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Monday, March 3, 2014

Monday, March 3, 2014

University Week: Are Public Universities Cool Again?

Business Week thinks so: its headline is "Krugman Move Boosts CUNY Effort to Escape Columbia, NYU Shadow."   In this piece, cool is a public city college doing the following things:

  • stealing star faculty from rich private universities, recalling the glory days when CCNY "graduated 12 Nobel laureates between 1930 and 1950."
In recent years, CUNY has hired a number of professors away from elite universities, including Jeremy Kahn, a mathematician from Brown University; Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist from the University of Pennsylvania; David Joselit, an art historian from Yale University; and Cathy Davidson, a technology scholar from Duke University.
  • reclaiming the core mission of mass quality:
CUNY has about 274,000 students seeking degrees and almost 250,000 in continuing education and certificate programs, said William Kelly, interim chancellor and past president of the graduate school. It has 24 campuses spread across five boroughs.
“A university can be both public and provide access to a half-million students and pursue the highest goals imaginable,” said Kelly. “What has happened here is that the university has reclaimed its commitment to both access and excellence. Public universities need to do both.”
  • hiring large numbers of full-time faculty: "CUNY has stepped up faculty recruiting, boosting the number of full-time professors to 7,500 from about 5,000 over the past 10 years."
  • not saddling its students with debt: at CUNY "about 80 percent of baccalaureate and associate degree students graduate without debt."  Prof. Davidson made a particular point of saying "part of the draw was the university’s high quality and the low cost to students."
  •  having high levels of innovation: Prof. Joselit remarked, “Public universities are much more willing to experiment with the format, at least in the humanities and social sciences,”
Is public anything more experimental than its private version?  That's how it reads.   Although the job moves of these major scholars are largely symbolic, their visibility, along with statements like these, might help make public colleges seem exciting again.

* * *

How has CUNY been able to do all this full-time faculty hiring at its tuition level of under $6000 per year?  Not by suppressing wages: faculty salary tables at the Chronicle of Higher Education show CUNY sometimes above and sometimes below average salaries in all professorial categories (2012 Almanac).  The recipe seems to be to staff most of the campuses like colleges rather than like research campuses--with the obvious exception of the Graduate Center.

Graduate Center staff consists of about half full-time and half part-time professors (75% of full-time professors are tenure-track);  about two-thirds of its overall teaching staff are graduate students. On the other hand, a check of a few of the CUNY colleges shows lower percentages of full-time faculty.  Hunter has 705 full-time and 1175 part-time faculty (or 37.5% full time): the comparable figures are 38.3% full-time at CCNY and 41% at Queens.

Teaching loads are also pegged to standards for teaching rather than research universities, judging from the experience of the faculty I know at Queens, Brooklyn, Hunter, and Baruch Colleges, meaning that everyone I know in the humanities and social sciences is teaching three or more courses per semester rather than 2 and 2. 

As for research itself, CUNY does much less bench science than universities of comparable size.  The NSF's Higher Education Research and Development Report for FY 2011 ranks the top CUNY unit, CCNY, in 182nd position, with expenditures of less than half those at lowest-spending University of California campus, UC Riverside. Hunter is at 219th, Queens at 265th, and so on.  The Graduate Center doesn't appear, and may be lumped together with CCNY, but it's worth noting that none of the recent hires mentioned in the Business Week piece require laboratory facilities.

One conclusion is that it's easier for public universities to be experimental when they don't have to pay fo rexperimental science.  CUNY also isn't paying for full-scale, full-time research faculty spread throughout the system.  CUNY hires great full-time research faculty at all of its colleges, and then doesn't give them research faculty conditions. Obviously this limits  CUNY faculty's overall research output.

Can public universities maintain or upgrade instruction while staying major players in basic research? The first answer is yes, in the sense that they have been maintaining their 2/3rds share of overall R&D (Appendix Table 5-3).

A second answer is no, they won't sustain this going forward, since they are already having a hard time affording STEM research. For example, they spend nearly twice the share of their own resources supporting research as do private universities: "Public academic institutions supported a larger portion of their S&E R&D from their own sources—22%, compared to 13% at private institutions."

A third answer is that public universities will always be able to sustain or even increase research output--if they increase the share of non-STEM research in their mix.  CUNY can lag in overall R&D expenditures while still having a huge arts, humanities, and social sciences research output since these fields (borrowing the AHS acronym from Gerald Barnett) spent only $3.5 billion of the $65.8 billion spent on R&D in US universities was spent on STEM.)  You can be 265th in expenditures while being an AHS powerhouse, given these fields' much greater bang for the buck.

