Leroy Searle: The conviction that universities should do so is as time-honored and legitimate as the conviction that we should teach students to think, to read, and to write. But the way we are doing it now surely is not sustainable.

 I would suggest starting with the circumstance that we are living in universities that science built, developed from the start on a foundation of liberal arts education that has persisted through a millennium or more–and that both modern science and the liberal arts have thrived only to the extent that the purpose is not to acquire wealth and property, but learning.  Leroy Searle, UW Prof. Comp. Lit.


This is a very thoughtful post by Leroy Searle.  Dr. Searle was responding to a long stream of UW emails about a 5% pay raise the faculty union at Western Washington had negotiated with their administration.  Most of thread was woven out of the usual angst about why UW faculty does d not have a union and the conflicting issues of tenure vs non tenure.  Dr. Seartle tackled a very different issue: the effect  budgetary chaos has on any effort to pay fair wages to faculty.

For at least 35 years that I know of, every time (the union) question has arisen on the Seattle campus, it has been almost instantly evident that there is no shared understanding of what organizing might imply, or why it might, preferences aside, be a good idea.  Thus our TAs and other staff members have collective bargaining agreements, but not regular faculty.  The WWU faculty will get their raises, along with the sharp edge of the Governor’s tongue, in part because they can legitimately press their case.  We hardly know what our case actually is, and the picky points about “shared sacrifice” hardly help at all.

About a week ago, two representatives of the UW Regents circulated a document arguing that the budgeting (business) model for the university is dysfunctional.  We have all known this for a very long time, but it seems to me that we have not had a… shared understanding of what might be done or should be done. My point is that most of us know so little … about how the UW budget is structured, or the real pressures to which it must be responsive, that efforts to sustain an intelligent and informed discussion pretty much always decays into the kind of exchanges that this particular issue exhibits.

The political reality is that we, …. have seen a series of public initiatives, many sponsored and paid for by persons and groups who appear to believe that paying any sort of tax is an affront to them, to reason, and to principle.  The fairly obvious point that paying taxes is the price for living in a civilized society gets lost.  Budget exigencies therefore trump localized discussion about our purposes, and are reduced to the single complaint that the university costs too much, no matter how its purpose is viewed.


At the same time, the notion that business can do everything better than government has spread like a viral epidemic, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not only false but incredibly damaging to institutions (like, arguably, universities) that are not businesses, and should not conduct its programs as if they should in some miraculous way pay for themselves.  To turn the analogy around, imagine parents who viewed the raising of their children only in terms of how much money one would ‘make’ on each child. Got an unprofitable child? Cut them out of the budget.

The pristine obviousness of the point that a university is not a business, however, does nobody any good if we suppose that there exist classes of people (politicians, administrators, managers, faculty, students) who are uniquely at fault in the wreckage that occurs when such an opinion prevails.  I would suggest starting with the circumstance that we are living in universities that science built, developed from the start on a foundation of liberal arts education that has persisted through a millennium or more–and that both modern science and the liberal arts have thrived only to the extent that the purpose is not to acquire wealth and property, but learning.  While it is possible that I am wearing the Pollyana hat here,  if one takes this shared purpose away, there isn’t any reason to have institutions as complex and costly as schools, to say nothing of universities with annual budgets the size of the budgets of rich kingdoms before the Peace of Westphalia.

We don’t have any consensus about why universities are so expensive, I would suggest, because we do not typically model budgets with an eye to coupling learning (at whatever level, in the classroom or the research laboratory) to costs, since we have no easy metric by which to value “learning.”  We’ve had now an entire generation spent in demonizing teachers (and the Governor has taken her licks at our colleagues at WWU)–a point that seems to ring true to people who are not teachers, but who do have children in schools and who vote–because it is excruciatingly obvious that an increasing fraction of students who enter colleges are, for many reasons,  simply not ready for it. When they leave, they may make more money than people who never came, but we simply don’t know how much of that is because they have been socialized not to talk back to the police, not to make trouble at work, and to avoid certain obviously stupid decisions that result in them costing public support systems a lot of money, all the while thinking that angels (or some notion of their inalienable rights) will protect them no matter what moronic decisions they make.

Nevertheless, the students who come are the students we have, in increasing numbers, while the faculty count (I mean mainly those who are hired full time to teach) has been stagnant or falling for decades.  The faculty (I count myself actively here) are immediately disposed to think that this must be because somewhere, the money that should go to what teachers tend to suppose is the primary function of the university, to teach students, has been siphoned off for some other purpose.  We tend to forget that something more than half of the credit hours racked up for undergraduate teaching is attributable to graduate students as teachers, at least in part because departments continue to so assign them to teach, while administrators above the level of departments continue to so employ them because the practice is sanctioned in departments, and it may appear (at least politically) as a way to get classes covered for less than the high cost of tenure track faculty.  While it is now more widely recognized that putting graduate students in the classroom far beyond the requirements of a kind of apprenticeship training along the way to a Ph.D.,  really does not save money, the politics of the case is treacherous, as the WWU issue makes painfully clear.  If you pay teachers who do it full time fair salaries, and have to do it when the political will to trust educational institutions to do what they are supposed to do is at an all time low, you paint a target on your back: there’s no way to do that without more money.

