Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: Academia

Topics relating to academic practices and culture such as tenure, faculty attitudes to administration, and academic freedom.

October 20

Unconscionable Disciplinary Selfishness

Everyone knows this story, or a variant of it, even if it never hits the papers and no one wants to name names.  It goes like this: Professor X simply won’t retire.  It’s not that he/she (though it’s mostly he) is staying on for themselves, you understand. It’s for the department.  If he/she (mostly he) left, there simply wouldn’t be any guarantee that a new tenure line would go back to the department.  That position might go to another department – or another faculty entirely.  And that would never do – think of the department!

So, let’s assume for a second here that the person saying this is on the up; that he/she (mostly he) really means this and is not using it as a rationalization for staying on for more years at a salary which is likely north of $150,000.  Let’s not accuse anyone of any motive other than what to their minds is altruism on behalf of their discipline.  It is still an act unconscionable selfishness, and goes to the heart of what is wrong with universities (from a management perspective, at least).

What’s important to recognize here is that most scholars have divided loyalties.  On the one hand, they are all employed by a specific institution.  On the other hand, they are each members of at least one global scholarly community (which, for the sake of convenience if not perfect accuracy, we will call “disciplines”).  The institution gives you the paycheck, but the standards for hiring, promotion and (more importantly) professional standing and prestige are all effectively set by the discipline.

Now, these divided loyalties probably wouldn’t matter much were it not for one fateful decision that universities made over a century ago; namely, to permit discipline-based organizations – that is, “departments” – to be the fundamental organizing unit of the university.   What that did was give these global communities significant say in how pretty much every university gets run.  And to be blunt, those global communities are not overly sensitive to the local needs institutions need to serve and the local conditions under which institutions operate.

And so it is with Professor X’s motives.  He/she (usually he) does not care about the health of his or her faculty or university.  It may make eminent sense for the institution to transfer a faculty line from his department to another due to changes in student demand.  Doesn’t matter: the discipline comes first!

But just think about the way the discipline comes first.  It’s not about the need to make scholarly contributions to the discipline.  A professor’s status at a university is immaterial here: plenty of retired profs continue to make scholarly contributions for years after getting their last paycheque.  No, in this case the professor is supporting the discipline simply by being a body taking up space.  Making numbers.  Swelling the internal political heft of the unit.  Denying this space to other disciplines who might need to make a hire.  And why?  To ensure that the discipline’s local base will retain as much political influence as possible.  Period.

And this, recall, is the altruistic scenario, the one where the professor is being obstinate for “altruistic” reasons and not just to hang to the paycheck.  It’s unconscionable, frankly.  If you want an example of how difficult it is to manage universities along rationalist lines, look no further than this.

Quick note: I’ll be off the blog next week to recharge a bit.  See you on October 30th


October 11

How Sessionals Undermine the Case for Universities

Last year, I wrote a blog post about what sessionals get paid, and how essentially it works out to about what assistant profs get paid for the teaching component of their jobs and that in this sense at least one could argue that sessionals in fact are getting equal pay for work of equal value.

I got a fair bit of hate mail for that one, mostly because people have trouble distinguishing between is-ought arguments.  People seemed to think that because I was pointing out that pay rates for teaching are pretty close for junior profs and sessionals, that everything is therefore hunky-dory.  Not at all.  The heart of the case is that sessionals don’t want to be paid just to teach, they’d like to be paid to do research and all that other scholarly stuff as well.

(Well, some of them would, anyway.  Others have day jobs and are perfectly happy teaching one course a year on the side because it’s fun.  We have no idea how many fall into each category. Remarkably, Statistics Canada is planning on spending a million dollars to count sessionals in Canadian universities but in such a way as to shed absolutely no light on this rather important question.  But I digress: for the moment, let us assume that when we are talking about sessionals, we are talking about those who aspire to full-time academia)

A lot of advocates on behalf of sessionals seem obsessed with arguing their case on “fairness” grounds.  “It’s not fair” that they only get paid to teach while others get paid to teach and research and do whatever the hell service consists of.  To which there is a fairly curt answer, even if most people are too polite to make it: “if you didn’t get hired as a full-time prof, it’s probably because the relevant hiring committee didn’t think you were up to our standards on the whole research thing.”  So this isn’t really a winning argument.