* * *

A contrasting example appeared in the news last week--Duke University--whose costs were the subject of a piece at NPR's Planet Money.  Duke, the article noted, claims that the University loses money on the $60,000 a year it charges to go there, since it allegedly spends $90,000 per student per year.  This is about 6 times UC's combined per-student in-state tuition --minus financial aid--plus state general fund).

The gap in per student expenditures between top privates and mass publics is shocking and socially inefficient: it's something this blog has been denouncing for years, that the Delta Project's studies made visible to policymakers (Figure 18), that education economists like Archibald and Feldman have analyzed, that I've argued causally reduces attainment and increases racial disparity.

The innovation in the Planet Money piece is that an MSM outlet stages a debate between standard and alternative higher ed accounting, juxtaposing Duke's provost Peter Lange and UC Berkeley's independent budget analyst, professor emeritus of physics Charles Schwartz.

Using the standard approach (I am describing, not endorsing it), Duke reports that a quarter of the $90,000 of per-student expenditure is affluent students subsidizing other less-affluent students, and that another quarter goes to paying faculty salaries. (In the context of familiar claims that academic salaries are the core of higher ed's "cost disease," this is not a large slice.)   Another quarter goes to "sponsored activities," which is close to the normal 20% or so that research universities spend to subsidize extramurally-funded research. The final quarter of the pie chart goes to overhead, which includes facilities and non-teaching staff.

Prof. Schwartz's point has long been that faculty research time gets lumped together with teaching time, so that the faculty cost of instruction is exaggerated.  Provost Lange counters that research and teaching are intertwined at a research university.  (For the record, Prof. Schwartz has never denied this, but has shown how they can be disaggregated so we at least know how much universities are spending on what.)  The Planet Money piece produces an accurate description of the debate:
In the end, Schwartz and Lange don't disagree on the value of what goes on at places like Berkeley and Duke. The disagreement is over the story that Duke tells its undergraduates.
So if you're a student at Duke, are you getting a massive discount on the cost of your education? Or are you subsidizing a giant educational edifice that you as an undergraduate student will barely come into contact with?
The answer sort of depends on what kind of student you are.
If you're engaged in research and capitalizing on your professors' expertise, maybe you're getting something that's worth more than what you paid. If you've got a good financial aid package, you're definitely getting a good deal. But if you're a full-paying student, who's not learning much from professors outside the classroom, it's the university that's getting the deal.
This formulation puts huge pressure on elite universities like Duke to subsidize student costs and to make sure every single student is experiencing artisnal research-learning.   This would be a big change for students who are buying a brand affiliation that will get them to the head of the line for the careers of the 1%, which, judging from Laura Newland's alarming memoir of her Duke undergrad years, is most of them. (You can listen to Doug Henwood's interesting interview with her January 30, 2013).

After many lousy years, I think momentum is starting to shift back towards public colleges. The challenge for them now for has several parts:
  • Get affordable for students again--by being honest about the limits of financial aid and restoring correct levels of public funding.
  • Define hands-on and research learning that brings Duke-style intensity to public university students.
  • Build budgets that allow research and teaching to interact at all types of public colleges. This means transparency about research costs so that research activity can be increased.  
Fewer people than ever will pay $60,000 or even $16,000 for a degree. But they will pay for real learning--if they understand its costs. 


Anonymous said...

A few thoughts --(1) you don't have to be a research powerhouse to get students engaged in research. The small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, Pomona, Lewis and Clark get their students more engaged in research and more likely to do graduate education than big universities. I guess that is the artisanal model; (2) CUNY and SUNY are part of a less differentiated state system than UC and CSU -- UC faculty can teach less because CSU faculty teach more -- what would we think of CSU competing for superstar faculty? (3) the East Coast model relies more on private research universities like Duke because there are more of them -- is the California model (was?) a public university model because we have so few established private research universities given our population? Why didn't/don't more private research emerge as the population and economy of the West grew/grows?

Chris Newfield said...

all excellent points that to me mean that public U undergrad education needs a continuous upgrade and secondly that Western public research Us need to be (re)funded publicly to do research at their traditional scale and quality. One reason the West has fewer elite private research Us (maybe 1.5 to be exact) in a gigantic territory is that they are super expensive to set up and then lose money even at high tuition levels. We haven't seen a new one for last 120 years - except Harvey Mudd, which is very small?

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