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Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

A View from a Science Department: Part 2

by Anonymous, continuing Part 1

Response to future cuts

The leadership of our research unit is responding to UC budget reductions by seeking to increase revenue and cut costs.  Beyond what has already been done, one near-term cost-cutting plan is the elimination of all non-SOE lecturers, thus requiring ladder-rank faculty to teach more (a rumor suggests faculty will be allowed to "buy out" from teaching).  Another strong possibility is that research-series faculty, who currently receive half of their salaries from institutional funds and half from their own grants, will have the institutional component of their salaries cut.  A third cost-cutting measure is stronger encouragement for older faculty to retire (and go RTAD if they are still productive).  We may also expand our small and technically self-supporting professional masters program since that returns some money directly to our department.  Obviously, anything and everything that can possibly be charged directly to extramural sources will no longer be supported by institutional funding (except for short-term start-up packages for new appointees).  In the long term, our leadership expects to substantially reduce the number of faculty in our unit (primarily through attrition of research faculty) since faculty salaries are the largest part of our continuously decreasing core UC funding.

Apart from a restoration of UC core funding, the most desired revenue-enhancing measure is to have a greater fraction of the indirect cost recovery (ICR) we generate from extramural funding returned to us rather than diverted elsewhere in the UC system, but this plan has met with little success with the campus administration and UCOP.  Since we do get a third of our ICR returned, we are nonetheless striving to increase the amount of our extramural funding to an even higher level.  Private fundraising makes a small contribution, although this has fallen off in the current economic climate.  The leadership of our unit also plans to increase the faculty teaching load and is encouraging professors to develop new large-enrollment undergraduate classes.  Considered alone, these actions would be revenue enhancing because we receive funding through the campus partially on the basis of the number of undergraduate students taught and the number of graduate students enrolled.

It remains to be seen, however, whether any additional teaching pays off since we may merely cannibalize students from our current courses.  Moreover, every hour spent by a professor on teaching is an hour not spent on preparing a grant proposal.  In terms of incentives for individual faculty and payoff for our unit, additional extramural funding is much more remunerative than additional teaching.  This is the case even though only a third of our ICR is returned and only about 30% of grant proposals in our discipline are successful (a percentage nevertheless higher than that for almost any other discipline).  Our leadership has acknowledged that the faculty cannot indefinitely continue doing more with less, but they hope we have not yet reached the breaking point.

While we have been able to temporarily substitute federal funding for some of the shortfall in state funding, this is only a short-term solution.  Start-up packages still need to be offered, matching funds from the institution may be required, and maintenance of facilities cannot be directly charged to a grant.  Science faculty may ride out a brief crisis by paying themselves from extramural funds, but in the long term they will leave and go to an institution that provides more hard-money support.  Extramural funds cannot replace core funds; they merely leverage core funds to support a greater amount of research.


college intern online said...
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Gerry Barnett said...

"Moreover, every hour spent by a professor on teaching is an hour not spent on preparing a grant proposal."

One might ask whether this is true, or intended the way it comes across.

The way it comes across feeds the notion that UC faculty don't care to teach, that instruction is subsidized by (or more valuable than) research, and that the only direction for benefit is that somehow research informs instruction but not the other way.

the author said...

Irrespective of the merits of instruction vs. research, my point is that the current incentive structure at UC strongly favors obtaining more extramural funding rather than doing more/better teaching. That's a factual statement, not a normative statement.

Gerry Barnett said...

That's a much clearer statement of the point. Would you say that the current incentive structure is strongly aligned with UC's efforts to work through adverse effects of the financial cuts?

the author said...

From my vantage point, I see no clear or coherent strategy at the UC or campus level to deal with the cuts, so it's difficult to say whether or not the incentive structure is aligned.

Gerry Barnett said...

Would you say the incentive structure as you've stated it ought to figure significantly in any coherent strategy at UC? That is, is the incentive structure a good thing, a problem, or should it be a non-issue? I would note that UC policy requires extramural research to recover full direct and indirect costs. Yet we find rationalizations for drawing shortfalls in indirect costs from other sources. If the incentive structure--get more grants--actually creates greater financial strain on other funding sources (like tuition), then it would appear that the incentive structure ought to be on the table, at least in the short term, in dealing with the cuts.

the author said...

My next part (3) will discuss extramural research and whether it pays for itself. I think it will address some of the issues you raise.

Gerry Barnett said...

Looking forward to Part 3. Given that competition for research faculty appears to be an important driver for salaries, it will be interesting to see a development of apparently higher salaries for faculty in departments doing significant extramural research figures into an examination of the incentives to be involved in research. It would also be helpful to see a careful discussion of the accounting practice/fiction of classifying departmental research as part of "instruction" while placing separately accounted activity in "research".