The double bind is that as states have withdrawn funding, universities have doubled down on the most expensive part of their institutional mission, the conduct of leading edge research.  The conviction that universities should do so is as time-honored and legitimate as the conviction that we should teach students to think, to read, and to write. But the way we are doing it now surely is not sustainable.

What does not come into focus is that when the research operation grows,  indirect cost recovery does not come close to covering actual indirect costs, and the money that comes to the university for scientific research comes at a large, and obviously growing, cost.  As anyone who has discovered, as a relative who teaches microbiology at one of the Ivy League mills told me some time ago, that they thought they were going to be doing science, not running a business, the costs of research an institutional impacts are staggering.  They start in the labs, affect every capital budget, extend to the need to hire middle level administrators and staff to keep the operations running, and go all the way down to the students who take basic science courses with upwards of 700 other students, sometimes spending whole days looking for a TA to help them (faculty? forget about it).

But in the political climate outside the universities, something close to delusion appears to reign.  Boards of Regents and politicians, are … leagues (if not light years) away from what actually happens in classrooms and labs,.  These Regents  hear stories on the scale of Mega Millions winners about how science, especially Big science, pays big.  The most obvious symptom is the degenerate notion that STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is by itself the engine of innovation and is the gateway to a yellow brick road to wealth.  Innovation happens when intelligent people work together, and do not suppose that invention can be reduced to an algorithm that can be taught directly, or that it can thrive without historical understanding or an imagination that is a little subtler than a wind-up toy.

I think the most compelling case can be made that STEM education has worked, when it has, only on a foundation of education that teaches students to read, to think, to imagine, and to attend to connections that are valuable precisely because a machine cannot make them But that case is not getting made where it needs to be heard. And so long as it isn’t getting made, and isn’t being heard, governors like our own will lose their tempers at best, and their judgment at worst, and cut still deeper into the conditions that keep universities healthy–like paying the people who work in them in some measure according to their value.  In the meanwhile, our lively discussion probably comes off as whining about salary slights, making it altogether easy to dismiss it as beside the point, and carried out without any acknowledgment of the very deep hole we are all in.

This really small episode at WWU, where our governor does not even mentioning the need for the state to repair and restore its support for universities (that means taxes)–and I would say specifically for the support of scientific research–is getting repeated through the whole national system.  At the University of Virginia, it appears that the Rector who contrived to force out a president who was (shock of shocks) resisting the idea that a major university should be competing directly with on-line diploma mills, seems to have been of the charming opinion that  MOOC (Massive, Open, On-Line Courses) now drawing attention when the courses are from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, would somehow reduce the costs of education at Virginia.  Those courses are largely about building brands: they are, from a budgetary point of view, advertising expenses.  But they are not, in the main, courses taken for degrees, and are set up specifically not to generate any tuition revenue or to be folded into accreditation.  Actual on-line education is a very limited market: most students simply never finish the courses, and if they do, the quality is about on a par with the “Correspondence Courses” that have been around since the 1930s.  Unless a university intends to put itself out of business, any notion that on-line education will save money is mistaking the yellow brick road for actual gold, and the wizard at the end of it for something other than a fraudulent buffoon.

So too, universities that suppose  every spin-off company that comes from a university lab or research group is going to make money for the university are headed to the same destination–and the expectation that they should is simply and completely noxious.  If one company out of every 100 spun off makes money, that would be ducky, but it would be one in a million that turns out like Google, or what I think is still the big winner, Gatorade (yes, that is intellectual property originated at the University of Florida): most will cost the universities more than will ever be returned to try to get them up and running.  The simple point is that we got into this trouble in large part not because there are too many highly paid administrators (that’s the effect, not the cause), or because we haven’t gotten enough outside grants and contracts, but because without state support, research at a university almost never pays for itself.  But that is what boards of Regents, Trustees, Visitors, whatever, are predisposed to think in the current political and economic climate.  Commercialize every lab, grease the skids to get returns, and the cost is that the university effectively ceases to be a place devoted to learning.  It isn’t a minor point to suggest that it is also a way to go broke, to not support and sustain real innovation, but to keep looking in the rear-view mirror at what research led to profit on the last cycle.

My point is that the Governor is not uniquely at fault, but is very much a prisoner of widely help opinions that confuse the costs of education and its value.  The costs have gone up as the state has withdrawn institutional support (that entails research), and now as tuition goes up, it filters down into the local monetary aquifer and comes up as a subsidy for research. Nobody appears to think that if we charge our students more, the money ought to go directly to salvaging the instructional programs that have been cannibalized for decades. On the next ballot is an initiative to allow the universities to invest institutional money outside the scope of typical oversight specifically for the commercialization of research related results, and anyone who caught the news of the “W” fund may well ask if that is not already happening.  What the Governor was talking about was not just displeasure over a little rogue salary raising, but an implicit endorsement for a model of budgeting and spending that has the real potential of killing universities as institutions of higher learning. It is, in short, going all in on a desperate gamble of supposing that we can continue as we have without a real political change, and without insisting that the state has a legal and a moral obligation to support education without commercializing every aspect of it.

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