Show Me the Money

I’ve been following conversations here and at many other higher education institutions about financial issues. As I said somewhat sheepishly to colleagues yesterday, a lot of what I believed in when times were flush is still what I believe in when times are dire. The same principles about money and priorities apply for me. Two things are especially important to me:

1) I completely accept that academics are going to use heterodox principles for determining spending priorities. Meaning, we’re going to argue that some curricular and institutional commitments are so important to our ethos that they cannot be subjected to simple cost/benefit rubrics such as putting the most support into the most popular or most heavily enrolled subjects. Not just because of ethos, but also because academic institutions have a different commitment to the long-term than a business might: we’re trying to make administrative decisions that hold water for twenty or thirty years, and when it comes to knowledge production, arguably we’re trying to operate at a far longer time scale than that. At the same time, we’re also going to want to make some decisions based on cost/benefit analysis. I think it’s wrong to try and reduce every financial decision down to only one underlying principle, to make consistency the only value. However, this heterodoxy carries a price: it means that everyone at all times has to be willing to expose a financial decision to all these perspectives. Nobody gets to withhold financial decisions from cost/benefit analysis, and nobody gets to assert that high demand for their teaching or research services is sufficient justification for high allocation of resources.

2) Some decentralization of financial decision-making is consistent with the productive institutional norms of academia. But again, disciplinary or departmental influence over decisions about budgets and resources does not entitle disciplines or departments to intellectual or administrative independence. We all owe each other a constantly renewed explanation of our institutional importance and we all owe each other skeptical examination of those explanations. I think that’s true when times are good and there’s a desire to add some new faculty or staff capacity, and it’s even more true when times are bad and some kind of current capacity is necessarily going to be reduced or degraded.

I think this is true in a liberal arts institution even when it’s not a question of resources: we should always be interested in what other departments do, and part of being interested as an intellectual is having some critical awareness about the intellectual and programmatic commitments of other disciplines. I cannot competently advise or teach a student in the history department if I’m not prepared to tell them when their interests or arguments within historical study have started to shade towards another epistemological, methodological or disciplinary tradition. I need to be knowledgeable enough to tell a student when their preferred approach is better served in another social science or another humanistic discipline, or when the questions they’re asking are better worked through one of the natural sciences. If I’m knowledgeable enough to do that, I’m knowledgeable enough to make some rough judgments about the legitimacy of the budgetary or financial preferences of other departments.


I think most academics are less prepared or willing to talk about the cost/benefit side of these decisions. That’s partly because we often have restricted access to all the information needed to assess particular budgetary decisions, and so we avoid having a strong opinion. It’s partly because we’re anxious (properly) that the language of cost/benefit can easily be misused to vulgar or destructive ends, that it proposes a false equivalence between businesses and universities.

That said, in a small undergraduate college where teaching is the priority, here’s a couple of basic cost/benefit principles about faculty work that seem to me to be very important.

1) Specialization is expensive.

This is the hobbyhorse I ride most frequently at this blog, so long-time readers, bear with me. I think there are principled arguments for a more generalist approach to liberal arts education and publication, but the financial rationale also matters. The more highly specialized a faculty becomes, and the more that they feel that they can only teach to their specializations, the more intolerable the absence of other specializations becomes and the more pressure there is to address those absences through the addition of other specialists. When you argue that the value of your teaching lies in the importance of your specialization to your discipline and to the curriculum and build the curriculum accordingly, you make the institution far less flexible over the very long-term. It can only address changes in knowledge or in social priorities with new personnel and resources. The institution can only understand the lack of other specializations as an absence or failure. No matter how big a university is, there are areas of study it does not address, but a 40-person history department can get a lot closer to coverage of the map of available specializations than a 9-person department can. The more driven you are by specialization, the more that the 9-person department can by definition never be excellent in comparison to the 40-person one, regardless of the talents of the faculty members. Because at that point, you’re hiring the specialization, not the teacher. There are real financial pressures that mount steadily when courses stop being roughly equivalent to each other in the overall manner that they provision intellectual value, critical thought, skills and competencies, to students.

2) Highly sequential curricular designs are expensive, especially when they’re combined with generous leave policies.

As an extension of the first point, when a curriculum is built around a lengthy sequence of required courses which trend towards more and more specialized inquiry, it has a big pricetag for two primary reasons. The first is that for students to graduate, all rungs of the curricular ladder must be available with sufficient frequency for every student to move through the progression in a timely fashion, especially if there is no formal system of rationing the numbers of students allowed to climb any given ladder. This means a lot of leave replacements or it means fewer leaves. The second is that the longer the sequence, the more it is likely to require many small classes at the end (see the next point) unless there is a strict restriction of possible lines of sequential study, which tends to be less and less plausible the more an institution caters to specialization. E.g., if a history department is built around trying to have faculty who are highly competent in narrowly-defined specializations, they are more likely to argue that a sequential curricular design requires a possible culmination in each and every one of those specializations.

3) Small classes are expensive. Persistently small classes are really expensive.

A course with smaller-than-average enrollments, even in a small institution, is a more expensive course. A faculty member whose courses are always small is a more expensive faculty member. A department or discipline whose courses are always small is a more expensive department. This may be absolutely ok, because either the pedagogical objectives of a course which are important for principled reasons cannot be served above a certain size or because a particular subject or discipline is deemed of such principled importance to other disciplines or the overall mission of the institution that it is worth having at any price. A 1:1 allotment of financial resources to enrollments is a really bad idea for any college or university, of any size: that entails giving up any conviction about what an educated person ought to know.

