Cut-rate professors, education done cheap

As is their habit, the Chronicle of Higher Ed has published another cockeyed article, this time arguing that the problem with the budgets of universities are all those expensive faculty, and suggesting that a solution would be outsourcing the instruction and turning the professorate into a collection of market-efficient middle managers. Profgrrrrl takes that whole idea apart, so I don’t have to.

The whole purpose of a university is to provide a space for the play of ideas among those faculty, in an environment where young men and women students can be participants and learn to contribute. The whole point is the people, and that’s why the number one priority of a university is (or ought to be) to fund a community of scholars who are actively involved in sharing their knowledge.

For someone to claim that the money spent on the people needs to be redirected, and that the people should become managers instead of scholars and communicators and teachers…well, they’re missing the whole point. I suppose some beancounter could analyze an automobile plant and declare, “Well, you’re spending an awful lot of money building these…whaddayacallems, car thingies…you could become much more efficient if you built fewer of them. Or at least cut corners and left out that costly ‘engine’ thingumabob.” It sure would. And universities would be much cheaper to run if we decided that all they were for is to house a few attendants to manage the parking lots.

By the way, my university, UMM, gets it. The administration here is working hard to raise faculty salaries and maintain parity with comparable institutions despite the all-too-typical hard financial times we’re all in. I think they know that the way to maintain the viability of the institution is to invest in the critical, irreplaceable resources, the faculty. Our virtue is that we’re supposed to be a place with smart, interesting professors who are directly involved with our student body—why would any student want to go to a place where they phone in assignments to harried, cookie-cutter ‘managers’ in cubicles?


  1. says

    All you need do is the following:
    1. examine how the average salary (and benefits) for college presidents have gone up in the past 15 years.
    2. examine how the average college has used an increasing number of part-timers to full-timers as a ratio in the past few years.
    What you will then see tis that the expenses of “leaders” is being subsidized by the cuts to full-time professors and the use of toss away part-time teachers, who get little money and no benefits.

  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says

    Wow, I guess, having failed to sneak their way into academia, they now want to dismantle it in toto.

  3. PaulC says

    Here’s an idea. Suppose you replaced experienced, qualified faculty with interns who had to pick up their teaching skills on the job while loaded down with other, higher priority, work. Suppose you paid these interns so poorly that most Americans with college degrees would shun these jobs. Then as a consequence you would look to abroad (e.g. China and India) where there is a talented workforce who may still consider these terrible jobs an improvement over their prospects at home.

    I wonder what that situation would look like? A lot like any large university, at least in science and engineering, and I’m thinking of 20 years ago.

    I’m trying to be careful about writing the above, because I often feel that one of the great things about college and grad school was exposure to a global community. I also believe that the reason the US still has excellent universities is the ability to attact the best scholars from abroad. The reason Americans don’t go to grad school, particularly to study science, is also not just the ability to make more money faster without it. I think it’s a factor, but there are also cultural reasons.

    But what comes to my mind is if postdocs and grad students aren’t “cut rate” enough, then I’m not sure how you’re going to get them any cheaper. University students pay an ever growing premium for a service that is increasingly farmed out to absolutely uncredentialed instructors (they might be good, but it’s a toss up) with no quality assurance, very little accountability, and not even the prospect of market competition once students have enrolled in a university.

    I seriously think that there’s nothing like it anywhere else in terms of paying an arm and a leg for shoddy product. Making it cheaper is the wrong question. Making it worth the money is the one we should be asking.

  4. Jillian says

    There’s been a trend for the last fifteen years or so (at least, that I’m aware of) to turn universities into business degree mills. Doing this requires that we remove all professors who think about things other than new strategies for aggressively managing staff levels to improve P/E ratios.

    Because that history and english stuff? It’s for commies and pencil necks. Science is only worthwhile when it gives us better plastics and new pills for our penises.

    Thinking is just not profitable. Y’all need to cut it out.

  5. benzene says

    1) Have universities ever not been in financial hard times?
    2) Wait a moment, as a CMB undergrad aspiring towards grad school, I was under the impression that a higher degree would increase my earnings potential. As I’m already hauling along a significant load of student debt, this is particularly worrisome to me in that grad school would perhaps increase that debt without increasing my ability to pay it off. Is the university system really so skewed?