Where universities are much more vulnerable is on the issue of mission.  The whole point of universities – the one thing that gives them their cachet – is that they are supposed to be delivering education in a research-intensive atmosphere.  This is the line of defence that is continually used whenever the issue of offering more degrees in community colleges or polytechnics arises.  “Research-intensive!  Degrees Gotta Be Research-intensive!  Did we mention the Research Intensity thing?”

But given that, why is it that in most of the country’s major universities, over 50% of undergraduate student course-hours are taught by sessionals who are specifically employed so as to not be research-active?

Ok, where the purpose of education is more practice than theory (eg law, nursing, journalism), you probably want a lot of sessionals who are working professionals.  In those programs, sessionals complement the mission.  But in Arts?  Science?  Business?  In those fields, the mere existence of sessionals undermines the case for universities’ exclusivity in undergraduate degree-granting.  And however financially-advantageous sessionals may be to the university (not an unimportant consideration in an era where public support for universities is eroding), long-term this is a far more dangerous problem.

So the real issue re: universities and sessionals is not one of fairness but of hypocrisy.  If sessionals really wanted to put political pressure on institutions, they would make common cause with colleges and polytechnics.  They would ceaselessly demand documents from institutions through Freedom of Information from institutions to determine what percentage of student credit hours are taught by sessionals.  They would use that information to loudly back colleges’ claims for more undergraduate degree-granting powers, because really, what’s the difference?  And eventually, governments would relent because the case for the status quo is really weak.

My guess is that those activists arguing on behalf of sessionals won’t choose this course because their goal is less to smash the system of privileged insiders than it is to join it.    But they’d have a case.  And universities would do well to remember it.

January 10

The Politicization of University Accounting

Back in the fall, the Canadian Alliance of University Teachers (CAUT) published an interesting little guidebook called CAUT’s Guide to Analyzing University & College Financial Statements, written by Cameron and Janet Morrill, two profs at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business.  Stripped to its essentials, it purports to be a DIY guide for faculty to help hold their institutions to account over finances.

Nothing wrong with that.  Learning how to read financial statements is a good thing.  The issue is the subtext (“THEY’RE LYING TO YOU!”) and the curious way in which they treat the matter of internally restricted funds.

In practice, universities have three types of funds.  There are unrestricted funds: money which they can do whatever heck they like with.  For the most part this is equivalent to the annual operating budget.  There are externally restricted funds – money which can only be used in manners specified by outsiders who have provided them money.  These include most research budgets and infrastructure money (you can’t take CFI money and blow it on beer and popcorn) as well as – of course – money destined for the school’s endowment.

But then there’s a third and slightly more curious type of money called “internally restricted funds”.  These are funds which institutions have set aside themselves for various purposes, usually related to the long-term health of the institution.  They don’t show up as a separate category on balance sheets, though a quick read of notes accompanying the financial statements is usually sufficient to work out their size (admittedly not the most exciting pastime).

The CAUT document is implicitly a guide for how to hunt for evidence that administrators are lying about the institution’s health.  The document starts off in fact by the authors telling the tale of how gradually they came to understand that their own university’s financial position was not fragile but loaded, thanks to their sophisticated understanding of “interfund transfers” (i.e. the process of putting money into internally restricted funds).  Left unsaid: hey, these internally restricted funds could be going to increase professor’s salaries!

Occasionally the document seems to accept the existence of and rationale for internally restricted funds, but the kicker is in the appendices, where they produce a step-by-step guide to working out how much unrestricted cash an institution really has on hand, and use the financial statements of the University of New Brunswick and the University of Ottawa as their case studies.  The formula they use is a little complex but basically it comes down to 1) find out how much money they have in “investments” 2) subtract the endowment and externally restricted funds 3) the residual is “unrestricted cash and investments”.  Which of course can only be true if you completely ignored internally restricted funds.

According to the Morrills, UNB has about $130 million in “unrestricted cash and investments” – you know, just loose money hanging around – while Ottawa has $331 million.  This is preposterous, as even a cursory look at each institution’s financial statements.  At Ottawa, for instance, note 19 of the financial statements clearly notes that the university has $297 million in internally restricted funds (ie., almost exactly what the Morrills claim to be “unrestricted cash and investments”) and note 12 of the financial statements lists a number of the uses of these funds, including: a $57 million for capital expenditures (e.g to match an external grant), $30 million to support faculty research activities, $31 million in a sinking fund to retire long-term debt, etc.

