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Little improvement unless LA academia mindset changes

A report that illuminates a portion of why Louisiana higher education suffers from resource problems also serves as a metaphor for the whole, directing to a solution for that – one if not pursued threatens to undo the recommendations made in the policy brief.

The Public Affairs Research Council, to noises of approval including those in higher education, described the good, bad, and ugly of how state policy inhibits leveraging of university research, with recommendations garnered from other states’ system to allow Louisiana to better fit higher education into economic development, describing benefits that would accrue to the micro, university level and to the macro, state level. Its underlying ethos makes for a reform agenda that could bear considerable revenues in the future.

In a sense, the major criticism of the current conduct of research enhancing these efforts by the state serves emblematically for the notorious weakness in Louisiana’s entire higher education structure. PAR wrote that research return missed its potential by an outdated model of the state spreading resources for it too thinly. There it is in a nutshell: the overbuilt higher education system, accentuated by the state’s peculiar populist political culture, likewise squanders potential by creating a situation of too few four-year capable and willing students chasing too many baccalaureate-and-above universities, and every time some politicians and higher education bureaucrats bray for more money for/fewer reductions of it, this reveals a single-minded captivity to the old centralized planning model of delivery that stubbornly refuses to recognize the world for what it is.

Some half-century ago, when the creation of value almost always was a slow, long process heavily dependent upon physical inputs, and the information and knowledge to assist in this disseminated from warehouses – the university – that kept much of these centralized, the statist model may not have been out of place. But the world has changed and academia, in its peculiar, endearing, and maddening fashion, is among the last to acknowledge this, much less adapt to it. Today, gatekeeping of information largely has disappeared, giving the seekers of it many more options to pursue it. Value-creating information has exponentially multiplied, and the value of that information itself has increased by a magnitude again in the innovational function. This allows value to be created far more quickly with far fewer startup costs – thus transforming the environment into one ill-suited for the survival of institutions that pretend to act as isolated bastions of scare information that supplicants must petition to access, when other competitors both inside and outside of academia arise to deliver this relatively inexpensively, quickly, and sweepingly.

Quite simply, the mentality of higher education as a scarce resource in a seller’s market propped up by abundant taxpayer dollars has become moot in an era of decentralized knowledge availability distributed on multiple platforms in a buyer’s market with greater competition for taxpayer support. Some systems have adjusted: Oregon’s higher education system receives less than a tenth of its resources from taxpayers while in Louisiana some politicians and higher education bureaucrats consider the projected budgetary level without wholesale tax changes that makes for less than 25 percent public support to be apocalyptic. Part of Oregon’s success formula involves policies akin to those forwarded by PAR.

But as desirable as that might be, that neither addresses the entire problem nor does it do so with any immediate effect. Reform must go beyond procedures and processes and must extend to the entire worldview of how higher education serves the public, recognizing the new reality. One method of doing so is to follow Oregon’s lead in quasi-privatization, with some suggesting a kind of shock therapy reminiscent of that done to eastern European economies in the 1990s (an extended discussion of why and how that might happen may be found in several articles here).

However, this won’t work because too many institutions – nearly all – at present simply could not survive in a sink-or-swim environment. Unlike Oregon’s, the current system has shaped few institutions (and one that might have made in in 2005, the University of New Orleans, got knocked back at least a decade by the hurricane disasters of that year) into a mode where they could make it under these conditions. Unless you want three baccalaureate-and-above schools to make it and sell the infrastructure of the other eleven to pay debts from failed launches, this is not the way to go right now. Nor does it do anything to solve the immediate funding problems of Louisiana higher education; Oregon’s institutions, which were prepared to make to move, have taken anywhere from three to five years to accomplish it.

For privatization to work and to immediate effect when implemented, the proper mindset must be created among those charged with operating in it; keep in mind that Oregon’s transformation came as a result of a request from within the system, not one that was imposed from the outside, and among academicians in Louisiana only now is the reality of the changed higher education world beginning to dawn upon them. So many have spent so much of their careers isolated in systems defined by centralized planning, whether academia or government, with so little understanding about how today’s economy really works, that they are unable to make the adjustment without preparation.

Part of this paradigm shift involves a realistic appraisal of the contributions made by academicians, for if global and market forces have put higher education’s consumers and taxpayers in control, it is they, not the academy, who assign the valuations. The typical assessment usually focuses on an unrealistically high valuation, based upon perceived intelligence, lengthy time periods to obtain multiple degrees, insulation from outside forces and understanding genuine outcomes, etc. Yet surely some general observations can point how to do this.