  6. says

    1) No. The chancellor of my university has written a book, Old Main, about small liberal arts colleges, and one of the interesting things he notes is that even the most luxuriously endowed colleges (Grinnell, for instance) have to worry constantly about money.

    2) The utilitarian virtues of an advanced degree are debatable, depending on the field. In biology, they are essential for getting a research job in biology, but they aren’t going to lead to high pay. I suspect that in something like computer science, you’re financially better off just going to work than puttering about in grad school.

    At least in the sciences, grad school shouldn’t cost you anything directly. You should get paid for your services, so your debt shouldn’t increase…but you are going to be paid a meager pittance, so get used to Mac & Cheese, cheap beer, and dollar matinees at the Last Chance Theater.

  7. PaulC says

    I suspect that in something like computer science, you’re financially better off just going to work than puttering about in grad school.

    It depends on the job you’re looking for. I agree that most software engineering jobs do not require a PhD, but it opens up some interesting opportunities (postdocs and faculty positions among them, obviously, but outside of that it gets you taken a little more seriously when you have unconventional ideas). It won’t increase your overall financial prospects though. A masters degree is another matter. You can get one in a year or less and it can sometimes boost your earning potential more than one year of job experience.

    At least in the sciences, grad school shouldn’t cost you anything directly. You should get paid for your services, so your debt shouldn’t increase…

    “Directly” is an important qualifier here. Grad school is not going to increase anyone’s life expectancy as far as I know, so you will be forgoing something like 5-8 years of earnings that could otherwise go into a 401(k) or other investments. Unless you’re talking about someone who really cannot envision being satisfied in a job that does not require a PhD, you do have to level with them that financially speaking they would be better off spending those years in a job that lets them accumulate a down payment on a starter house.

  8. guthrie says

    I have one comment (and a great deal of hand flexing anger)
    in reaply to this bit:
    “outsourcing the instruction and turning the professorate into a collection of market-efficient middle managers.”


  9. yagwara says

    You know, there seems to be a common thread between infuriating business types like this, and many of the other crackpots dissected here – this idea that knowledge is a series of facts, that education is telling students what facts to learn, and that learning is memorizing the appropriate sequence of facts.

    Viewed in this light, the proposal makes sense; in fact, why not eliminate faculty altogether? Have ETS administer a multiple choice test called BSc (insert subject here), and sell a fat prep book people can study from at home.

    And the most difficult thing to explain to antiscience types, as has been said many times here, is that it’s not really about this or that fact, but about the way everything hangs together.

    The idea is most visible in crackpots, but it is everywhere. Winners on Jeopardy are seen as the height of smarts. Or as a defensive Trekkie said in a newspaper interview, “if someone knows all the facts and dates about Star Trek, they call him a geek, but if he [sic] knows all the facts and dates about Shakespeare, they call him professor.” Well, no.

  10. phisrow says

    The unnerving thing is that this article isn’t even wrong, it just misses the point entirely. If university were about getting a stack of certifications from the corporate trainer it would be sound(if unpleasant) advice. Education isn’t about “serving customers” at the lowest possible cost.

  11. Theo Bromine says

    guthrie said: as a defensive Trekkie said in a newspaper interview, “if someone knows all the facts and dates about Star Trek, they call him a geek, but if he [sic] knows all the facts and dates about Shakespeare, they call him professor.” Well, no.

    Well, I have heard it said that ne can not properly experience Shakespeare without reading it in the original Klingon.

    But the idea of trying to make university education into an “efficient product” is very scary. It seems to me that the ideal intent of a university is to teach people how to think. Most high schools have already given up on that, and are just into cramming students full of facts that they can regurgitate on demand. The small (American) liberal arts college that my son attends talks about needing to get their 1st year students to “undo habits of dependent learning”. Many post-secondary systems stream students very early (ie as early as admission) into either “training” or “learning” – it’s not easy for engineers to take philosophy courses. I think this is even worse in Canada than it is in the US.

