Friday, May 27, 2011

UCSD and the Crisis in Public University Research Funding

Reports surfaced today in the San Diego daily newspaper that three core members of UCSD's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics are moving to Rice University, and bringing much of their collaborative infrastructure with them. The story illustrates one of this blog's perennial themes, which is the damage being done right now by the ridiculous cuts in public funding, and by our leaders' foolish acceptance of each current massive cut as the new normal.

But the story also illustrates the vexed and subterranean relations between public universities and big science.  Nothing here amounts to a comment on the research or the individual scientists involved: the story is a structural one of high-cost research and public subsidies that must be thought through if public higher ed is going to make it to the other side.

The story is this:
The three scientists [José Onuchic, Herbert Levine and Peter Wolynes] are transferring their labs to the Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC), a new center that specializes in the study of cancer in association with other Texas Medical Center institutions. The BRC arose from the $3 billion bond package that Texas voters approved in 2007 to study and treat cancer. The initiative specifically calls for the recruitment of prominent scientists. Rice says it was able to recruit Onuchic and Levine was the aide of $10 million in state money provided to the university.
Star scientists move a lot, though not so often as a team. Making this situation unusual is that one of them, Herbert Levine, explicitly named public funding cuts as a "secondary reason" for leaving:
"The major reason is that Rice has made a remarkably generous offer to my colleagues and me, both in personal terms but mainly as it concerns collective research support.

"For our biophysics center, they have offered prime space (to be built to our specs), ongoing administrative support, and facilitated access to foundations such as CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), all of which will enable us to greatly broaden the scope of our efforts and begin to study medical applicants of physical science theory.

"The current budget at UC makes it clear that this type of support is just not going to be possible here. The fact that private university funds have recovered from their 2008 lows long before state budgets are even close to balanced, has led to a "support gap" all across the country (not just California). So, I don't think that budget cuts specifically "drove us out", they are indeed a factor in our overall assessment that we will be able to do significantly more at Rice than at UCSD, over the next 5-10 years"
Unfortunately. this statement is quite accurate.  Public universities are falling woefully behind their private counterparts in the resources for their core missions of instruction and research.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust was challenged by eleven public university presidents when she even hinted about this problem in a quite interesting 2007 Business Week story called 'The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League," Now muttered fears about declining resources for public university research have become everyday reality.

An additional important detail is that the story notes that Rice, a wealthy private university with the country's fourteenth largest endowment per student, just ahead of Cal Tech's, got pivotal support funds from the state of Texas. The article notes that states have taken to stealing each others' scientists with bond packages, and that California has also done this to Texas. The deeper point is that public funding and plenty of it is essential to the the successful pursuit of advanced, socially-useful research.  The universities that are in the best position to leverage this public money are, increasingly, private universities. This doesn't change the fact that high-cost research does not make money, but requires major subsidies from the public sector.

The support gap is likely to grow wider.  This is because a large number of public university leaders have either given up on restoring the levels of public funding that made the American public university system the best in the world, or act like people who have given up, or haven't given up but are afraid to state the situation plainly, in a way politicians can understand: "either restore public funding or kill public universities as we know them, period."  At the same time, these leaders will not state the level to which tuition needs to rise to replace the lost public funding, as this blog has been forced to document on many occasions.  Research is supported both by direct funding from the extramural sponsor and by the host university, who must fill in for underpayments for overhead to the tune of an average of well above 25 cents on the dollar, or in UC's case, a net research loss of $720 million on $3.5 billion in gross revenues earned by UC's very accomplished faculty.  This research should be done, but it costs money and does not earn money.  Either we restore public funding to correct levels, or UC's research mission will decline at the same rate as undergraduate access to small-scale courses. 

The move for the UCSD professors no doubt makes intellectual sense.  It's interesting that Rice tried to build collaboration into the architecture of the facility.  But nothing will change the science's negative economics.  Rice built the BioSciences facility in the mist of a building boom within the multi-institutional Texas Medical Center that created a glut of space.  The 477,000 square foot facility opened in mid-2009 with only one tenant, and colleagues at Rice tell me that the facility continues to have problems covering costs. It appears now to have four extramural tenants.  Basic construction costs are listed as $144 million, and Rice's public financial statements report that the value of assets under construction in fiscal year 2009 was 50% of total existing assets (page 15).  This suggests an enormous financial burden even for a wealthy university.  Hence the benefit of the $10 million in Texas taxpayer money as a sweetener for prospective tenants.  It is also certain that annual public funding will be needed in the future. The research is being done for science, but also for an industry, biotechnology, in which only 13 percent of its companies are profitable, and which arguably has, as an overall industry, yet to turn a profit.

