Ask the Grumpies: The Ideal University

SP asks

Thoughts how an ideal university would function, use of adjuncts, what is the purpose of a university? Is it to educate students and conduct research, and what is the weight of these functions.

I read occasional news media about these topics, and they hit similar themes that sometimes don’t ring true. Most recent example article (posted in my FB news feed by a former adjunct English professor at a university):

^ ok, a note on the above paragraph.  I must have written it [#2 does not have and has never had FB] but I have no memory at all of doing it.  I just read the article and don’t remember ever seeing it before.  Apparently I have lost all my memorial faculties, but I’ll comment on it now.

I have no memory of it whatsoever.But here’s a thought: Tuition is high not because there are too many administrators. It’s because states have disinvested and the feds have made unfunded mandates [#2 says, yes, this is what the research says as well]. Also, the cost of health insurance has skyrocketed, which is one of the biggest expenses for a university, aside from salary [#2 isn’t as sure about this, but maybe?].

It’s true that adjuncts are treated poorly, yes!But there are whole *systems* that need to be fixed because people voted for legislators that didn’t fund education and because health insurance companies are for-profit (among other reasons).  But yes, adjuncts don’t get paid enough. I agree there.  Adjuncts should also not be required to mentor students nor write rec letters, unless they are full-time actual faculty (even if not TT).

(I see that this doesn’t answer your question, SP, but please forgive my wool-gathering.)

There are many purposes to a university and many ways to have an ideal university.

On the subject of adjunct pay and working conditions, #2 is kind of like… that’s where supply and demand hit.  Getting a humanities PhD needs to be less attractive so it isn’t so easy to find a phd willing to work a crap job at minimum wage.  (Note:  we pay our adjuncts 10K/class and many of our lecturers make ~100K/year on top of their day jobs.)

This paper discusses compensation of faculty members.  It seems to be optimal for some definitions of optimal, but I only really read the abstract.

I don’t know what the purpose of a university is or what the ideal balance between teaching and research is.  We need research because it provides positive spillovers to society and is unlikely to be privately funded.  We need to teach students so they will become productive members of society.  I don’t know if we should move to SLACS and think-tanks or if we should keep on with our continuum of community colleges/SLACS/R3/R2/R1/think tanks.  I mean, I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Though I do think we need more government funding to decrease the cost of education, particularly for those who are credit constrained because it is the only way we know of to productively reduce income inequality in an increasingly automated society.

So that’s not much of an answer either.  Maybe Grumpy Nation has better opinions.

Opine for us, Grumpy Nation!  What is the ideal university?


9 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: The Ideal University”

  1. bogart Says:

    I don’t know. I do think that the current structure that seems often to rely heavily on Ph.D. students as TAs seems problematic, as it encourages the university (particularly, ironically, less good/endowed/funded universities) to admit and churn out doctorates (or, worse, ABDs) with no attention to whether they will find jobs once they graduate (or don’t). I watch our recent graduates and departing post-docs heading out into a world where they face high teaching loads with numerous new preps and wonder whether tenured faculty (particularly the ones working at these institutions with 3-3 or higher teaching loads, which clearly are not R01s) might not (all) step up and do more teaching of their extant preps, given that the workload difference between a new prep and an extant prep is so different (at least in my experience), and that many of them (the tenured faculty at said institutions) seem not so tremendously motivated by or engaged in research (and perhaps not rewarded much for it either, while, meanwhile, the impact of publications for their not-yet-tenured colleagues on their own career prospects is relatively much, much higher). To be clear, I am talking about wondering whether the norm itself should change entirely, not that a few people should go to bat here and there.

    At the same time I wonder at how people have gotten the idea that it is reasonable to take on student debt to pursue a Ph.D. My thinking is that if your program isn’t willing to pay you a stipend adequate to live a paltry (but safe) existence, they don’t want you (or don’t value Ph.D. students enough) to be worth attending. A different question, of course, is whether that paltry existence is one that works for you — the basic model of Ph.D. student seems to be a healthy single person with no kids, and obviously those criteria should not be required to secure a doctorate, and if you have a family to support, or health issues, then what would be a paltry existence to someone in different circumstances might be entirely inadequate for you (even to live at the same standard).

    And, yes, we all collectively need to value and pay for education more (I mean as a society, not individually). I’m currently about 1/3 of the way into the New Geography of Jobs book, which makes a pretty compelling case (at least so far) for higher education having pretty powerful spillover effects.

  2. becca Says:

    An ideal university has sex for the students, parking for the faculty and football for the alumni, of course!

    Seriously though, *my* ideal university probably doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’s ideal… but it’s a fun thought experiment.
    Facilities. At least 10 million books in the libraries and essentially unlimited access to peer-reviewed publications. A particle accelerator. A cutting edge academic medical center with the infrastructure for large clinical trials and also robot surgery. Pretty old buildings with ivy and pretty new buildings with massive amounts of sunlight. Also, a 50m swimming pool with diving platform and a lazy river. A beautiful campus designed for walking and biking and an arboretum. Blisteringly fast internet and outstanding IT and librarians who make publishing and data sharing easy.
    Faculty. Nobel laureates. About 5 faculty with funding for each grad student admitted. A lot of staff researchers who can expect to be employed by the university long-term, even if individual research programs grow or contract based on research funding. Instructor-specialist tracks which provide benefits even to part time workers, funds for professional development to send to education in the discipline type conferences, and offices. Research-specialist tracks which are evaluated in part on grant funding, partly on industry collaborations, partly on number of patents and papers. A technology transfer office which makes public-private-nonprofit partnerships happen smoothly. No creepers.
    Students. Students empowered to write up a personalized curriculum and coached on an individual basis to develop a portfolio of experiences and accomplishments. Students who are paid in scholarships with stipends for excellence in academics, or sports or leadership (for undergrads). Students who are recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds and given intensive mentoring. Students who are outstanding at their pursuits. Not so much students who are legacies or selected (directly or indirectly) on wealth.