  12. rubberband says

    As a Introductory Biology teacher at a (self-proclaimed) elite private high school, I must agree with yagwara.
    I have to be careful here, because there are certain specific people involved, but I have had direct experience with parents who are professional educators in a “businessy” field who regard their child’s education as a memorization-certification process. In more than one class, they insisted that their child’s grade was too low, and it was always (in their mind) because of the instructor. Their offspring was de facto an “A” student, regardless of the actual scores produced. The school was “not teaching” the child, or “testing on material never covered.”
    All of which is ridiculous, but still technically possible. However, one instance told the story.
    One one major assessment, the parents demanded I point to where exactly in thier child’s notebook was the direct answer to a question I asked during an exam. I patiently tried to explain why that was impossible–that the question asked was hypothetical and required the student to apply several concepts and evaluate them in a critical way. (I could, in the matter of seconds, explain the train of thought necessary to arrive at the correct conclusion, but that particular sequence was not spelled out in the notes) Mind you, it was a MULTIPLE CHOICE question, with one clearly best response (if you understood the topic), and the majority of students got the correct answer. Furthermore, their child had scored in the “B” range. However, the parents insisted that I had never taught the material and the question should be removed from the test. (Thereby raising their child’s grade.)
    In other words, their assertion amounted to: if you explain that 2=1+1, and 2+2=4, and even explain the concept of substitution, then it is NOT ACCEPTABLE to expect a student to figure out that 1+1+1+1=4. The material was never taught–it was not possible to memorize your way to an “A,” so the course is patently unfair.
    By the way, this outrageous idea of education actually has a name: “curriculum alignment,” and I warn all educators out there to fear it. It will destroy the basic assertion of a good education that you not only need to know your stuff, but need to be able to think about it too.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    From “Poor Raymond’s Almanac” by Raymond Lesser in the Feb ’06 Funny Times:

    “If you’re only willing to pay peanuts, you’d better enjoy working with monkeys.”

  14. Steve LaBonne says

    rubberband- many college students, even the ones I used to teach at a fairly prestigious liberal arts college, think in much the same terms and will make the same complaint of “unfairness” at anything that doesn’t involve simple memorization / regurgitation. Judging from your comment perhaps they get some of that from their parents.

  15. miko says

    -Undergraduates are paying customers.
    -Graduate students are the lowest-rank employees, with postdocs a notch above.
    -Faculty are midlevel customer service functionaries.
    -Administration are the executive class, determining the “vision” (marketing strategy) of the, um, university.

    Welcome to the corpocracy! The best you can do is find a place to hide and pretend you’re an academic while you help sell tokens of job market suitability.

  16. S. C. Hartman says

    As a university science teacher for 45 years, I am very familiar with the attitude described by rubberband and Steve. “Do I have to *memorize* that for the test?” “You never covered that material: how do you expect me to know that?” This sort of whining only became common in the most recent several years, ever since the managers, politicians. and other bean counters inserted themselves and institutionalized standardized testing. AP courses are just as bad.
    My advise to younger faculty members who are subject to intimidation (and the threat of bad course reviews) by students is never to give in. Undo the bad practices of (most) secondary education and teach students to THINK and to UNDERSTAND. I applaud rubberband and other secondary school teachers who have high standards and urge them to resist the pressure from students AND PARENTS (who obviously need to be educated themselves). You are doing it right!

  17. Steve LaBonne says

    The sad thing is that, at many if not most teaching-oriented institutions, non-tenured faculty nowadays do that at grave risk to their careers. Being a stubborn SOB, I did it anyway and paid the price. (Though in the long run things worked out well and I wouldn’t have any desire to return to academia now.)

  18. says

    Im finally starting to understand how people I know with a college degree can be so stupid. I would love to go to school if the only expectation would be that I had to learn.