At both UNB and Ottawa – and I think it’s safe to assume it’s true at other institutions as well – internally restricted funds also cover money set aside to cover the unfunded costs of benefits programs, and funds for strategic priorities.  They also cover (and this is one of Canadian higher education’s dirty little secrets) many millions of dollars which are under the control of individual faculties and departments with respect to which the central administration has barely any understanding let alone control.  How did they get these?  Simple: many universities allow faculties/departments to roll over any unspent non-salary-related money in their budgets from year-to-year.  Over time, these can become formidable war chests.  I know of one medium-sized university in western Canada where such funds add up to around $60 million.  But is this really “unrestricted cash/investments”?   I can’t imagine any university administrator trying to take such funds away from lower units.  The words “from my cold dead hands” leap to mind.

So what we have here is a document from CAUT which is encouraging its member locals to label “internally restricted funds” as “unrestricted cash and investments” and hence, presumably, available for distribution to faculty members during collective bargaining talks.  And there is a sense in which this is correct: the designation of certain funds and certain priorities are political designations within the university itself.  It was a decision by the Board of Governors which restricted these funds and the Board could just as easily have not restricted these funds, or restricted them to some other purpose.

It might be a good idea to have an honest discussion about the size and use of these funds, and the trade-offs they entail.  Should professors get more pay at the expense of paying off the institutional debt or covering the unfunded costs of future benefits?  Should the institution have a lower tuition increase this year paid for by raiding faculty funds built up over the years for internal priorities?  I think those kinds of discussions would be helpful and clarifying.

But that’s not what the Morrills and CAUT are trying to do here.  Quite clearly, by claiming that internally restricted funds are in fact “unrestricted cash & investments” what they are trying to do is get more of their members to believe that universities have plenty of money lying around to spend and hence that any holding out at the bargaining table is chicanery rather than prudence.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  This is a lie, one designed specifically to increase labour strife by increasing distrust in university financial statements.  I wonder what CAUT has to gain by publishing it?

December 02

Added Thoughts on Faculty Salaries

Back on Tuesday, I published some data on faculty salaries, which always gets people’ attention.  I’d like to address some of the feedback I received and make a couple of additional points.  The comments mostly converged on two areas: the appropriateness of the comparisons to the US and the interpretation of the reason for the rise in Canadian salaries.

First, the US comparisons.  Some questioned the appropriateness of the dollar conversion factor.  I used Statscan’s published US-Canada PPP figure for the start of the academic year for the most recent year for which data was available.  Some suggested I should have used current values (wouldn’t have changed much) or that I should have used exchange rates, which actually would have made Canadian salaries look even higher, as in September 2014 the dollar was at 91 cents.  I think on the whole, since most salary gets used to purchase goods in one’s home market, PPP was the right choice.  Some also questioned whether the AAUP’s public doctoral category, which contains 156 institutions, was the right comparator for the U-13 (that is, the U-15 minus Laval and Montreal, where data was not available), given the diversity of institutions it covers.  There is some truth to this: I think on our U-13 is probably a slightly more elite group than its American competitor.  It’s possible that if I’d added, say, SFU, Guelph, Carleton, Concordia and Memorial, the comparison would be a little closer.  But then I’d probably (rightly) be criticized for arbitrarily including certain institutions.  So I’m prepared to take the rap on that because I’m not sure what other comparator I could reasonably have used.

One point on which I should make a mea culpa is that the way average salaries for “all ranks” was calculated for Canadian and American profs is slightly different.  The American figures include salaries for “no rank” professors (i.e. professors at institutions which do not have ranks, not sessionals) and visiting professors while the Canadian ones do not.  This probably depresses the American figures slightly compared to the Canadian ones.  Not by much, but it’s a caveat I should have noted.

The second area where I received questions and comments is with respect to what caused the run-up in average salaries.  One person suggested comparing average wage gains in the population (inflation + 0.3%) to those of professors (inflation +2.5%) was unfair because the former churned whereas the latter did not; in a similar vein, one person suggested the problem was related to hiring, or lack thereof.  If only more new staff had been hired, the argument went, the average would have decreased.

