Wednesday, September 09, 2009

September 9, 2009--Nice Work If You Can Get It

How does this sound to you--you have a totally secure job where you can't be fired for any reason unless you commit a felony and on that job you work eight to nine months a year and then every six years you get a year off at either half or full-pay?

You mean that your employer doesn't offer this benefit? That then tells me you aren't a college or university faculty member. This means your company, your plant, your firm doesn't offer sabbaticals. Institutions of higher learning, on the other hand, do this routinely.

This was brought to mind by an interesting piece in the New York Times about why college tuition continues to rise beyond the rate of inflation even during a deep recession. (See article linked below.) This deflationary year, private colleges across America raised what they charge parents and their children by 4.3 percent, shamelessly noting, according the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, that this is the lowest rate of increase in 37 years.

The cynic in me, considering the tattered state of the economy, wonders why there was any increase at all. At a time when other businesses, and colleges are businesses, are cutting costs and prices to attract clients and customers, why are colleges continuing to charge more?

For a number of reasons. First of all, they can get away with it. As long as there is strong demand for their services (mainly having a monopoly on the granting of credentials), they will continue to do whatever it is they want to do regardless of the state of the rest of reality and the larger economy. Colleges are a classic example of the free market at it’s self-indulgent worst.

Then, though on most campuses there are individual faculty members and academic departments that are in effect going out of business in that they cannot attract customers--i.e. get any students to take and pay for their offerings—department chairs, presidents, and trustees cannot easily cut them back or eliminate them. If no one is any longer interested in studying exotic languages or ancient history, they feel compelled to keep the professors who teach them on the payroll because invariably they have tenure which means they cannot be let go without going through endless law suits and being sanctioned by accrediting agencies. Sort of like in the old days after the railroads switched to diesel engines they were still required to retain and pay the firemen who used to shovel coal into the boilers even though there was nothing much for them to do except sit around and drink coffee.

Then there is the issue of what those in the education business call “faculty productivity.” In business and industry this is not a complicated concept. One can keep track of how many clients a broker attracts and how many trades he or she initiates; in a textile mill managers can quantify how much is being produced and how many people were required to get the job done. And there are things that can be done in these cases to increase productivity through innovation, computerization, and, like it or not, speeding up the flow of work.

But in a college, faculty members’ productivity is measured in essentially three ways—how many courses they teach in a year, how many students they advise, and how much committee work they do. In most colleges professors teach four to five courses a year (two during the fall semester and three in the spring), advise a handful of students, and try to avoid as much committee work as they can get away with. And they typically are on campus three to four days a week and work just two14-week semesters. Twenty-eight out of 52 weeks a years. By the measures of most workers this looks like an essentially a part-time job with full-time benefits.

Any attempt to increase productivity by requiring they teach, say, six courses a year, is typically met by strike threats, law suits, and again sanctions by regional accrediting associations. So no administrators who want to protect their reputations ever suggest this or try to implement these kinds of cost savings. In fact, on most campuses faculty members try to get what is called “release time,” approval to teach even fewer than five courses per year, to “compensate” them for committee work or allow them to engage in research projects. In fact, at elite institutions in order to attract and retain faculty “stars” (that’s what they are called) deans often have to make deals with them to release them from virtually all teaching responsibilities.

And then of course there are those delicious sabbaticals. Presumably to allow faculty to seek intellectual refreshment, engage full-time in a research project, or simply rest up from the rigors of working eight months a year. But then there are those nagging studies which show that in most cases no significant academic work gets done during the sabbatical semester or year; and that even when it does, it does not lead to improvements in classroom teaching. In other words, sabbaticals are another personnel benefits not all that different than paid holidays. And most faculty members see them that way—as an entitlement.

Another reason for university inefficiency is that during the past three decades the size of the administration has swollen. At a much higher rate than any increase in the size of the faculty. It is claimed by the self-interested (with some validity) that this is largely because of governmental red tape. So much money streams to colleges from the federal government via grants and various forms of student financial aid that it takes more staff than in the past to manage this. And then with tuition rising so fast students and their tuition-paying parents are demanding more student services and activities—healthcare, sports teams, clubs, and career counseling. In the past, after graduation, students pretty much on their own were expected to find jobs. Now they require a great deal of help with this and this takes more staff time.

So if you experience tuition sticker shock after you drop your daughter off in Cambridge or in Easton, Pennsylvania (where Lafayette College this year will set you back $50,000 in after-tax dollars), perhaps pop into the president’s office to see why he approved any sabbaticals this year when everyone else is being forced to cut back.


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