Speak Your Piece: Hijacking Universities

Land-grant colleges have gone from serving the public interest to serving private agendas of career advancement and fundraising. A public university faculty member bites hard on the hand that feeds him.

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The public university I work for has fed me very well for over 40 years. I have had a rewarding career, comfortable salary and benefits, job security and a good retirement system.

But I also have a growing unease about the changes I have seen in higher education.

Are land-grant universities and other public universities helping American families, as they were intended? Increasingly, the answer is no.

Land-grant universities – the agriculture and engineering colleges – were created 152 years ago for education, research, outreach and service for the middle class, for common people, for the working class. (They are called “land grant” schools because the federal government granted land to the states to support their establishment.) Since then, many other taxpayer-supported public colleges and universities emerged with a similar mission. A “public interest” doctrine guided formation and activities of the universities for almost a century.

The public interest orientation of land-grant universities was enormously successful in the early days, but things have changed, particularly in the last few decades.

What went wrong? Public universities have gone from outward looking to inward looking. It’s no longer about you, the public – it is about me – academic faculty. In a sense, the public interest focus has been subtly hijacked by academics.

A focus on the “public interest” has been replaced by a focus on individual faculty achievement measured by other academics and by university administrators with a similar mindset. The only outward look is by administrators who have their hand out begging for your tax dollars or corporate money and donations from wealthy folks.

Economist Adam Smith maintained in 1776 that the pursuit of self-interest may achieve the best economic benefit for all. But there was a “but” to this: Individual interests must be aligned with the public interest. (Smith was not the patron saint of free, unregulated markets as many corporate business interests now claim, by the way.)

The inward turning of self-serving faculty means that there is often a disconnect between the general public interest and faculty incentives. Career advancement is now based largely on impressing other academics with erudite academic skill – sometimes labeled academic snobbery – rather than by solving “real” problems of concern to the general public.

Faculty performance in land-grant and public universities is theoretically based on three areas: research, teaching and service.

Practice does not match theory. Many land-grant administrators, when holding their hands out for public support, loudly trumpet the research, training and service mission. Yet, the reward structure in land-grant institutions is heavily skewed to research, and very narrowly defined research at that.

Faculty and administrators of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reflect on the historic role of land-grant universities in American higher education. The Morrill Act was designed to establish educational institutions that did a better job of serving the public interest.

Here is a brief generalization of the reward structure for faculty in most land-grant universities as well as faculty in many other public colleges and universities.

  • Teaching: Rewards for great teaching are rarely awarded on par with research, even mediocre research. For many faculty at major universities, teaching is something to be avoided or at least minimized.
    Great young teachers with heavy teaching loads are typically difficult to promote and reward in the contemporary university. And those of you who paid big tuition bills for your children thought the university was all about education. Wrong expectation!
  • Outreach: Public university administrators give lots of lip service to outreach and service. In fact, some of them have permanently chapped lips from publicly hawking teaching and service! But when it comes to money in the bank for faculty, outreach matters little, even for faculty who have positions defined to be primarily outreach and service, such as Extension specialists.
  • Research: Typically all that matters for promotion and tenure in land-grant universities is research published in so-called refereed journals. Once peer-reviewed journal articles were viewed as the gold standard for scholarly achievement. Increasingly this is not true, as a thin patina of gold paint may be covering pot metal.

From a public interest perspective, there are problems with this very narrow focus on research in for-profit journals edited by other academics. First, inward looking researchers and editors are not likely to correctly identify problems of concern to the general public. Listening to concerns of the general public is not highly rewarded in the contemporary university. Also, many faculty prefer to pontificate rather than to listen.

Second, the format of most academic journals is that of a short article. This leads to narrow specialization, quickie research projects and short articles. Ten three-page fill-in-the-blank articles are 10 times better for faculty advancement than one, 30-page comprehensive article on a real problem relevant to the public interest.

Third, editors and reviewers who assess worthiness of manuscripts for publication are typically other academics who have done well at playing the journal article game. In essence, there is considerable inbreeding among those involved in the journal article process.