With respect, this is point-missing on a fairly large scale.  Universities hire based on what they can afford from their total budget, not to hit some arbitrary target on individual salaries.  And if their largest single expense is growing at more than twice the rate of inflation year after year, then they aren’t going to hire a whole lot of new staff (for the record, over the five years at the 38 institutions examined, the number of full professors increased by 9%, the number of associate profs increased by 15%, and the number of assistant profs dropped by 22% for a total gain in size of 3%).

The root cause here is simple.  Professors no longer have to retire at 65 and an increasing proportion of them are electing to remain on the payroll.  That means an increasing number of professors are earning very high salaries.  All full professors in Canada are in the top 5% of wage distribution in the country (threshold = $102,300), and a non-negligible proportion are in the top 1% (threshold = $191,000 which is right about the *average* wage of full professors at the University of Toronto).  Yet they continue to receive annual wage increases of 4% or more – meaning annual increments of $5,000 apiece and up (imagine what that kind of money would mean for grad students).  It’s not just that this crowds out money for other purposes; it also makes institutions really wary about hiring new staff.  Both of these factors contribute, quite understandably, to increasing casualization of staff – though again, note, total full-time staff complements are actually up 3% over the last five years.

But the question of course is: what can be done about it?  The most obvious thing would be to do more to rein in salaries at the top – putting hard ceilings on full professors’ salaries after a certain number of years.  Since faculty unions are always going on about the need to rejuvenate the profession and the travails of young faculty, it would be worth taking them at their word and seeing if they’re prepared to negotiate something that would help achieve that aim.  A more stringent approach would be to make rank progression more difficult.  That wouldn’t have much effect in the short-term because people would continue to get annual progression raises, but over the long run, doing something like capping the number of full professors at 30% of total faculty would do a lot to rein in costs because it would restrict the number of people getting to the highest pay ladders.

We have, through union power and a Charter ruling on retirement, got to a point where we are spending a lot of extra money every year on staff with almost all of it going to existing staff who are already among the country’s best paid workers, and very little going to hire new staff.  It is within the power of both institutions and unions to change this, if they want to.  But first we have to recognize the problem and discuss it honestly.  The question is whether the will exists to do so.

November 09

Shifting Sources of Prestige

The currency of academia is prestige.  Professors try to increase theirs by publishing better and better papers, giving talks at conferences and so on.  Becoming more prestigious means offers to co-author with a more illustrious class of academics, increasing the chance of book deals at better university presses, etc.  And at the institutional level, universities become more prestigious by being able to attract and nurture a more prestigious group of professors, something which is done by lavishing them with higher salaries, more research funds, better equipment, better graduate students (and to a lesser degree undergraduate students too).  All this has been clear for a long time.

In any given field, we might know which ten or twenty people are at the top globally – Nobel Prize winners for instance (speaking of which, this Freakonomics podcast on How to Win a Nobel Prize is hugely informative and entertaining on the how the Swedish committees decide who really is “top of the field”).  But after that it is pretty hazy: one’s list of the top twenty health researchers who have yet to win the Nobel for Medicine probably depends a lot on what sub-field you’re in and how you evaluate the last decade’s relative progress in various other subfields.  Same with universities before rankings came along.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Toronto, McGill and UBC are the top three in Canada.  But after that it gets fuzzy.  If you were in Medicine, you might think number four was McMaster; in Engineering Waterloo and in Arts Montreal or Alberta.

Then along came large bibliometric databases, and shortly thereafter, rankings.  And then we knew how to measure prestige.  We did it by measuring publications, citations, and whatnot: the more, the better.  Universities began managing towards this metric, which built on longstanding trends in most disciplines towards more demanding publication requirements for tenure (the first known use of the phrase “publish or perish” dates from 1942).  Want prestige?  Research. Publish.  Repeat.

But I get the real sense that this starting to change, for universities if not individual professors.  I can’t provide much strong evidence here: you won’t see the change in the usual rankings because they are hardwired for old definitions of prestige.  Nevertheless, if you look around at which universities are “hot”, and receive the acclaim, it’s not necessarily the ones who are doing the publishing; rather, it’s the ones that are actively contributing to the dynamism of their local economies.  MIT’s gradual overtaking of Harvard is one example of this.  But so too is the fuss over institutions like SUNY Albany and its associated nanotech cluster, Akron and its Advanced materials cluster.  In Canada, the obvious example is Waterloo but even here in Toronto, Ryerson has become a “hot” university in part because of its focus on interacting with business in a couple of key areas such as tech (albeit in quite a different way from Waterloo).