Happy New Year to all those spending time in the comments sections of this blog, and thanks, Chris, Michael, Jack, and others for your work on this forum.

the author said...

The logic of no longer classifying departmental research as "instruction" requires a substantial increase in teaching load in order to justify the full-time salary of a professor. Professors could then be allowed to "buy out" teaching time to do research by paying their salaries from extramural funds, but that's not a viable option for many fields.

Gerry Barnett said...

Why does a change in accounting necessarily require a change in teaching load? Why not just a change in the representations made to the state, students, and public for funding? Does anyone really believe a largely fictional but convenient university accounting practice even loosely tracks current research and instructional time commitments? Which is master, the accounting practice or academic governance? What's more important, a public rhetoric built on a financial fiction that supports a convenient way of life, or a public rhetoric that reflects practice, from which a new argument for public support is made?

Put it another way--if the accounting is largely a fiction, and the effect is to support a longstanding claim to undergraduates that they are not paying the full cost of their education, then someone could argue that the university is simply caught out in a kind of self-serving political fraud, or perhaps more closely, a self-deception that few outside the university believe. The rationalizations for this way of doing things appear to include:

a) undergraduates make a better case politically than faculty research for university funding [status: failed for a decade];
b) undergraduates benefit from the research in the form of better instruction so they should pay their share [status: not at all clear this is true to the extent claimed];
c) undergraduates benefit from the status afforded by research and are paying for this status, but we just don't want to tell them that [status: perhaps this is true];
d) the university financial process is too complex to rebuild in a time of acute financial crisis, so immediate sources of revenue must be developed, and undergraduate tuition is a better alternative than others, such as dipping into endowment funds, reducing salaries, or limiting new research activity [status: clearly operational];
e) if anything changes, then forces of evil are unleashed throughout the university pitting everyone against each other in a battle for survival, helping no one, so a possible decades-long slow death with hope for recovery carried for now on the backs of undergraduates in the form of much higher tuition is better than such a battle [also probably true, but readily self-fulfilling and a sad commentary on administration];
f) faculty incentives are skewed heavily toward research over instruction, so even if folks wanted to change accounting and funding sources, it isn't possible until the incentives are changed--but that isn't a viable option [status: awaiting Part 3].

It appears (to me) that general university research activities have not made a meaningful case to the public in a long time. It's been hidden behind the undergraduates so long it has lost its muscle tone, its bone mass, and finally its will to be front and center.

TB said...

As far as I am concerned, not classifying departmental research as "instruction" is just plain wrong. My evidence may be anecdotal, but from my frequent conversations with a friend in one of the humanities departments I can tell you that the amount of time that the faculty spend mentoring graduate research vary drastically across academic disciplines. In my friend's field, graduate students are expected to carry their research independently, co-authorship is essentially unheard of and, as a result, the faculty mentorship responsibilities hardly exceed approving the research topic and then commenting on the drafts of the final product. In my field (and I do not know how uniform this is across all sciences), I have to meet with my graduate students individially several times a week. The amount of time I spend hands-on directing my students' research far exceeds the time my friend spends teaching one extra class. While there is clearly some research output resulting from the time I spend with my students, from the point of view of pure research this is by far *not* the most efficient use of my time. I would be more productive if I did not take any graduate students. (I have heard a similar sentiment from several of my colleagues albeit it may be not the case for experimentalists who need sheer manpower to run their labs.) Anyway, from my perspective, directing graduate research *is* teaching, and a fairly time-consuming kind of teaching at that. Definitely far more time-consuming that repeating the same introductory undergraduate lecture course over and over again. So suggesting that I buy time for research using my grant money will have an immediate effect of my refusing to take any graduate students, teaching the extra class while using the grant money to hire postdocs. From the pure research point of view this is the most efficient way. And who will be training graduate students in sciences then?

Gerry Barnett said...

TB: good points. No question that committed supervision of graduate student research requires time and needs to be accounted for. Should the cost associated with this effort be booked with undergraduate instruction, or with graduate instruction, or with research?

Is the nub of the deal, then, that undergraduates have been asked to subsidize graduate education in the sciences?

Is this what justifies an immediate 30% increase in undergraduate tuition, a continued public representation that undergraduates don't pay for nearly all of their "costs", and somehow that this approach is better than other responses that research universities might make to the reduction of state support?

Thinking about it, and thinking about Charles Schwartz's points.

Chris Newfield said...

Parts 3 and 4 are now posted. thanks for this excellent discussion

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