  19. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    “The whole purpose of a university is to provide a space for the play of ideas among those faculty”
    No, the primary purpose is to educate the students. I don’t doubt the importance of an intellectually charged atmosphere with valued and appropriately compensated faculty, but take away the students (expecially the undergraduate students) and the institution could be swallowed up by an earthquake with little loss.
    I have no sympathy for profs moaning about the b&m’ing about their students. You want to make creative problem solving part of your tests? Make it part of your teaching, part of your reading, and part of you problems sets (and while you’re at it, part of your mindset).
    The material is one thing, but the criteria upon which students will be graded should be clearly stated and unambiguous. If one student doesn’t understand the rules it might be his/her fault. If lots of them don’t then it’s your problem.
    Solve it.

  20. Steve LaBonne says

    You need to learn the difference between educationg students and training them. If all you want for your kids is the latter, let them get an online business degree from U. Phoenix or an AA in repairing computers from the local community college. And then see how they fare thirty years from now when the economy has changed completely and they were never taught to think and adapt.

  21. jrochest says

    Scared of Dinosaurs — no, you’re wrong.

    You want to make creative problem solving part of your tests? Make it part of your teaching, part of your reading, and part of you problems sets (and while you’re at it, part of your mindset). The material is one thing, but the criteria upon which students will be graded should be clearly stated and unambiguous. If one student doesn’t understand the rules it might be his/her fault. If lots of them don’t then it’s your problem.

    I routinely teach students who assume that it’s my job to provide them with ‘the answers’, in a neat and tidy package. The main problem, as far as I can tell, is that they’ve been taught by their high school teachers to assume that it’s a teacher’s job to make learning easy and fun, to smooth out all the bumps and save them from possible failures.

    They’ve not yet learned that it’s possible to learn from catastrophic mistakes — in fact, that it’s almost impossible to learn anything worth knowing any other way.

    “Problem solving” is an innate part of ANY post-secondary program of study. Be it liberal arts, social sciences, hard sciences — at some point, any discipline will have to hand its students a puzzle and say not “Provide THE answer” but “Provide YOUR answer — and explain how you got to it”. Being able to answer that question demonstrates that you’re getting an education.

  22. Adelaide says

    When I taught high school in Poland, I was so surprised at the differences in student thinking between Polish students and Americans. The emphasis there was on rote memorization, and the students expected it. They considered it unfair if you asked them to “apply” any knowledge or extend information beyond the text, but they would willingly memorize the most inane details (including page numbers) in their textbooks. In contrast, the American students I used to teach would moan and groan about memorizing simple facts essential to understanding other topics. They would say “it’s in the book – we can always look it up!”. They prefered questions where they could “think” the answer through.

    I’ve long thought that innovative success of the US was a result of this “control” Americans have over the knowledge in their brains and the ability to think. While they often don’t know facts considered essential elsewhere, their true skills lie in the fact that they know where and how to find them. They are in charge of knowlege instead of innocent bystanders.

    Is the US changing so much that now American students willingly memorize texts? Or do they do neither memorize nor think now? What a loss if innovation and thinking are no longer at the forefront of the American educational system.

  23. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    jrochest – you totally missed my point. I agree that true education requires the advancement from rote and rules to application and interpretation, but if the criteria aren’t clear to the students you’re not trying hard enough. Present lectures and readings structured like the problems the students will be expected to solve when evaluated. Nothing is worse than profs who spring traps on their students and then blame them for their troubles. At its worst it turns into evaluating the students themselves rather than their performances in your class, as it often done in freshman chem to weed out the unworthy pre-meds. You want to clean up the student body go work in the admissions department.
    I’ve never had one of the really good teachers I’ve known resort to this crap.

  24. Steve LaBonne says

    Sorry, you’re not only still scared but still full of baloney. All of the rest of this in this conversation have done exactly what you describe- my students always had plenty of practice with homework problem sets very similar to my exam questions. If you had ever taught, you would be aware that this will not prevent a number of students from compaining of “unfairness” at anything other than memorize-and-regurgitate. If we are unable to get through to such students, they are undoubtedly in for a rude shock when they have to function in the real world.

    I love the way people with no teaching experience always feel so free to lecture teachers.