To be clear, it’s not a case of publishing v. working with industry.  Generally speaking, companies like to know that the people they are working with are in fact at the front of their fields; no publishing, no partnership.  But it’s more of a general orientation: increasingly, the prestigious universities are the ones who not only have a concentration of science and engineering talent, but also have a sufficiently outward focus to act as an anchoring institution to one or more industrial clusters.

What’s interesting about this trend is that it has some clear winners and losers.   To even have a hope of working in an industrial centre, you need to be in a mid-size city which already has some industry (even if, as in Akron’s case, it’s down in the dumps).  That works for Canada, because (Queen’s excepted) nearly all our big and prestigious universities are in mid-sized or large cities.  In the US, however, it’s more difficult.  Their universities are often older, built in a time where people believed universities were better-off situated away from the “sinful” cities.  And so you have big, huge research institutions in places like Champaign, Illinois or Columbia Missouri which are going to struggle in this new environment (even places like Madison and Ann Arbour are far enough away from big cities to make thing problematic).  Basically, the Morrill Act is now imposing some pretty serious legacy costs on American higher education.

Part of the reason this shift hasn’t been more widely acknowledged is that bibliometrics are a whole lot easier to measure than economic value (and are valued more in tenure discussions).  But some people are starting to have a go at this problem, too.  More on this tomorrow.

November 02

Shifts in Credentialling

As Colin Mathews, President of the technology company Merit, remarked in an excellent little article in Inside Higher Ed a few weeks ago, credentials are a language.  One with limited vocabulary, sure, but a language nonetheless.  Specifically, it is a form of communication from educational institutions to (primarily) the labour market to convey information about their possessors.  There has been a lot of talk in the last couple of years, however, to the effect that the current vocabulary of credentials is inadequate and that change is needed to promote better labour market outcomes for both firms and graduates.  What to make of this?

The complaints about credentials basically come in two categories.  The first has to do with what I call the “chunking” of credentials.  At the moment, we essentially have two sets of building blocks: “Credits” (or “courses”) and degrees.  One is very short, the other often quite long.  Why not something in-between, which indicates mastery over a body of material which might be of interest to employers but is less than a full degree?  These shorter, more focused credentials like Coursera’s “specializations”, or Udacity’s “nanodegrees” are meant to supply labour market skills more quickly than traditional degrees.

Then there is the issue of how to interpret the information conferred by a credential.  A bachelor’s degree mainly tells an employer that the bearer has to stick-to-it-iveness to complete a four-year project (commitment means a lot to employers).  If the employer has hired graduates from a particular university or program before, then they might have a sense of an individual’s technical capabilities, too.   But beyond that, it’s blank.  A transcript might tell an employer what courses a student has taken, but unless the employer is going to take an inordinate amount of time to scrutinize the curriculum, that doesn’t really help them understand what they’ve been exposed to.  Marks help in the sense that an employer can get a sense of what a student has achieved at school, but increasingly, employers are finding that this is irrelevant.  What matters in many fields are the “soft skills” or “fuzzy skills”: on these nearly all credentials are silent.

Enter the idea of “badges”, digital or otherwise.  A solution half-inspired by competency-based education principles and half by Girl Guides/Boy Scouts.  The idea here is to give learners certificates based on particular skills they have demonstrated just as the Guides and Scouts do.  The problems with this are manifold.  First of all, unless a particular skill can be demonstrated through standardized testing, certifying skills is actually a fairly time-consuming and therefore costly activity.  This is why many of the emerging badging systems actually measure achievements and activities rather than skills (one badging system recently profiled in Inside Higher Education, for instance, hands out badges for attending certain types of meetings.  Your typical employer could not care less).

But even if you buy the Guide/Scout analogy, badges quickly run into the same problem as transcripts.  Say you have a knot-tying badge.  Unless an employer is intimately familiar with the Guide/Scout curriculum, s/he will have no actual idea what the knot badge actually signifies in terms of practical skills.  Can they do Zeppelin Bends? Constrictor Knots?  Do they understand ambient isotopy?  Or can they just do a slip knot?  And badges for soft skills are still pretty sketchy, so that part of the equation is still a blank.

