Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Micro-Management, Please!

This op-ed piece re-plays the usual arguments--profs teach too little, class sizes too big, make profs teach more.  There is something to this--I teach an intro course with 600 students.  This does not bother me so much as the 80 kids in my senior level class.  We do offer seminars for honors students but not enough of them. 

But to blame profs for reduced courseloads (and yes, I have been enjoying such a reduction due to my Canada Research Chair-ness) is to overstate that problem, compared to underfunding/over-admitting; incentives for grad programs; and administrative bloat.  Oh, and not understanding the research part of a research university.  Let me make this self-serving argument point by point.

First, the author of the piece, Simpson, acknowledges that provincial officials (for the US, think state governments) tend to emphasize access, producing larger and larger groups of incoming students but funding has tended to be shrinking.  So, they want us to do more with less.  The original source of McGill's big bloat in class size, at least in my department, was in the 1990s when there were steep budget cuts.  My guess is that our classes will get bigger still because of the new cuts that means we cannot hire as many temp folks.

Second, some of our classes are really quite small--we call them graduate classes.  Funding schemes often give departments more money if they have more graduate students despite the fact that the academic job market is rather poor and will continue to be so.  Indeed, there are still departments around North America starting new PhD programs--which is semi-unconscionable.  We are a very bad guild and having too many grad students in the pipeline is a collective bad  so we might be better off if governments reduced some of the incentives that reward universities for having heaps of grad programs and students.  This would have to be carefully done so that we do not penalize the students in the pipeline now nor underfund future ones.

Third, if you track where the funding has gone over the past 10 or 20 years, the area that has seen the most growth is administration.  Even when other areas are being cut, it seems to be the case that we have more Vice Principals (Vice Presidents or Chancellors at US schools), Associate Provosts, and so forth. These folks are not only expensive in terms of their salary but in terms of their staff requirements.  So, before we start asking profs to teach more, how about we look at administrative positions?

Fourth, the article here entirely underplays the notion that a research university is supposed to do research.  If we up courseloads to 3-3 (three course a term) or 4-4, which would be the only way to really get class sizes down significantly without adding more resources or cutting the numbers of students, then profs would be doing far less research.  That's ok as long as you realize that time is finite and there are tradeoffs. And if you don't value research.  But if you do value knowledge creation (oh, what a wonderfully arrogant way to put it), then perhaps you might want to keep some of the universities in the research game.  Relying on the private sector is a risky way to go, as Canada (or the US) would still be in a world where research is publicly funded via universities and thus at a competitive disadvantage.  And private research money may not examine government output since that might risk their funding.  Tenure does have a purpose--such as allowing folks to challenge the prevailing wisdom, whether it is in cancer research, foreign policy, or provocative art. 

Update: I forgot to mention that the idea that teaching and research are unrelated is also problematic.  As I have mentioned here at the Spew many times, my teaching is informed by my research (and vice versa).  And not only in the more specialized upper division courses but even in the big intro to International Relations class.   More knowledge is.... more.

Simpson is essentially calling for more micro-management of universities.  That may be ok in Ontario, but I think we get enough of that here in Quebec, thanks.

Is there a problem with class size?  Yes.  Is asking profs to teach more a simplistic solution?  Indeed.


Robert McClelland said...

What do you think of taking teachers off salary and instead paying them hourly for their work (which of course would include payment for the work they do outside of the classroom)?

Steve Saideman said...

The first response is: does the charging by billable hour lead to optimal/efficient legal economies?

Second thought--more money for administrators to track all of this. Lovely..

Third: what counts? Blogging on a Saturday morning? Cool. Time in shower thinking about project or new way to teach something? Time spent traveling to a presentation or doing research?

Fourth, how are rates set?

Interesting idea in theory. But the practice of it would be awful. A basic problem here is that we are not producing widgets. And our work is multidimensional. Hard enough to figure out merit pay, but hourly wages? Oy.

Chris C. said...

Is the increasing administrative bloat a collective action problem on the part of the faculty?

I'm always amazed at how small things (i.e. changes in parking policies, perceived slight to department X) seem to rile up lots of profs but big things (massive cuts, new administrative positions, etc.) get by with nary a peep.

What will it take to actually rouse the faculty to re-assert control over the administration?

Steve Saideman said...

Um, what are they teaching you these days? What power do the profs have? Where can I find my magical wand to make the admin folks hire less admin folks? We gripe about a great many things but have little effect. I suppose we could unionize but there are two problems with that. First, the dynamics that I describe above are taking place at universities with strong unions. Second, I still prefer McGill's un-union-ness since unions combined with tenure is not a great combo. Mediocrity overcomes merit pretty quickly.