Blame It on the Faculty

Higher ed commission's memo cites tenure and "extraordinary power" of professors as reasons why college costs soar.
April 6, 2006

Until now, as the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education has questioned how well colleges teach their students and blasted the higher education accreditation system, college professors have largely remained off the radar, at least of the panel's public deliberations.

That changed Wednesday, as the commission released the latest of its "issue papers" designed to stimulate discussion, including one aimed at identifying "the major factors that induce institutions to spend (and charge) more" and exploring "what's being done -- and can be done -- about managing college costs and improving affordability."

While the paper proffers many reasons why colleges' costs and, in turn, prices have risen -- competition for students, excessive government regulation, subsidies of sports programs -- it returns again and again, in ways large and small, to lay the problem at the feet of the faculty.

A section on the "hidden costs" that drive up prices, for instance, contains six items, four of which are tied directly or indirectly to the work of professors. A portion on the labor-intensiveness of colleges notes that "faculty salaries are especially expensive," as colleges "compete with each other ... for 'top' faculty." Another part of the paper on why it takes students longer to complete a four-year degree says that the courses that students need are often unavailable -- because colleges "do not schedule courses on a student-demand basis, retaining instead a faculty-driven scheduling system."

Elsewhere the paper, which like last week's on accreditation was written by Robert C. Dickeson, is much more directly critical of faculty behavior. Tenure, it says, has changed from a way to protect academic freedom to a "system to protect job security," which hurts institutions by impairing their ability to adapt their curriculums to changing student demands and making it harder for them to get rid of ineffective "dead wood." "The decision to tenure has an accompanying long-term price tag that easily exceeds $1 million per person," the report says.

Most strikingly, the report paints a picture of professors as king makers, dictating campus policies that turn the institutions into bastions of inefficiency. "To understand the management of a college one must understand the unique culture and extraordinary power of the faculty. To many faculty, they are the university." Dickeson writes. This power gives professors authority over all curricular decisions and overinvolves them in other campus policy making, resulting in a "slow-moving pace of change;" puts too much power in the hands of department chairs "neither trained in nor committed to management;" and emphasizes "research over instruction as the key to the internal reward systems," among other problems.

Faculty leaders were predictably miffed at the report's emphasis on the faculty's role in the college cost problem. Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, called Dickeson "woefully misinformed," pointing out that recent salaries have shown administrators' salaries to be growing at significantly quicker rates than those of professors, which have trailed inflation in recent years.

But even experts who've advocated greater productivity by colleges -- and by extension, professors -- questioned the tone of the paper's comments about the faculty, even while accepting as fact some of its underlying statements.
"These kinds of pithy generalizations are dangerous, given the bias in the public against tenure," said Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. She called "a little troubling" a section in which Dickeson decries as "abuse" policies that give professors relief from teaching to do research or do other institutional duties, which the paper says have reduced teaching loads to "12, or nine, or six, or, in some cases, three or even zero credit-hour responsibilities."

"Faculty are being released, presumably, because they're doing other things that the institution deems to be important, not to go on vacation," Twigg said, adding that the paper also appears to exaggerate the faculty's power by "assuming the administration has no role in all of these decisions."

Achieving Their Purpose

The papers released Wednesday, like their predecessors, are designed, the commission said in an accompanying e-mail, "to inform and energize the public about key postsecondary issues and inspire continued national dialogue around the future of higher education in America."

That they are certainly doing. With the commission scheduled to hold its next meeting beginning today in Indianapolis (come back tomorrow for coverage of that), many people who are watching the panel's discussions unfold with intense interest suspect that these papers are a set of trial balloons designed to help the commission's chairman, Charles Miller, and its members decide where support is strongest and opposition is fiercest to the various vague concepts, controversial ideas and solid proposals it is kicking around. 

In some cases, as with last week's paper that called for replacing the regional accreditation system with a "national accreditation foundation" -- the panel is putting out reasonably well-formed plans. In others, it favors general concepts, as in the case of the other paper the panel released Wednesday, on the federal financial aid system. That paper, prepared by Barry D. Burgdorf and Kent Kostka, vice chancellor/general counsel and a lawyer, respectively, at the University of Texas System (where Miller was chairman of the Board of Regents), argues that the nearly two dozen federal student aid programs "create undue complexity and confusion among users," "countervailing incentives and disincentives for buyers of higher education," and are "overlapping and, in some cases, redundant."

It calls for "harmonizing" and consolidating the programs, asking: "In sum, why not have one federal grant program, one federal loan program and one uniform tax benefit schedule, or better yet one program with complimentary facets all working together in concert to achieve common, well-articulate goals?" Yet it stops short of directly recommending that, most likely because that would unleash howls of protest from advocates for the government's many other grant and loan programs.

The paper on college costs, by contrast, holds little back. It acknowledges ways in which external forces have driven up colleges' own costs, including the explosion of utility and health care costs and the expansion of federal, state and local regulation, and it cites steps that "some institutions" are taking to bring down their costs:

  • hiring more part-time instructors or offering multiple-year contracts instead of tenure.
  • outsourcing of "non-mission-critical functions."
  • reallocating resources from "lower to higher priorities."
  • offering dual enrollment programs with secondary schools.

But much more of the paper is dedicated to colleges' flawed and inefficient practices. The institutions "maintain large physical infrastructures" -- libraries, power plans, theaters, stadiums -- that are "rarely used to capacity." They "add new programs ... without corresponding cuts in existing" ones. They charge the same for high-cost and low-cost programs. They make "administrative errors in personnel cases" that result in "hundreds of examples annually of judicial awards and countless other out-of-court settlements."

Besides the concern about how "release time" for professors has driven down their teaching loads, the section on "hidden costs" describes redundancies in course offerings and overly long lists of majors, and criticizes academic departments for inflating the number of credit hours required for a major, "thus 'justifying' the number of faculty positions required to be sustained."

Some institutions earn praise. "Why do community colleges cost so much less than traditional four-year colleges?" the paper asks and then answers: far fewer tenured professors, little or no research, instruction-focused physical infrastructure. And two-year institutions "typically prioritize their programs more readily, and are more likely to operate on a business model: conducting market research to determine consumer demand, and dropping programs that don't prove to be efficient or effective."

For-profit institutions come in for similar kudos, for similar reasons: "The curriculum is fixed, the outcomes are measurable, and teachers are held responsible for results," the paper says. "There is a fundamental shift in organizational expectations to 'What's it going to take to satisfy students?' from the traditional, 'What's it going to take to satisfy faculty?' "

Donald E. Heller, associate professor and senior research associate at Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education, echoed Twigg's view that the paper seemed to blame faculty members alone for policies and directions that were largely dictated by trustees and presidents.

"Blaming faculty for more and more focus on research doesn't make sense -- those are mandates that come down from boards to presidents to change the institution," said Heller. "You're also talking about a very small slice of higher education here, the top tier of institutions, where faculty have a very, very strong role in governance and colleges engage in bidding wars for star professors.

"Cost increases and price increases have been universal across higher education, and at the vast majority of institutions," he said, "faculty are not powerful at all."


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