All these moves towards what might be termed “microcredentials” are well-meaning.  Degrees are a pretty blunt and opaque way to express achievement and ability; it would be better if we could find ways of making these more transparent.  But the problem here is that all these solutions are being tested largely without talking to employers.  Badges, or whatever new microcredential solution we are talking about here, are all new languages.  Employers understand the language of degrees.  They do not understand the language of badges and see little benefit in learning new languages which seem to bring little additional benefit. For most, the old language of degrees is good enough – for now.  And so the spread of badges and various types of skill-based certification is so far pretty limited.

But it’s early days yet.  My guess is we’re in the first stages of what will likely be a 20- to 30-year shift in credentialing.  As Sean Gallagher notes in his excellent new book The Future of University Credentials, the general trend is going to be towards demanding that individuals be able to demonstrate mastery of particular skills and competencies.  Partly, that can be done through changes to assessment and reporting within existing degree systems; but it may also come through the regularization of certain new credentials, some of which may be issued by existing institutions and others from new providers.  I don’t think the final form of these credentials are going to look anything like the current fashion of badges; they are frankly too clumsy to be up to much.  But the push in this direction is too strong to ignore.  Expect a lot of very interesting experimentation in this field over the next few years.

October 31

Towards a Theory of Strategic Plans in Higher Education

I had an interesting discussion on twitter a few days ago about the nature of University strategic plans, and specifically, why they are rarely written in a manner that feels meaningful to faculty.  Having pondered it for a few days, I thought it would be worth jotting down some ideas.

  1. The university is, in most cases, a loosely-coupled organization.  For the most part, people in Fine Arts could not care less what is going on in the Faculty of Agriculture (and vice-versa).  Even within individual departments, teamwork is to some degree optional (you have your classes and research agenda, and I have mine).  This is not surprising because the real rewards system in higher education lies within the structure of each discipline.  The famous and somewhat unfair  question “is your allegiance to your university or your discipline” matters here.
  2. Issues of discipline vs. university aside, to a significant degree professors behave as if they are independent contractors who nevertheless get a steady pay check from some place called “the university” which far from being a common enterprise, is rather a set of services one uses selectively and sometimes even reluctantly.  That’s not to say everyone behave or feels this way, but a sufficiently large proportion does, making the notion of common enterprise problematic.
  3. Or, to put it another way: “The Faculty exists to protect the department from the University.  The Department exists to protect me from the Faculty.  And the Department can go jump in the lake.”  Many professors believe at least two if not all three of those sentences. This makes universities platforms for independent teaching and research rather than an organization with a coherent value proposition of its own.
  4. But while the university looks like a particularly anarchistic jazz band from the inside, from the outside (i.e. from the POV of governments, students and parents), it’s an orchestra.  That is, someone is in charge, and everyone has a part to play in a common purpose.  In fact, they’d probably be pretty annoyed to find out no one is in charge.  And so the people nominally managing the university (the Board, the administration) are obliged to make out as if the organization does have some common purpose beyond everybody doing their own worthy thing.
  5. One of the ways they assert that there actually is a university, and not just a group of departments connected by a steam plant, is to make strategic plans.
  6. Strategic planning as performed in universities is borrowed from strategic planning in the corporate sector, with a few differences:
    • Companies have unique value propositions.  With very few exceptions, universities do not.
    • Under no circumstances are strategic plans allowed to make fundamental trade-offs between constituent different parts of the university.  All boats must rise.
    • Prestige, not profit, is the measure of success (as indeed it is for individual professors within their own disciplines).
  7. The only strategic plans that actually meet all three criteria are strategic plans which focus on increasing net revenues to the university.  Co-incidentally, senior administrators have also noticed that funneling money to faculty does generally keep them happy.  Not unreasonably, this leads senior administrators to believe that as long as the money keeps flowing, the faculty will be happy.
  8. Strategic Plans are therefore written primarily with the governments and major philanthropists in mind.  Keep them happy, and money will keep flowing, and faculty will be happy, and new projects can be started, and prestige will rise.
  9. Corollary: strategic plans are usually written in ways which require faculty to do as little as possible.  They are agendas for administrators, not faculty.