Fourth, public issues are often very broad and complex, often requiring a long-term commitment by a team of researchers. Publishable research may not come for years, and even then it will not fit into the short article format of academic journals. Faculty pursuing such research may perish without administrative commitment to broad, long-term projects.

This explains, I think, why there is little long-term team research on significant issues on agricultural and rural economies.

The rare faculty who works on issues such as rural development, alternative farming systems, local foods or the long-term effects of food systems often does so knowing full well that he or she may not be highly rewarded in many land-grant college departments.

Grantmanship

Public financial support for land-grant and public universities has generally declined over the past few decades. Rather than live within their means, administrators in many public universities began enticing faculty to obtain outside funding.

Now land-grant schools have another mission – grantsmanship – that often weighs heavily in faculty pay and promotion and is becoming the dominant consideration. Of course administrators have a 50% “tax” on such projects; presumably to pay for keeping the lights on, but often the “tax” pays for various administrative pet projects or international junkets.

Outside grants are becoming as important, if not more important, to land-grant university administrators in faculty evaluations than published research. People the public universities were intended to help typically don’t have the money to play this game. Corporations do, leading to deeply troubling corporate influence on research.

Most land-grant faculty with a “research” appointment have base salary paid wholly or in part out of so-called “hard” funds, namely taxpayer funds – your money. Corporate grants often redirect research to focus on problems defined by the corporate funder, which is increasingly not aligned with the public interest. To the extent this happens, financial support from taxpayers to land-grant schools becomes a corporate subsidy.

Grantsmanship is also intensely directed toward so-called “competitive” grants with government agencies including USDA, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy and many other federal and state agencies. Who decides how your money will be spent? Typically, allocation is dominated by academics and government employees and, increasingly, through the corporate political influence on government agencies. The public rarely has substantive involvement in how their money is spent.

Faculty who obtain grants often buy out part of their teaching responsibilities. This can be good if the faculty member is a bad teacher, but often less experienced graduate students or Ph.D.s who have not been able to find permanent jobs carry the teaching load. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reports that 76% of college and instructional appointments are now outsourced to lower paying full-time members off the tenure tract, part-time faculty members, and graduate student employees.

The High Cost of Higher Education

Tuition continues to rise in public universities. In fact, inflation-adjusted (real) tuition at public four-year institutions has increased 235% since 1980, while median family income has essentially remained unchanged.

Trend in nedian family income and college tuition, adjusted for inflation. Income has remained relatively flat (bottom line) while tuition has risen. Public universities have had the highest percentage increase, though their cost in real dollars remains lower than private college (see the dollar figures at the right side of the graph).

Inflation-adjusted funding per full-time equivalent faculty has dropped 26.1% in 20 years, leading many public university and land-grant university representatives to claim that they have gone from being “state supported” to “state assisted.” But this hardly explains the trends shown in the graph above, as tuition increases have far outpaced reductions in state support.

Where is the tuition money going? It is not going to faculty salaries, as real salaries have remained constant for decades, and student enrollments per full-time equivalents have gone up somewhat in that time. This leaves administration, bricks and mortar and enhanced “college experience” as potential culprits.

If you really want to know where taxpayer and tuition money is going, ask representatives of your “state assisted” university. Don’t fall for any fancy talk from college administrators or faculty! Demand the facts.

Public universities were created for “the people” because only children from wealthy families could afford an education. With college expenses rising much faster than inflation and middle class pay, we have come full circle, so that only well-to-do students can afford higher education.

Incentives in the public university system have been twisted from the public interest in teaching/research/service to the private interests of faculty and administrators. Narrow research agendas, an emphasis on grantsmanship, coupled with the expense of providing students with a country-club environment for their so-called education, have taken their toll.

In doing so, they have undermined the middle class – and our democracy.

C. Robert Taylor is Alfa Eminent Scholar and Professor in the College of Agriculture at Auburn University.

 

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