There is the further issue of sacrificial relations among disciplines within a university, as the very high costs of some squeeze out even low-cost fields elsewhere.  In 2010, Rice closed its French studies PhD, meaning that the state of Texas has only one French PhD program left, at UT-Austin.  Rice also closed its university press, which had already been on entirely digital footing, for an annual savings of $150,000-$200,000. (University presses publish books as well as journals, and books are still the primary repository of work in the human sciences.)  Rice also sold one of the campus's major cultural institutions, the student radio station KTRU (91.7), which functioned as a unique outlet for regional and innovative music.  The selling price was $9.9 million.   Of course no one took money from French and gave it to the BioSciences construction company.  That doesn't change the fact that relatively low-cost programs in the humanities and social sciences have a tendency to fall ill in the proximity of big science kryptonite.

In the Hooverized economy Gov. Jerry Schwarzenegger is helping to sustain, we have three choices.
  1. Continue to conceal and distort big science research costs as though this research raised money for universities.  This will increase internal tensions and damage or even eliminate the disciplines that are essential to solving the world's terrible social and cultural problems. 
  2. Disclose those true research costs to ourselves and the public.  Come together to convince the public and its politicians that they must correctly fund expensive research as a public necessity.
  3. Move the humanities and social sciences into separate institutions, so they can retain the funds their enrollments generate that are now in part spent on costly infrastructure of little benefit to their research or their students.
I vote for door number 2.  But if we are offered only door number 1, an increasing number of human sciences faculty will be tempted by door number 3.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Quick Pass on the May Revision

I only have a few minutes today to look at the Governor's May budget revision, and here's what I see. Current-year revenues are up $2.8 billion over forecasts, and $6.6 billion over two years. Governor Brown, true to his turnscrew austerity vision of aHooverite unstimulus for all Californians, increases allocations to no one except K-12 and the community colleges "pursuant to Proposition 98," and, unbelievably, prisons, with a drop for mental health (page 4).

The Regents' strategy of saying that state funding is never coming back has paid off big-time: UC and CSU get exactly zero - not even a $10 million or $50 million booby prize for not fighting the $500 million cuts. The crappy squeezing of health services is intact (page 3), as is the closing of 70 state parks to save a whopping $11 million this year. There is no wavering of Gov Brown's vision in which government's one and only priority is reducing the deficit. 

If I have misread something here, or you can explain why it's a lot better for health and education and public infrastructure to have Jerry Brown rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion, please write.

Michael Here: Just a quick note to reiterate Chris' comment on spending.  The May Revision assumes that the Governor will still get almost all of his tax extensions (although the income tax is shortened).  In other words, it is still possible that he will end up with an "all-cuts" budget with even more fierce slashing of the budget for education, health, etc.

See helpful background on the state deficit at the UCLA Faculty Association blog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Change the Culture of Helplessness

I'm grateful to Cloudminder for a steady stream of UC news updates: check out this past busy UC week. Berkeley's Daily Cal has been providing coverage of management and finance issues that is as good or better than the state's daily newspapers. See this piece on UC's decreasing net assets, for example.

But staying in the steady stream of dismal news does make it harder to remember that it doesn't have to be like this. I can still imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger who forced a state funding growth ceiling on UC and CSU via the Compact but who did not then abandon it unilaterally in 2008. I can imagine a Board of Regents whose members get close to a couple of local campuses and use independent information to assess UCOP reports, and who evaluate solutions offered by faculty, students, and staff. I can imagine a UCOP that decides that transparency with more state trust is better for revenues than opacity with less state trust, and that makes a real long-term effort to explain the details of the budget, including answering questions like why basic arithmetic doesn't back up core claims such as the amount the state gives to UC per student each year (supposedly $7200, page 3). I can imagine a state legislature that would allow higher ed revenues to grow at the same rate as state income (if this had happened since 1990 UC would have $6 billion in state funding rather than be looking $2.5 billion). I can imagine a state population that would be willing to pay the same share of its income in higher education taxes that it did twenty years ago, and not closer to the half that share that it pays now (chart 2d).

