The Economics of Academia (Part 2)

The Economics of Academia (Part 2)

Last week, I started to respond to a reader’s question:

Why, with the high cost of university tuition, can’t schools have teach-only professors? With a ratio of 20:1 in the classroom and a rate of 100/hour (roughly), why do professors still need to get research dollars? Is it economically feasible to have teaching-only professors? Why doesn’t this happen more? Why do universities have to rely on research funding to stay afloat? We were talking about the demands on researchers and how that prevents better teaching (because so much time is involved chasing funding) and were questioning why not just give up the research side of things?

In Part 1, I answered the questions from the perspective of a community college and my estimated numbers simply did not add up to make this feasible. Cherish jumped in to the foray, essentially saying that research and teaching go hand-in-hand. I commented on how university research is a place that can facilitate scientific breakthroughs on less profitable research, specifically in the case of rare diseases.

Electrical_Engineer definitely hits the nail on the head with his/her question. I don’t think the real question is why can’t education be cheaper but rather, the question is why are large research universities not educating students better? And because of the prevalence of high-end, expensive research, one could presume that teaching suffers as a result. The simplest answer is because tenure track professors at high level research institutes are not paid to teach, they’re paid to do research. I’ve mentioned this on several occasions (here and here, for example). But it’s definitely deeper than that. Think about the size of 30,000+ large universities. They have so much support staff which is vital to the university. And as universities get larger, they need more and more staff. Cleaning staff, landscaping, admins, computer support, food support, counselors, tech transfer office, study abroad office, foreign student office, grant support, legal, deans, president/chancellor + support, athletics, intramural sports, extramural sports, club sports, “welcome week”, and on, and on, and on…

Some of those salaries are paid by student tuition and government grants, but certainly not all of them. The rest are paid by the 50%+ overhead that research professors bring in from proposals. It’s not just students and postdocs that the are paid by the faculty, it’s many of the support staff as well. And think about it, engineering is bringing in a lot of research money. So in addition to paying for support staff for the university at large, it may also be paying for the art department, which isn’t going to bring in large research contracts.

If you consider smaller, generally private, universities that do focus on teaching, they’re generally relying on hefty tuition (not $600-$1200 per class) or they have a huge endowment to offer cheaper tuition. That certainly doesn’t fit the model of paying teachers $100/hr while keeping 20:1 student ratios with cheap, in-state tuition. Those places still have to pay for support staff, admins, etc etc.

But the reality of all of this is it’s a combination of academic politics, budget cuts, lack of student involvement/willpower, and professorial egos/tenure. In any institution, there’s going to be a certain segment of the population (say 5%-10%) that is taking advantage of the system. In this case, I’m referring to tenured professors that don’t give a damn about teaching because they’re rockstart research scientists/engineers or because they have tenure and just don’t care. Rockstar research scientists/engineers shouldn’t be in the classroom if they’re that good at research and they’re bringing in $Ms. As for the tenured profs that just give up on teaching, it’s a shame and a fault of the tenure system. As for the other 90%-95% of the time, profs don’t have 50 hours in the day to be great at everything. Hell, most of us aren’t even trained to teach but rather to do research. I know I wasn’t; I only learned by TAing. But at the same time, if the option was given to me to take classes on teaching, I still wouldn’t be able to do it because I don’t have the time to commit to it.

And I’m not saying I have any real experience in the classroom. I’ve been in there a total of two days with very little to start with. But, my first impression of students from a professor’s standpoint is that some UGs don’t even care how or why something is applicable, even when you give them examples of when things are useful to know. Most just seem to want to skate through; the ones that seems to care, oddly enough, are also the ones interested in grad school and research. That brings us full circle. Those UGs end up being the ones that you end up teaching to because they’re the ones attentive and interactive in class. At least that gives you some feedback as a professor.


Chasing funding. Weird factoid. We in Humanities didn’t use to have to chase it like science people because we don’t have labs — just the library. So when you apply for research funding for you, it’s for leave, or for travel to collections, things like that. Those are simple grant proposals, comparatively speaking, and small, and they don’t have overhead, usually.

But now, they don’t buy library books any more, and instead you can chase after them via major external grants, done on the format of a science one, i.e. a mega proposal. And the university will get almost 50% overhead. So they not only save on books, they get you to get them for them, and they then get an equivalent amount of cash. While you are applying for the grant and implementing it, which is essentially a librarian job not yours, you are of course not doing research. It is all very paradoxical.

Z – Thanks for your input. It’s interesting to hear how the Humanities is slowly starting to approach research/funding like the Sciences and Engineering. I’m not sure that’s a good way to go as that’s where I thought my 50% overhead went to (things like english class, libraries, journal subscriptions, books, etc.)

One does wonder where the money goes. English *class* is pretty much tuition funded since it’s so cheap. But our mega library grants are time limited so they can’t include recurring costs like those for journals and databases. I am assuming some of all this grant overhead goes to that. Science must be funding humanities somewhat there, I am guessing, since these database packages that include the really expensive science journals, often also have humanities and social science ones as part of the package.

It is hard to tell though because at my place, external funding rises steadily while state funding decreases. So we still get budget cuts, and it really does seem that we spend a lot of time soliciting funding so as to create the workplace in which we will then do the work.

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