For example, let’s say you have at a flagship school a journalism professor, who got the position more for political connections than anything else, making annually six figures in salary who teaches two sections a semester, one of which actually is just a placeholder for students working on advanced degrees, who typically teaches a dozen students a term. At roughly $5,000 a student, is this guy really worth it? Does he really contribute that much value? Even taking research into account, do taxpayers really need to be paying to subsidize writing more books about politicians?

Contrast this to the political science professor at a regional university who teaches four courses a semester, averaging over 100 students and making about a third of the salary of the other guy, and who manages to crank out a piece of research from time to time. His costs come in under $225 per student, over 20 times less expensive. Would not his efforts provide much more value to taxpayers? Or how about a chemistry professor at the same place who averages three sections a semester with perhaps 75 students, a number of them going on to careers in allied health, who makes less than half of the guy at the flagship school and who also has an active research agenda in the hard sciences, whose per student cost a year is $400?

It is this kind of irrationality in resource allocation that penalizes Louisiana higher education in the modern world and makes it inefficient. If up against fiscal constraints, wouldn’t it make more sense at the flagship school to hire three instructors in place of the guy, one in journalism and two others in more critical fields? Would journalism be so impoverished this way? This typifies the kind of decision-making that has gotten Louisiana higher education to this point, one which could be tolerated in a different era but now has become a dinosaur that inevitably will lead to its own extinction unless changes occur no matter how long, often, and successfully higher education sticks out its hands for public dollars saying the fault lies not in itself, but in taxpayers who are reluctant to give to sustain the wasteful, obsolete system.

This is not to argue that over the past few years that the state’s higher education has not become more efficient, compelled both by the changing environment and imposition of the GRAD Act that allows for tuition increases if certain performance targets get met. It is to say that more can be done that not only could set the stage for privatization, but also could begin saving money right now.

Previously noted in this space has been that higher education should abandon the concept of tenure. Beginning this academic year, all academic hiring should be with five-year contracts with termination for cause at any time, and for any reason at a contract conclusion. Legally, in Louisiana it’s uncertain whether existing contracts of those hired previously tenure-track or those already tenured could be converted to this, but they should be if possible. Small savings this year would grow from the flexibility thereby granted to schools to respond to changing conditions that would improve dramatically.

Also previously noted is that a greater orientation to teaching and the classroom must occur. With very few exceptions, every full-time, non-administrative senior institution faculty member in the state not on sabbatical leave and in the hard sciences should teach the equivalent of at least two sections per semester, and everybody else at least three; regional universities could set these number respectively to three and four (many already do so, if not higher). The primary purpose of the university is to prepare students to succeed in the world, especially when it’s taxpayer money going to this goal, not to support ahead of that someone’s extensive research agenda or vanity projects. While research can help inform teaching, if that’s what really interests a faculty members, there are plenty of institutes and private campuses that will allow them to indulge in this fancy. And if service through contracts and the like get in the way, then perhaps a commitment full time to service outside of academia is more appropriate. This would trigger immediate and substantial cost savings as instructors on annual contracts and adjuncts on term-by-term deals could be let go with no longer any need to cover light-to-nonexistent teaching loads of full-time faculty members.

Political impositions peculiar to Louisiana also create inefficiencies the termination of which would induce savings, perhaps the most notorious being schools being unable to charge any more than 12 semester hours of tuition regardless of hours attempted. Immediate change and savings also could happen here, along with the longer-term agenda of merging, demoting, or even closing four-year institutions. And, of course, the case remains strong that the direct beneficiaries of higher education, students, pay more of their fair share for it, in a state when compared to others where tuition to senior-level schools ranks 41st but per capita income is 29th and whose graduate carry relatively little student loan debt, another thing politicians would have to authorize to produce a meaningful revenue increase that would help substantially in the short term.

Regarding the PAR report, its writers probably do not understand that, as salutary as their advice may be, it will have limited effectiveness unless the worldview of Louisiana academia changes, as will any other reforms. Addressing that mindset with the goal of its evolution into something more relevant to the world as it is not only increases the potential effectiveness of an effort like this, but it also can start delivering cost savings so badly needed in the state’s higher education system where publics have become more insistent upon the right-sizing of state government that spends wisely the money it takes from them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Realizing this is April Fool's day, I still wonder which scenario you would prefer:

- the "connected" journalism professor taken down a peg, or

- the beleaguered political science professor getting his own hands on some of that sweet, sweet tenure cash (all "privately" generated, of course).

The real problem facing higher ed is a general mindset that considers both guys to be tweed-clad freeloaders who should instead be making "real money" lawyerin' and contractin' - the state's only truly respected occupational choices.