The supposed impossibility of that version of California is not a fact of nature. It has been and is continually created by the decisions the major players make on a daily basis. This includes UC’s Regents and Office of the President. In these cases, their agency is regularly concealed behind a consistent strategy of blame-shifting onto the state legislature and, behind them, the voting public and their alleged universal rejection of the very concept of a public good. The university's decline has been accelerated by a culture of helplessness at the top, one which assigns blame elsewhere and helps to demobilize its own community.

Here are some examples from the March Regents' meeting.

The chair of the Board of Regents declared the restoration of state funding to be unrealistic, and in so doing took a major step towards creating that reality and locking it in. Sacramento Democrats and Republicans had their suspicion confirmed that UC would not hold them to a higher funding standard, and would not put up a fight against the current cuts. Similarly, Mark Yudof's recent testimony to the state Senate budget committee focused on avoiding a further $500 million cut as part of the so-called "all-cuts" budget, and tacitly accepted the first $500 million as a given.

In keeping with Chair Gould’s aforementioned diktat, Regent Richard Blum laid out a high-tuition plan as an absolute necessity - no further debate desired or required. I calculated that his plan would mean near-term tuition increases to over $20,000 (in-state) and medium-term increases to $40,000. The lower figure is the minimum required to maintain current levels of educational investment without the first $500 million cut. Rather than stating and tweeting the disastrous tuition news every day, UCOP spent all winter and spring saying that it planned no tuition increases - unless the additional $500 million cut took place. The effect was to muffle the only UC constituency with real influence with California's media, financially desperate undergraduate students. Having lost another five-month opportunity for opposition- and movement-building around public funding, UCOP then placed on next week's Regents agenda a proposal for a new 32% tuition increase, which would bring 2011-12 tuition to over $16,000, plus campus and registration fees (see next-to-last paragraph). UCOP waited until it could present the increase as forced upon them by a political reality over which they and their allies have no control.

Then there's the issue of UC's declining educational quality. UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake said that his campus is

Poised on the precipice of a negative change in quality, which, if allowed to occur, will require a generation to remedy. He praised the excellence of the UC Irvine faculty, but noted that faculty members now spend a great deal of time mitigating damage caused by cuts rather than building for the future. He described the situation of the University as one of slow decay rather than growth. Most effort is focused on protecting the educational path for students; innovation and growth are not being fostered.

These comments are extremely grave. Within American management culture, which requires continuous displays of problem-solving resolve to leaven its peculiar fatalism, they are a declaration of an educational emergency. They were accompanied by descriptions of the decline of the ability to develop individual creative capacities through face-to-face interactions, such as the wholesale elimination of the Irvine campus’s freshman seminar program.

But the state has heard all of this before. The decline has not yet occurred, is not currently occurring, but may occur in the future if the cuts are not brought to an end. Even Chancellor Drake muddled his message by saying that UC is in danger of moving from A+ to A. The vast majority of Californians, whose lifestyles are hovering around C+, would understandably accept UC “A”. Similarly, the financial statements in the Chancellor’s declarations suggest that the budget shortfalls can be handled with regrettable but nonetheless manageable layoffs that have already taken place. The non-UC reader would think, well they’re tightening their belts and fixing their IT problems and we’ll end up with a UC that gets an A for only $2.5 billion in state funds. There is no screaming on our end that says no it cannot be this way and also no it need not be this way. Refusing to take responsibility for having already damaged educational quality with its past political decisions, UCOP warns of decline this time. It is playing Chicken Little with the state.

In contrast to managerial fatalism, faculty members have been putting up a very good fight. I will have to do a separate post to discuss valuable pieces that came out this last week in The Nation and the London Review of Books, and same goes for work closer to home, such as the immediate past chair of the Senate’s systemwide Committee on Planning and Budget (UCPB) Peter Krapp’s excellent piece on why we need to keep the University of California unstratified and whole. But UC Uncut and UC Whole both entail the continuation of the Board of Regents and the Office of the President. At the moment, they are not the system’s strongest points. Whatever the specific errors of campus leaders, one can imagine campuses moving forward via chancellor-presidents with the local knowledge and on-site accountability of campus administrators. You can get a feeling for this by reading the testimony of Chancellors Birgeneau, Blumenthal, and Drake in March.