Now, for those faculty members that are happy simply puttering along on their own – that is, those who most senior admins believe are the median professors – this whole thing works out just fine.   But not everyone feels that way.  And for people who want a stick with which to beat admins over the head, one of the easiest things in the world is to pick up a strategic document phrased in language designed to speak to governments, businesses and philanthropists and say “this document is too corporate, it doesn’t speak the language of science and academia”.

No kidding.  That’s a feature, not a bug.

Are there other, more inclusive, ways of doing strategic planning?  Sure.  But they require much tougher discussions about actual academic priorities, discussions that might involve campuses being more than just platforms for individual research agendas, or which might involve sacrificing some activities for the good of others.  And though we might wish it were otherwise, there aren’t a lot of examples of shared governance bodies being up to having those kinds of discussions.

I invite feedback.

October 25

What could a new private university in Canada look like?

Yesterday I outlined why a major private university has never emerged in Canada.  But I also suggested that it wasn’t impossible one might pop up in the future if it were backed by someone with sufficiently deep pockets and an eye for strategy.  Here is what I mean by this:

For a private university to be a success, it needs to be getting thousands of students.  Say 4,000 or so.  It’s not impossible to operate below that level, but it’s precarious.  Ask Bishop’s.

And that’s tough.  Getting people to commit to a university before it has any visible sign of success (such as well-employed graduates) is extremely difficult when there are quite prestigious institutions available nearby, as is the case nearly everywhere in Canada.  Ask Quest.

Any new university is likely to take a few years to catch on; and yet it must be able to put out a quality product during that time.  Hence the need for deep pockets.  But there also needs to be a real value proposition for a new institution: a reason to go there rather than a regular university.  England’s Buckingham University and Australia’s Bond University (both private universities which have managed to clear the 4,000 student mark) did this by offering accelerated degrees that allowed a student to graduate more quickly.  That might also work here, but let me suggest a couple of other ways that might work too.

The first possibility is to create a university which can compete with big public universities on price.  There are a couple of ways of doing this, but basically it means re-thinking the structure of an institution.  One popular route these days is to do away with departments (which are an utter cost sink and the source of pretty much any cost-inflating idea a university can come up with) and leave faculties as the only level of administration.  Combine this structure with a human-resource strategy which combines a few well-rewarded big names with a mostly casual staff, and there’s the possibility of creating an institution which is cost-effective while still carrying enough prestige to attract students.  In the United States, two new universities have been built along more or less this model in the past decade (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and University of Minnesota Rochester), although neither has gone quite as far as Professor Vance Fried and his prescriptions in a well-known 2008 paper which purported to offer “Ivy-like” education for below $7,500 per student.  In Ontario, back a few years ago when for some reason the government thought it was going to build three new universities, a similar idea was proposed by Centennial College plus Maureen Mancuso and Alastair Summerlee of Guelph University.  The proposal was technically ineligible and the competition for new campuses never happened anyway because (whoops) the number of 18 year-olds started declining in 2013 (and who could possibly have foreseen that at any time since 1995?).  But nevertheless I think it shows there’s at least some appetite to head down this route, and that it would be possible to go down this route for at least Arts, Sciences and Business.

The second possibility would take the opposite route.  If Canada has an available niche, it’s in luxurious, prestigious liberal arts colleges (yes, there is the U4 League, but none of them could be described as luxurious – indeed provincial funding models leave these kinds of universities pretty stretched).  So why not try to charge top dollar for a Liberal Arts school with big names?  This has been the approach of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London for the past four years and – regulatory niggles aside – it seems to be doing reasonably well.   Now I know what you’re thinking: who wants to pay for Liberal Arts degrees, unemployment, baristas, etc.  But the fact is, as institutions like Middlebury, Bryn Mawr and indeed NCH show, provided the level of instruction is good and the student-teacher ratio small, there are lots of people prepared to pay for that kind of education.  Maybe not 4,000 people for year, but if the fees are high enough, a university can survive at somewhat smaller numbers.

So yes, the potential for a private university is there.  What’s missing so far is ambition and money.  One day, someone will fill that gap.  It’s just a question of when.