    No football. Sorry-not-sorry. Free childcare on campus.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    Wow. I could write a book on this. My ideal university …
    First of all, I’d do away with SAT and ACT exams. But no student would be admitted to post-secondary educational institutions without passing an entrance exam evaluating English language skills, competency in math through algebra and geometry, personal finance concepts, human anatomy, health & prevention, geography, and history of the preceding twenty years. No university would get state or federal funding if it did not administer this entrance exam.
    That right there gets rid of at least 20% of the aspiring students, so instead we have to have a robust system of vocational & technical schools where all remedial education (and ESL) is covered.
    Also, no university would get taxpayer funding for sports-related travel.
    Second, I’d do away with all team sports requiring ball fields. If you want to do a team sport, you have to be able to do it in a gymnasium. Because (third) the physical campus needs to include working and research gardens.
    Fourth, every four-year student would be required to take two years of science classes and a term of programming/coding.
    Free childcare on campus, definitely. No above-ground parking on campus.
    And the list goes on.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    Oh, wow, these are fun answers! I picked a college with:
    * high admission standards (I wanted to learn lots)
    * no football (ugh)
    * no sororities or fraternities (ugh–I’ve heard some are okay, though)
    * 50/50 male/female ratio (needed practice with boys, but didn’t want the pressure of way more boys)
    * most students lived on campus (in high school, the smartest people lived in neighborhoods inaccessible to me)
    * my religious holidays were also school holidays (added bonus that I didn’t require; ironically I stopped being religious there)

    I went to a small, private liberal arts college but later realized I would probably have been just as happy in the honors program of my very large local state university.

  5. Debbie M Says:

    Before I became a staff member, I didn’t know that professors have duties in teaching, research, and service. As a student, I only really knew about the teaching. It seems like most people are not good at all three of those things. And in fact, when people went emeritus, most stayed on, but only picked their favorite one of those duties to keep doing, usually research, sometimes teaching, and occasionally service (one guy really liked being an expert witness!).

  6. Debbie M Says:

    As a staff member, I occasionally had a say on some of the tiny details.

    I often explained our convoluted course numbering system to people. At my institution, we had “unnumbered topics,” which were hard to deal with clerically (you had to use the title or attach some other kind of number), but which allowed us to let grad students and visiting faculty teach awesome courses in their fields at short notice by teaching new “topics” in previously approved “topics courses.” Approval for new courses could take a year and a half. Of course, then lots of unnumbered topics would eventually be approved as stand-alone courses, which we highly encouraged for required courses, and that added to the confusion. I always fought for that flexibility even if it meant more work for me.

    And I liked helping faculty with the boring things (photocopying, typing for the bad typists, even some editing) so they could focus on what they were best at.

    Also, advising was pretty bad in my day. Nowadays a lot of places have professional advisors as well as faculty advisors, and I’m a fan. The faculty love talking about their field, but the other advisors can tell you about things like the pros and cons of each of the five ways to drop a course (different requirements, different deadlines, different consequences).

    Mostly, the catalog should be clear enough that you can figure out your own degree plan, but it’s got to be nice to have experts to tell you about informal prerequisites, courses that are rarely offered, and courses that you should try not to take during the same semester. I think it would be great for them to tell you about different teaching styles of the different instructors, too, but I don’t think they do.

    I also liked that students had access to the degree audit system–they could see the same system that would be used to certify their graduation and bring up concerns early. They could even add courses to the “planner” to see how they would count (does ASL count as a foreign language?) before registering for and taking the class. And they could even run a different degree plan in the middle of the night. (Oh, if I switch from my hard degree plan to this easier-sounding one, I will have to stay an extra year and a half. Okay, I’ll get back to this tough homework now!)

  7. SP Says:

    This was my question. I guess my perspective is that the current system is indeed a little bit broken for a lot of people. I only have a small view of the system, of course.

    BUT, tuition is too high for students, adjuncts can’t make a career, and even tenure/tenure-track profs have issues with how the research process is run, and many PhD’s end up frustrated by their experience. Most professors love their work, but many are indeed overworked and overwhelmed. The amount of time spent writing and reviewing all of the grant proposals seems very inefficient and possibly not the best way to end up with the best research results. Is there a better way?

    Do we have the right number of people pursuing PhDs, and a reasonable path for them to find a career? If fewer people pursued PhDs, would that impact the ability to get research done (fewer grad students) in a negative way? Does the system depend on the fact that they generate too many PhDs? I think the answer in some fields is yes – but not all.

    Administrative bloat is an often cited problem, although most studies show costs increase do to lack of gov’t funding. Administration FEELS bloated, even if they can write up a report to say they aren’t the problem.

    Does it make sense for researchers to also be the educators? In theory, these two missions are somewhat separable, at least at the undergrad level. I think yes, but mostly because I can’t see a system where world-class researchers could make a living without also contributing to teaching and service. Also at the graduate level, their research skills are necessary to teach.

    Those are some of the things I was thinking of. Universities aren’t to blame for all of these problems, for sure, and many processes are too ingrained to be changed. But if I were building a system from scratch, I wonder what it would look like.

    Solvent is a great place to start.

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