March 4, 2009

Higher-ed policy conundrum: I'm a cheap date, but my brother isn't

Yesterday's hearing on federal science funding highlights one of the dilemmas of increased funding: how do you do it in a way that is sustainable and does not lead universities to invest in a research infrastructure built on untenable assumptions (i.e., building lab space that will be empty when funding falls and hiring postdocs who will have to be let go once a single grant period ends).

But that's not the major problem I see. One of the inevitable tensions in the Obama administration's higher-education policies revolves around the relative investments in teaching institutions vs. research infrastructures. The vast majority of college students attend nonselective 2- and 4-year public institutions, and if one goal of President Obama is to increase the American public's time in higher education, that is where the time will expand. To do that without making the initiative counterproductive, both the federal government and state governments will have to put money into teaching institutions. For community-colleges, that investment is usually an easy sell, up to some limit; community colleges always argue for their budgets as cheaper than universities, student-for-student. And for state 4- year colleges and universities that offer no more than master's degrees, that's also fine.

But for public universities that either claim to or aspire to conduct significant research, the policy focus on undergraduate education is in tension with another Obama administration goal: increasing research in health and science, especially that connected with energy conservation or renewable energy production. That tension isn't direct: ask any president of a large university if it can both educate undergraduates and conduct stunning research in bench sciences, and the answers, "Absolutely." Rather, the tension is subtle, indirect in terms of the implied investments at the state level.  Last year, Kevin Carey asked why Illinois cheated Chicago State by favoring the University of Illinois, and his pointed question is another form of the one any state should ask: how do you divide the available dollars between education and research?

Part of the question is about teaching loads of individual faculty, but that's not really true in major research universities. Even if you tell a department chair to produce N student credit hours, that doesn't tell the chair how many classes an individual faculty member teaches. There are a variety of ways to provide time for faculty to research. Large universities can shift teaching from tenured and tenure-track faculty to contingent academic labor. Wealthy liberal-arts colleges have generous sabbatical opportunities to compensate for consistently heavy teaching at other times. Time is the cheaper resource to provide faculty, relatively speaking. To put it bluntly, as an historian whose research interests lie in the U.S. and where my projects sometimes rely on secondary analysis of quantitative data available for free, I'm a cheap date. Give me time, a reasonably up-to-date computer, occasional funding for travel, and I'm on my way.

But my brother's another story. He's a geomorphologist at Arizona State University, and his research activities have required spectometry and X-ray microscope time as well as equipment, graduate-student funding, and travel funds to collect specimens in the field. And a lab at the campus. The funding required to make this work is a different order of magnitude from what I do. Then there's comparative medicine; a former VP of finance at USF once told me that it is cheaper to house me in my office than a lab mouse in a tiny cage.

Because there is no feasible way to make bench sciences and medical research operate entirely on grants--you can try to do that for a time, but funding rates go down as well as up, and you can't expect institutions to rebuild an infrastructure from scratch every time that federal research funding spikes--there has to be some decision somewhere on research infrastructure investment. Here, sabbatical opportunities are nice but don't begin to satisfy the bottom-line needs of research. This is investment in equipment, in reasonable expenses, and in people as well--the professional lab employees, the graduate students--and bridge funding to preserve teams is one sensible (I'd say required) element in building a research infrastructure. 

Easy, says the observer who hasn't lived in Florida: just limit which institutions engage in capital-intensive research. Then you can concentrate the necessary funds, gain economies of scale, and we can satisfy both goals reasonably. I've seen two attempts to do that in the state in the past decade, and both efforts were swallowed whole by the maw of the Higher Education Status Machine. The Status Machine is fed by the nature of modern academic administration and also by the local booster role of higher education. In Florida, we have runaway institutional ambitions, where even a small community-college president in the panhandle dreams of turning his institution into a four-year college, and where half of the university presidents are insulted if you point out that their research programs are just a wee bit smaller than Princeton's. Then the legislature gets into the game: the soon-to-be (and now erstwhile) House Speaker maneuvered an "everyone can become a four-year-college" bill through the legislature last year, funneled millions to his friend at the now Northwest Florida State College, and was still less wasteful of state resources than the legislators who pushed through two new law schools and three new medical schools in the past decade. Huey Long would be so proud: in Florida, every man can be a king, just as long as she or he runs a public college or university.

Let me step back from my local and immediate cynicism. One of the persistent patterns in U.S. higher education is the upward institutional status trajectory over time. Many normal schools later became teachers colleges and then undergraduate state colleges before they transformed late in the 20th century into universities with significant research programs. Boosterism likewise not a new phenomenon. And the expansion of doctoral programs focused on post-degree employment at research institutions has played a role in this, even if it is much smaller than historic boosterism in higher ed and administrative status envy. But the latter two? Let's put it this way: no candidate would say the following at a campus interview for a public university presidency: "You're perfect as you currently are, and I will do nothing to advance the institution beyond where it is now." 

I am not certain if there is a solution to this dilemma. Theoretically, a state could simply divest itself of research ambitions. That appears to be what Arizona is doing, and it's going to be a disaster. A state could underfund its community and 4-year colleges, which is what Carey accuses Illinois of doing. A state could attempt to ration the upward ambitions of institutions, but you can see how short that idea lived in Florida. You could also pretend that a state's public institutions can be all things to all people. That's where Florida is now.

At the federal level, I suspect that this topic won't even be discussed, because there is no easy solution and the same booster dynamics exist at the federal level (witness the earmarks throughout the federal budget to help specific university-based projects). There's also the dynamics within an administration to consider: to put it honestly, someone like new White House aide Roberto Rodriguez might be articulate and sharp, but that's not going to hold a candle against a cabinet secretary with a Nobel Prize. It would be great to be a fly on the wall for the conversation, though.

Listen to this article
Tags: Barack Obama, Kevin Carey, research, Roberto Rodriguez, Steven Chu, undergraduate teaching
Posted in Higher education on March 4, 2009 7:47 AM |