the desk workers themselves, but in this age of the Internet UC is still employing far, far too many individuals in clerical jobs.

    A typical large department at UC engaged in research might employ 15 full time administrative staff doing "paper pusher" jobs. Again, the workers themselves are very capable and dedicated people - one shouldn't blame them for how the administrative systems at UC are designed.

    But the number of administrative "white-collar" desk jobs still extant at UC is a throwback to the 1960's.

    The large number of "paper pusher" jobs at UC probably evolved because during the era of rising funding and enrollments there simply were not pressures to keep administrative costs down. The majority of these jobs pay well under $50k with benefits to start, but with technology many of these positions could be made redundant.

    Something else worth repeating is that instruction per se requires relatively little by way of administration. Most of the administrative work is research-related.

    As a general principle too I agree its unfair to expect students to subsidize losses on research, especially when some researchers are focusing on applied or transitional research which in rare cases can result in great personal wealth for the subsidized researcher.

    I think UCOP knows perfectly well they need to reduce administration. They appear to be moving to outsource PPS, UC's behemoth legacy COBOL payroll and personnel system. One supposes that this outsourcing will enable the consolidation and elimination of many clerical positions, while replacing the routing of paper timesheets with a more convenient online time entry system.

    Management of information technology is another area where they apparently hope to trim administrative costs, since so many departments maintain there own boutique IT shops, which cost a fortune in aggregate.

    I don't doubt that UCOP, on its own, will find many ways to progressively trim administrative costs. My real fear is that they will do too little, too late and will be unable to reverse the continual downward spiral of decline, such as the one which recently took General Motors down despite GM's ongoing progress at becoming more efficient over the last 30 years.

    In short, I fear UCOP will do too little, too late, which is why the tepid ideas from the UC COF were so disappointing. I agree with Bob Samuels that another version of this report might be helpful.

    Someone needs to lay out a more visionary conception of what UC and its peer institutions should look like in 2025.

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