The more you budget based on matching enrollments, the more you should drop any and all requirements or curricular structure. That being said, courses that are persistently smaller than the average enrollments at a college need to be justified in terms of principle. This tends to be a really uncomfortable subject for discussion in any college that I’m familiar with, and you can see why: it can quickly become a swamp of personal complaint, full of insults intended and unintended. So maybe it’s wise to stay away from trying to micromanage, but if money’s an issue, it’s also important not to overlook the budgetary consequences of enrollments.

4) Tenure is not that expensive, but it’s not cheap, either.

The hostility to tenure outside of academia comes from a lot of different places, and I’m not interested in reviewing all of them right now, as I’ve talked endlessly on this subject in the past. But one of the common perceptions is that tenure itself is a major financial liability. That’s not true to the extent commonly supposed. If all other things are equal in a curriculum, a tenured and an untenured faculty member with a long-term renewable contract cost about the same in terms of salary and benefits. If you’re looking to radically change the average class size upward, eliminate multiple departments in a very short-term timeframe, in short, to do a more-or-less corporate kind of downsizing, then tenure prevents an administration from taking those actions and is in that sense expensive.

But making a Mercedes-Benz factory into a Ladi factory is only partially about the wages and skill levels of the workers: it’s more about changing entirely the consumers you’re selling to. If you want to get rid of tenure so that you can completely restructure a college or university to have far fewer faculty, a completely different mix of subjects taught or far larger classes, that’s not really about your costs, it’s about making a new kind of educational product intended for a different market. The expense of tenure is pretty much the same thing as the expense of specialization and sequentialization and as a result, the expense of tenure rises proportionately to specialization and sequentialization in relation to the size of the institution. It simply means that over a thirty-year period, you’re locked into a single teacher once you’ve given them tenure. If you wish you had another subject represented in the curriculum fifteen years down the line and you have no hope that an existing specialist will address that absence, you’re stuck unless you spend more money. If you have a highly generalist faculty and they become aware of an exciting new area of knowledge, they may be able to address it within the curriculum without having to create a new position. The cost of tenure is the loss of flexibility. The less flexible an institution is in other respects, the more costly tenure becomes.


There’s a flip side to all these issues as well. Too much generalism and students will be very poorly prepared to excel in highly specialized careers or in graduate study. Many students know this, and so you lose them to other institutions. Too few areas of study represented or accomodated, and you look pretty crappy compared to peer institutions. (Though caveat emptor: at all sizes, universities and colleges tend to have a certain amount of Potemkin-village storefronts in their course catalogs, programs which are more notional than actual.) No sequences at all and students end up with formless and non-comparable experiences. Big classes have their own costs, not just to learning but in terms of facilities and infrastructural support, as well as tending to reduce the diversity of the curriculum.

It’s just that a lot of these kinds of decisions are often seen as cost-free or entirely driven by principle (or even just by the inertia of generalized academic values). Cost maybe should not be the exclusive driver in thinking about how to structure higher education, but if you’re not aware of how much it matters by now, you’re really now paying attention.

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5 Responses to Show Me the Money

  1. sjt says:

    “That???? partly because we often have restricted access to all the information needed to assess particular budgetary decisions, and so we aver having a strong opinion.”

    I don’t understand your use of “aver” here, and a trip to the dictionary didn’t help. Do I need a better dictionary?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Weird mental lapse. Fixed.

  3. sibyl says:

    Good post. Naturally, I’m only going to write about one small thing within it that bothers me. 😉

    Actually, that’s not true. I will commend your comment that what matters in flush times ought to matter in lean times, too. Otherwise it’s not really a value; it’s an expedient position.

    Okay, now the nitpick. I think the true cost of tenure is not the first thirty (or twenty, or whatever) years after tenure is granted but the years after that. With the end of mandatory retirement, tenure becomes a one-way employment contract, and the future of the institution is not a collectively managed thing but only an aggregation of individual decisions to stay or go. I’d like to see tenure applied for a fixed period — possibly tied to age, possibly not, depending on law — and then converted to one-year term contracts, with no loss of rank and probably no diminution of compensation. If a senior faculty member is productive and everyone wants her to stay, well and good; if not, then the department and/or the dean doesn’t have to grin and bear it as her enrollments dwindle and she draws a salary that can’t be used by the department to hire new junior faculty.

    To me that’s a straightforward application of your principle that “we all owe each other a constantly renewed explanation of our institutional importance and we all owe each other skeptical examination of those explanations.”

  4. G. Weaire says:

    “A course with smaller-than-average enrollments, even in a small institution, is a more expensive course.”

    Couple of points that relate to this.

    1) Smaller departments sometimes (often?) cross-subsidize. They support some small courses by having a couple of really big broad ones. This isn’t necessarily a *good* thing. (To start with, there’s the “senior faculty teach small classes in their preferred areas, while the untenured have to teach everything to everybody” phenomenon.)

    2) Numbers aren’t independent of the specifics of how the course fits into that particular institution’s general education (or whatever) requirements. Certain departments – I’m afraid that History is often one of them – may be able to lock in large numbers for some courses because many or all students have to take them. (For my department, it’s the language requirement that does this for us.) One can’t, I think, open this can of worms without expecting the issues to broaden dramatically, really fast.

  5. jpnudell says:

    Hi, I have read for several weeks, but this is my first response:

    I am a recent graduate of Brandeis University and hold my B.A. in Classical Studies and History. The history department is relatively large and never has a problem generating students, largely because it is considered a tack-on major. Classics had more difficulty because of the language requirement, but for the second time in five years an academic review board/ the Dean of Arts and Sciences has proposed eliminating the department (this second time, the suggestion is to reduce faculty, eliminate the department and make the major interdepartmental).

    This is regarded exclusively as a financial issues as the university is in dire straights after the Madoff fallout. This is also despite the incredible efforts of the faculty in this department who teach multiple courses across all disciplines, including, though not limited to: history, language, literature, philosophy, theater, art, and archeology.

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