An Alternative Proposal

April 11, 2011 | Blog

In a recent post, I explained that there are viable ways to deal with significant budget cuts while providing a high-quality postsecondary education to students at UW-Madison and throughout Wisconsin. Here, I expand further on that option.

There are several things that academics in the Research I world tend to hold dear. These include a low student/faculty ratio, autonomy to decide what one teaches and when, and a reward structure that emphasizes on research accomplishments over teaching accomplishments. I want to suggest that while these are important values in many ways, they come into conflict with undergraduate learning.

To be more specific:

(1) Keeping the student/faculty ratio small is intended to make sure students get a lot of attention from faculty. It’s often interpreted to mean that classes are small and advising frequent, and thus is a marker of quality. Yet as many freshmen would attest, even when the ratio is low, classes are large and faculty interaction infrequent.

(2) Decision-making authority over teaching is intended to allow faculty to teach what they are best at teaching, giving them the ability to connect their research to teaching in meaningful ways, helping them stay motivated and engaged, etc. But it also means that often students don’t know who will teach what and when. It also doesn’t do anything to make sure that faculty are teaching the things they’re truly good at teaching.

(3) The reward structure (including tenure) places more emphasis on research than teaching. This is more true in some parts of universities than others, but overall it’s accepted. Also, in public institutions it’s common to emphasize scholarship rather than fundraising, partly because of concerns that scholarship shouldn’t be driven by fundraising and partly because opportunities for fundraising are inequitably distributed across areas of study. This provides too little incentive for faculty to devote a lot of time to learning to teach effectively (time is a very scarce resource), and also to pursue grant funds that could provide postions for undergraduates and grad students on research studies.

So those are some of the problems. What are some possible solutions, and in particular how might they save us money without turning the UW into a place faculty don’t want to be?

(1) Increase the student/faculty ratio from 13:1 to 19:1. Do this with a combination of admitting and retaining more students and over time reducing the size of the faculty a little. As I explained in my prior post, this saves a ton of money, and we can even afford to increase faculty salaries and student support services somewhat.

(2) Grow the size of classes where the students enrolled have the fewest remedial needs. Do this in a data-driven way– try it out (experimentally– with random assignment), collect data and evaluate the effects. Try doing this with upper-level students in particular.

(3) Give faculty the incentives and support to learn to teach more effectively and efficiently using technology (see below for how to pay for it). Reward them for doing so (e.g. make this more important to tenure decisions, and to awards given to senior faculty). This will increase capacity to teach larger classes and to do it well.

(4) Demand that all departments carefully coordinate the provision of required courses. Strike a better balance between giving faculty choices about when/what they teach, and what students need.

(5) Increase the grant buyout rate, so that the university gets more money when a professor is released from a course. Use that money to support professional development (see above). I say this knowing it will anger many, and hurt myself- but it’s too cheap in many areas of the university to get out of teaching. Make this a nuanced rule however– release people for prestigious fellowships and activities that will really support their scholarship AND teaching, but make it more expensive to be released solely to work on a single project.

(6) Give faculty incentives to fundraise. For example, change tenure guidelines so that in areas where grant opportunities abound, professors are expected to raise at least a minimal amount of money by the time they go up. Do this carefully, by first working with faculty to assess the landscape in a field and update it every few years. In areas where grant opportunities are not plentiful, consider whether fellowships and scholarships are. To be clear, the goal is to measure success relative to opportunities– if you are a “star” is it reasonable to expect you to have earned at least one accolade (that comes with at least some funds) during your tenure period? This will help bring more money into the university, offset the cost of faculty salaries, improve rankings, and provide more opportunities for students. Another idea is to start giving a small percentage of indirects to PIs– as many other institutions do.

(7) Assign faculty to mentor undergraduates. Praise them for doing so. In particular, I urge UW to consider assigning a faculty member to each Pell grant recipient. This would require perhaps 2 hours of work for each professor each month, and would make much better use of our Pell dollars and increase graduation rates. We could be first in the nation for doing this, and I’m betting it would also improve faculty/student relations.

There are cost savings associated with all of these steps. There are benefits to both faculty and students. Yes, there are some costs to. Every new way of doing work comes with these.

This is the kind of thinking we need to be doing to solve our current dilemmas. Flexibility and control over our existing money is not going to improve the quality of undergraduate education. That should be our focus right now. Nothing– nothing– is more important to Wisconsin’s future.

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