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The University Crisis: Let us Roll Back Events and Turn Adversity into Advantage

When the Roman historian Plutarch (46 to 120 AD) in his book about the “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” discussed the reign of the Roman dictator Sulla (-138 to-78 BC) he attributed the beginning of the decline of the Roman Republic to an age where the loss of innocence and purpose of the citizenry yielded to an age of uncontrolled “appetite for riches and luxury”.

As history is bound to repeat itself, the US University is now in full crisis. Many states are now unable to meet budgetary commitments to their Universities and talk abounds about furlough days, salary cuts and personnel layoffs. It may therefore be pertinent and useful to consider how US Universities got into this bind and what can be done about this problem.

A. The Crisis

1. Uncontrolled Expansion into Mortar and Brick

Over the years I watched with amazement the physical expansion of Universities. Upon inquiry, I was always told that the budget for this expansion was justified since it was a separate line item from the budget of the University. It did not occur to many that the money to fund such an expansion was nevertheless state money, and a time will eventually come when States may default in the face of continued demands.

2. Addiction to Overhead Funds

As Universities tended to adopt a corporate business model instead of an academic model (see above under Reflections and Comments. 1. Academic and Business Research Models: Analysis and Comments), overhead costs skyrocketed and tended to become goals by themselves instead of a fall out from good research. This in turn led to an emphasis on grantsmantship rather than real research quality. Grantsmantship started playing undue roles in annual salary raises, promotion and tenure. I was recently told by a computer scientist that during annual meetings, conversations were dominated by talks about grants and overhead rather than exchange of research ideas.

3. Uncontrolled Bloating of Administrative Structures

At one time, the University pyramid consisted of a President, Deans, Department Heads or Chairs, Faculty and Academic Professionals. Nowadays, most of these positions have exploded into a litany of arrays. Presidents are now helped by Vice Presidents, Chancellors and Provosts. Chancellors are assisted by Vice Chancellors, Associate Vice Chancellors and Assistant Chancellors. The same goes for Provosts, Deans and Department Heads or Chairs. It has been my experience that to the detriment of the Faculty, many departments are now run by the administrative secretary.

4. Quality of Administrators

During the past twenty five years, a new academic category has emerged. It consists of freshly graduated Ph.Ds who instead of proving themselves by teaching and research before moving into administration, elect to become professional administrators by climbing the administrative path. In many cases because of limited teaching and research experience these individuals wind up holding top administrative positions for which they are poorly qualified. At a recent funeral of a capable Department Head, as the qualities of that administrator were beeing extolled, his daughter herself a University Professor, told me” My dad was good, however a comparison with current administrators is unfortunate because as time goes by, the quality of present day administrators is not getting any better, and is indeed falling down”. Her statement gave me the feeling that in this environment the "One Eyed Jack Becomes King among the Blind".

5. Grade Inflation

In order to get favorable Student reviews, many professors are inflating grades. It is my understanding that a few professors, maintain two grade books, a public one for the University Adminiastration, and a more conservative private one for letters of recommendations.

B. Possible Remedies

Faced with these problems the question is: what can be done to reverse the downward trend of the US University. It took about twenty five years for the present situation to evolve to its current state, and it may take another twenty five years to slowly reverse the process and revert back to basics. However, as Confucius stated a long time ago, "A journey of Ten Thousand Miles has to Start with the First Mile". In so doing, it is mandatory for Universities to live within the confines of reasonable state budgets and tuition increases. In this respect, it may be useful to heed an old world idiom that states “Spread out your Blanket to the extent of your Legs”.

1. Stop the Unnecessary Physical Expansion of the University.

Every time I inquired about the runaway brick and mortar expansions of Universities, I received the same answer, namely: the physical expansion of Universities is fueled by a separate budget line independent of the University allocation. Such reasoning ignored the fact that the allocated funds directly or indirectly constituted a burden on the state budget and sooner or later Universities and states would be forced to default on paying increasing heating, cooling lighting and maintenance bills.

2. Improving Undergraduate and Graduate Education

During forty years in Academia, I have witnessed grade inflation and a gradual decline in the relative quality of the Ph.D degree. Universities are ranked, among other things, by the number of degrees they grant. Prodded by the persistent appetite of industry for Ph.D hires, I have seen many granted Ph.Ds that are more akin to an MS than a Ph.D degree. Universities would do themselves a service by emphasizing the MS degree for industrial hires and taking the time to produce fewer but higher caliber Ph.Ds to cater to academia. Such Ph.Ds would not glut the crowded postdoctoral market and would have a better chance of finding a decent academic job after finishing their training. Of course this would require faculties that are not afraid of the stigma of failing unqualified students, and administrations that support such undertakings.

3. Reduction in Size of University Faculty and Support Personnel by Attrition

Training fewer but better PhDs and emphasizing the MS degree would allow departments to improve quality and reduce the number of needed Faculty and support personnel by the process of attrition.

4. Shrinking Administrative Structures

By shrinking administrative structures, Universities would restore Faculties and Support personnel to their rightful place in the academic enterprise. After all, the building blocks of Academia consist of Academic and non-Academic personnel that are not afraid of devoting their lives to serve the cause of teaching and research. This is in sharp contrast to professional administrators whose half life in a particular University amounts to just a few years.

5. Hiring Administrators with Teaching and Research Experience

The hiring of administrators with extensive teaching and research experience would alleviate the schism that now separates Faculties from Administrators. Many top notch educators or researchers nearing the end of their career would be glad to perform service to the University and to provide competent and experienced leadership. In my opinion it is erroneous to assume that top flight educators and researchers turn out to be mediocre administrators.

6. Recognition of Academic Achievements in Teaching and Research

Teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels is extremely important and should not take a back seat to research and development. In my opinion it is as important if not more important than industrial parks. As such, Faculties that excel in teaching should be recognized and remunerated for their just value, since they contribute considerably to the education of future generations.

This Essay Reflects the Personal Opinions of the author

Feedbacks to crebeiz@illinois.edu are welcome.

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