October 07

Microcosmographia Academica

Many years ago – I think it was when I first got elected to student council – my grandfather gave me a copy of a 1908 satirical book on academic politics called the Microcosmographia Academica (available online here) by F. M. Cornford. Addressed to “the aspiring academic politician”, it is still very much worth a read today, especially if you’ve just been elected to Senate or have taken on some significant administrative duties. Not all of it ages well (bits of it are unintelligible unless you have a firm grasp of late nineteenth century academic reforms in the UK), but much of it is absolutely timeless.

Consider the problem of how we select professors:

A lecturer [i.e. a junior-rank professor – AU] is a sound scholar who is chosen to teach on the grounds that he was once able to learn.

Replace “learn” with “conduct competent research” and the statement is as true today as it ever was. Similarly, it turns out that the basis for academic snobbery hasn’t changed very much in the last century or so:

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it.  If you should write a book be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called “brilliant” and forfeit all respect.

But the core of the book is an adumbration of ways in which things do not get done in universities. Referring to committees, Cornford says:

…we have succeeded in minimising the dangerous feeling by the means of never allowing anyone to act without first consulting at least twenty other people who are accustomed to regard him with well-founded suspicion…it is clear, moreover, that twenty independent persons, each of whom has a reason for not doing a certain thing and no one of whom will compromise with any other, constitutes a most effective check on the rashness of individuals.

Cornford notes that there is only ever one argument to do something: that it is the right thing to do. All other arguments are arguments not to do something. These he enumerates with great relish: the Principle of the Wedge (“do not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future”), the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, Giving the Present System a Fair Trial, etc. But he is also very good at explaining how to accept something in principle while obstructing it in practice. To wit:

Another argument is that the machinery for effecting the proposed object already exists. This should be urged in cases where the existing machinery has never worked and is now so rusty there is no chance of its being set in motion.

And of course, he deals with political discourse in a university, specifically with respect to Jobs:

These fall into two classes: My Jobs, and Your Jobs. My jobs are public-spirited proposals which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

Non-academic positions still get spoken of this way all the time.

It’s a short piece – not more than a half-hour’s read. It’s worth the time. Enjoy.

October 04

Authentic Academic Eyes

It’s a reasonably common occurrence for academics to diss non-academic professional staff.  “They’re taking over”.  “They’re not like us”.  “They’re ruining the university”.  Book-length whinges (not very good ones, mind) have been written about this.

These whinges usually combine two distinct arguments.  The first has to do with the mere existence of some non-academic positions, who often act as the interface between the academic institution and the market (think research services, alumni/advancement, recruitment, marketing and – God forbid – branding).  That these positions exist at all is often seen as some kind of neo-liberal front to the ideal of a university.  The second has to do with the behaviour and attitudes of the people who staff these positions, which are often seen as alien or inimical to academic values.  The former view is a noisier and more virulent one among faculty; the latter quieter but more widespread.

The distinction was brought home to me in a recent online conversation I had with a senior faculty member whose university marketing people had just made some howler or other. If I recall correctly, it was a marketing tagline along the lines of “At University of X, we don’t just teach Y, we live it”, with some people wondering why any university would use a phrase that even vaguely sounded like teaching was a second-best activity.  The faculty member said to me “obviously, no set of academic eyes ever laid sight upon that before it went out”.


I don’t think there are many profs that genuinely question that  there is a need for having masses of non-academic employees doing that interaction-with-the-outside-world stuff and “selling” the institution and its merits.  Most people understand that If those people weren’t out there bringing in the money, academics wouldn’t be able to do their thing.  And these are in fact professional services: they aren’t jobs academics could do themselves even if they were inclined to do so.  So it’s not a matter of “taking back” responsibilities which once were academic and now are not: one might regret the need for quite so many of these positions, but a job’s got to get done, the right people should be hired to do it.

But what is aggravating beyond all get out is when people in these positions don’t get the product they are selling.  When, in the process of selling the institution, language is used which actually works at cross-purposes to the values of the institution in question.

So while virtually no one wants to put profs in charge of marketing efforts, institutions should make it a point to ensure everything that goes out bearing your institution’s name has had a set of “academic eyes” on it.  Get academic input on marketing campaigns before they start.  Not to obtain creative direction or, God forbid, to do wordsmithing (that way madness lies), but simply to ensure that what is said in the institution’s name is said in a tone that doesn’t do violence to the academic mission.  It could save everyone a lot of potential embarrassment.

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