But local knowledge and direct accountability are largely lacking at the Regental-UCOP level. This problem will need to be solved if UC is going to go forward as a single system.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

We Need UC Uncut

What the state really needs is UC Uncut  - not UC down another $500 million next year on top of previous rounds of similar cuts.  For the twenty years that I have been in the system, UC has steadily squeezed undergraduate instruction, with the effect of herding students into huge lectures and relying on the testing of passively acquired knowledge because it couldn't or wouldn't spend its resources on the small-scale forms of active learning in the tutorials and seminars that the world associates with US higher education because that kind of active learning-to-create happens at Harvard and Reed and Occidental and Stanford.  UC's nominal student-faculty ratio of 17:1 or 20.7:1 or whatever it is in a given chopping-block year has meant in actual practice offering one seminar of 20.7:1 to each major over the course of four years. What students are largely getting instead are 35-student courses that now have 70-80 students in them, 400 person lectures with 1 TA for every 100 students instead of for 50 or 25, and the near total absence of individual mentoring by a regular faculty member.

This latter is a special tragedy for a public university that does not take its students exclusively from the ranks of the top few percent of test takers on the international scale. 
Most UC campuses are comprised of up to nearly 1/3 of Pell-eligible students from families with incomes of less than $45,000 a year (UCLA's 30% is triple the Ivy League norm) . Most of the rest of the student body is broadly middle-class, from California public high schools that no longer have courses for special interests in math or art or music or journalism, no longer have courses for the cultivation of the specific genius of people who will create the next economies and the next cultures.  The broad mass of public university students did not get piano lessons and one-on-one tutoring in Spanish and Mandarin, they have not had four years of shop plus mechanical and architectural drawing.  That is what we have public education for - to get everyone to the level where their interests and visions deserve to be. These students have enormous intelligence and energy, and yet we are neglecting them. We are not doing this willingly. We have no choice. We do not have the people and time and infrastructure to bring everyone on line in the global economy and world culture able to do all that they can do.

 I say this on the basis of direct experience. Over the past three years, I have met several times one-on-one with each of over 350 students from nine UC campuses. These are students who have studied in France through UC's Education Abroad Program.  My goal has been to orient them to a different university system, but also to help them develop an individual academic project. Our students are brilliant at checking the boxes of their requirements as required courses get added and subtracted.  They need to be, since signing up for classes means hitting a moving and shrinking target.  These students generally know what their overall topic of interest is. They are also as a group completely inspiring, the most multilingual, international, multiracial, spontaneously democratic, and transformationally-oriented generation I have seen.

But what about the individual academic project that expresses their specific interests and their unique profile? What about the individual project that would allow them to write a statement of purpose to get into grad school or stand out among the 480 other applicants for an internship at UNESCO, or to apply for a job that will develop their talents?  In about three-quarters of the cases, I am the first senior faculty member with whom these students have every had a sustained conversation.  I  estimate that 90% have had no faculty advising on their course of study. They are increasingly unable to get the more focused and advanced courses that would allow them to develop a true expertise in something before they graduate.  Because finding these courses is now so hard, they have no incentive to develop an individual and special program of study that depends on them.

The bitter irony is that this system of deindividualized education is less functional than ever before.  Large public universities took on the obligation of mass quality -- high quality for mass enrollments -- at a time when corporate America would hire intelligent but generically-trained college grads by the hundreds of thousands. They staffed their gigantic multidivisional organizations, which John Kenneth Galbraith called the "technostructure."  These jobs required varying ratios of conformity and creativity, and UC graduates were its prototypical members: bright, cooperative, motivated, possessed of strong foundations for further specialist training through their college combination of a specific major laid on top of general education.

But the technostructure for which State U was preparing its masses of intelligent students has largely disappeared. Since the 1990s, the corporate world has been applying 'knowledge management" to its workforce under various names. The goal of this practice is to find niche geniuses that invent new products which directly impact the bottom line, on whom the company will lavish great working conditions and pay, while squeezing the positions and pay of the broader white-collar workforce, those millions of smart graduates who nonetheless are not "unique" (see Thomas A. Stewart or my Unmaking chapter 8).  For this among other reasons, elite universities are individualizing undergraduate study even more than they already have.  As just one simple example, several years ago M.I.T. "replaced the traditional large introductory [physics]  lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning."  In doing so, M.I.T. reduced the course's failure rate by 50%.

UC is headed in the opposite direction, towards massification and deindividuation.  Lack of financial resources is the number 1 reason why.