  25. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    You’re right, I have no teaching experience, other career options being available.
    I do have ridiculous amount of experience taking classes for undergraduate credit–just a fact, nothing to feel boastful or embarassed by. I’ve seen a tremendous variety of quality in both instructors and students, and I think that the average performances of the faculty and the student body at an institution are pretty highly correlated, perhaps stratified by department. Maybe you’re the good prof in a weak department and you’re SOL, but maybe the fact that all the others in your department teach guts but your class is a requirement for the major is part of the problem.
    I agree that a highly charged intellectual atmosphere amongst the faculty of a school is a very good thing, and that the absence of critical engagement among a large part of the student body is a bad thing. But the amount of damage done by one weak prof is greater than an entire classroom of weak students, and the students hurt primarily themselves but the profs hurt all of their students, their colleagues, and their disciplines.
    Clean up your own house.

  26. Steve LaBonne says

    It’s sad that you never even reached the first step in a genuine education- realizing that knowledge and understanding are not substances to be ladled out to passive consumers by a short-order cook called “teacher”. A “weak” professor can only do major “damage” to students who have not yet realized that they must take the primary responsibility for their own learning. If students graduate from college without ever realizing that, then the college truly has failed those students. I’m genuinely sorry that your college(s) failed you in this way. The new corporate-model university, of course, will fail ALL studetns in this way, at considerable peril to the maintenance of our civilization.

  27. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    You have weak-mindedly inferred, from my lack of sympathy for people who have one of the easiest gigs on the planet, that I think that learning is nothing more than the collection of facts. Your insipid smugness belies your inability to think beyond a simplistic and false opposition: it’s the fault of either the students or the professors. You have problems with your students because of your inability to communicate and reason clearly, as evidenced by the statement:
    A “weak” professor can only do major “damage” to students who have not yet realized that they must take the primary responsibility for their own learning.
    Nice of you to absolve yourself of responsibility for failing a significant proportion of those to whom rational observers believe you have a responsibility, but I’ve seen kids desperately trying to pull together assignments using a programming language that wasn’t a pre-req for the course for whom the only resourse was an arrogant post-doc who was openly contemptuous of the students who came to him for help. These weren’t students who didn’t care or who didn’t think, these were students who were ill-served by a tenured “educator” who didn’t care. Obviously these are people who are outside the set of those you consider worth caring about, an attitude that may explain your lack of success as an educator.
    Your presumption about what I may or may not have achieved in my education really makes me feel sorry for you. If someone fails to obtain an education by their standards then he/she is a failure. If your students consistently fail to obtain the objectives of your classes by your standards then you are a failure.
    If someone else fails to obtain an education by your standards they GET A FREAKIN’ LIFE.

  28. Steve LaBonne says

    You’re talking about a kind of vocational training. I was discussing education. I wouldn’t expect you to understand the distinction.

  29. Steve LaBonne says

    P.S. The kind of place where students have real access only to grad-student TAs is precisely part of the phenomenon PZ was worrying about. That doesn’t at all describe where PZ teaches or where I taught. And your example has nothing to do with what Prof. Hartman was talking about, either.

  30. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    Your performance is deteriorating rapidly here, and I can only guess that it’s because you cannot understand what I’m saying because you are reacting to what you think I’m saying. You obviously have trouble evaluating evidence that’s actually in front of you in favor of what you know is really going on, maybe there’s a job for you in the LAPD. Point out one quotation where I’m “talking about a kind of vocational training” and try to help me understand what you think I’m advocating when I’m talking about it.
    It’s not there, and you wanna know why? Because it’s almost entirely irrelevant to the point I was originally making in response to Hartman’s whining about his students, which has consistenly been that good teachers don’t whine about their students. Esssss-pecially whining about their students whining.
    My anecdote was offered as an example of what I considered damage caused by an uncaring prof who was too busy doing the reputation-enhancing stuff to attend to his responsibilities as an educator. And this was not at a McUniversity but at a major private U with aspirations of greatness. And the relevance to Hartman’s drivel is only that the students were being evaluated by skills that were not related in any way the the pre-reqs or the material covered in the class. Specifically, since you have so much trouble connecting the dots, we were tasked with producing statistical analyses and interpreting the results when nothing in the class had previously dealt with the production part.