We need UC Uncut, and CSU Uncut, and the community colleges uncut.  Accepting the $500 million cut, as UC officials appear to have done, betrays our responsbility to the current generation of California students.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Recalibration" in Minnesota

by Susan Cook
Assistant Professor of English

This past fall, and six weeks into my tenure-track position at Bemidji State University, I was advised by senior faculty members to go back on the job market. Our new university president, Richard Hanson, had just announced a “recalibration” plan that focused on what he termed the “distinctiveness, sustainability, and innovativeness” of the university. “Recalibration” is of course a euphemism for budget cuts. Bemidji State, a member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, is a campus with approximately 5,000 undergraduate and 300 graduate students. It faces a $5 million shortfall over the biennium. In practical terms, “recalibration” means the loss of 35 faculty positions, 32 graduate assistant positions (half of the current positions), 10.75 staff positions, and the men’s track program.

I came into the English Department this fall with two other new colleagues, both of whom were called on the MLK, Jr. holiday and asked to meet with the president the next morning, when they were given their retrenchment notices. Faculty lines were cut in English, Visual Arts, History, Philosophy, Art History, Modern Languages, Music, Physics, Environmental Studies, Sociology, Economics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Accounting, Technological Studies, Physical Education, Professional Education, Psychology, and Theatre. The cuts will mean the termination of Art History and Theatre. By cutting entire departments, the administration was able to cut tenured as well as tenure-track and fixed-term faculty.

Throughout the process, the strategy seemed to be one of divide and conquer. At an October 13th meeting between faculty and administration, the president announced that faculty from targeted academic departments would be offered early retirement incentives. The list of departments was released to the university community, along with an announcement that the president was considering retrenchment. As one colleague told me, distributing the list of departments from which the administration hoped to secure early retirements seemed a deliberate attempt to pit retirement-age faculty against the rest of their departments. The administration also informed us that every department on campus would have the opportunity to write a 600-word explanation of its “distinctiveness, sustainability, and innovativeness.” It seemed clear to everyone that the writing assignment was meant to be a distraction, as well as a means of asking departments to justify themselves in implicit relation to other departments.

A few of us began asking about other solutions to the funding crisis—what about furloughs, or individuals who had expressed the desire to share one tenure line? The administration said this was a question for the faculty union; the faculty union informed us that it did not endorse furloughs or other solutions. The dominant mood around campus has been one of resignation and muted resistance: behind closed doors, faculty talked about organizing a vote of no confidence in the president, but no one voiced this idea aloud at faculty senate meetings.
In my department, people began posting anonymous reactions to the cuts on a bulletin board. The board was removed by administrators and then returned by a faculty member, the fight for jobs co-opted by a struggle for freedom of expression.

What is troubling to many of us is the way these cuts have been distributed. The liberal arts have been hit most hard, and instruction overall has weathered the brunt of the cuts. Bemidji State already held the distinction as MnSCU’s most administration-heavy university. Despite the president’s claims to the contrary, “recalibration” did not include cuts to administration—only administrative staff. At the October 13th meeting, faculty argued that the proposed restructuring seemed to be “a complete flip from what has been the mission of our university in the past – specifically, us being a: ‘Liberal arts university with select professional programs.’” The president responded: “I don’t know that it is a flip – but I don’t know that the other (mission) was accurately describing what this university is.” In a later written response dated February 23rd, the president modified his view, stating that “Our main task is to inculcate the power and wisdom of the liberal arts into each student…Inculcation is not a product of programs but is a product of interaction and teaching process. It (inculcation) can happen in a mathematics course, or an accounting course, or a psychology course.” Leaving aside the problematic repetition of the term “inculcate”—which the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us means to “endeavour to force (a thing) into or impress (it) on the mind of another by emphatic admonition, or by persistent repetition”—this statement reduces the liberal arts to a skill set that can simply be added into other, more central courses of study. Illustrating this application of the liberal arts, President Hanson goes on in the same document to quote “T. S. Elliot [sic]”: “‘Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.’” “Recalibration,” Hanson writes, “is very much the same sort of experience.” To summarize the logic: “recalibration” is the same sort of experience as experience, which is to say “recalibration” is a paradox.

It seems clear that the goal of this “recalibration” is to make Bemidji State more of a vocational school, to give customers the career results they demand. One of my graduate students articulated the trouble with this line of thinking: in ten years, she said, if someone wants to get a liberal arts degree, he or she will have to be able to pay private school prices for it. My student may be right. This round of “recalibration” is over, but state legislators have been eager to continue cutting the higher education budget. I won’t be coming back to Bemidji State in the fall—I went on the market as my senior colleagues advised and was fortunate enough to be offered a job.  At a private university.