  31. rubberband says

    Dino & Steve-
    Cool it, guys. There is no reason to attack each other personally. Steve, I may be assuming much here, but Dino’s original point–that educators must prepare students for the challenges they put forth–is one I am sure you agree with and practice well. My original example was one I felt confident in posting, because it was a well-tested question. Every test I take a few chances on questions to see if the results match up with my expectations. (if they don’t, or if a student presents an original, but factually correct, take on a question, then I give credit to everyone and change or eliminate that question for the next term) I always model critical thinking, and present students with critical thinking problems/questions before the tests. As I am writing the test, I always check each test question–and each of the offered MC responses–against the knowledge covered and the logic needed to eliminate all the wrong answers, and support the correct one. At the beginning of the term the problems require much less sophistication than at the end. I agree with his original post that this sort of thing is absolutely necessary. And I agree that the very few instructors I have had who did otherwise were duly reviled.
    Dino, I think you underestimate the vast majority of teachers. Most really do think long and deeply about the best ways to support student growth and success. It isn’t about trapping anyone–it is about providing appropriate challenges, after good motivation and preparation. What I decry is the student who feels like their responsibility ends at memorizing and regurgitating. It is true that early in education this may be the best appropriate educational strategy–there is a lot of basic info needed before synthesis can really pay off (However, really good elementary and middle school teachers do get to the thought questions, and their pupils do respond). But as our minds develop, they must be pushed to do more on their own. In fact, I suppose you have a point that my “whining” is merely me complaining about one of the more challenging aspects of my job–to bring them along, even if what I’m asking them to do is difficult. I expect a little resistence from the students. It’s the adults (parents or even simply community members) whose resistence (and ignorance) I truly despise. The fact that these grown-ups think education should be memorization is both sad and upsetting.
    -Or maybe I’m missing the point because I was up late preparing for tomorrow’s class.

  32. Anonymous says

    I’m sorry, but Dino simply knows not whereof he speaks. I’m also sorry that in his time as a student he suffered from some genuinely incompetent teaching, but that is not at all the phenomenon under discussion, and having no teaching experience himself he is simply not aware of the problem rubberband is referring to- hence his accusation that Hartman was “whining”, and his other resorts to bluster, so typical of those who try to participate in a discussion of whose topic they have no knowledge.

    I agree that the usefulness of this discussion is at an end.

  33. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says

    Rubberband, I’m not attributing any percentage to the bad profs out there, just noting that those that exist are the ones most likely to complain about their students. I also have seen that the worst students are most likely to complain about their professors-in both cases the complaints should be met IMHO with challenges rather than sympathy.
    The majority of the experiences I have had have been with good teachers, and I have had enough with ones I considered great to feel that there is one essential characteristic that is close to sufficient to qualify someone as a great teacher in and of itself. This is the ability to understand how a given student, in a specific instance, is misunderstanding the material.
    I can’t tell you how many times I have been in classrooms where a student asked a question that clearly indicated a misunderstanding of the material. These questions were frequently similar to requests for clarification or reiteration of a point already addressed, and many teachers, even really good ones, would respond as such. If the student was assertive they would repeat the original request, initiating a process that would continue until the prof would see the question for what it was; the student would give up; or the prof would get frustrated and kill off further discussion. I would often interject with a version of “I think what he’s asking is…” at which point even the barely good ones would clarify the issue. I can’t tell you how many times the other student would catch me after class and thank me for laying out something they just couldn’t express.
    This quality is not required of every great teacher. I can think of one inspiring lecturer who was pretty much a flub at every thing else he tried to do in the classroom. But to me the essential issue is that professors pretty much by definition are people teaching subjects at which they excelled in environments in which they excelled, and even in aspects of the material with which they may have once struggled they are so removed from the struggle as to be incapable of reconnecting with it. They all too often don’t understand what it’s like not to understand, or in the case of the LaBonnes of the world they just don’t care.

  34. llewelly says

    I see that according to “Dr.” Kent Hovind has 4 speaking engagements planned in April, May and September this year.
    I do hope the federal prison authorities are aware…

    Jo Hovind will go down to the pen with a recording device, and show up at the engagement with a recording of ‘Dr.’ Dino . Or some rough equivalent thereof.