Saturday, December 02, 2006

An Academy of Whores

By Richard Vedder

The startling data that Whiz Kid Matt Denhart and I revealed the other day on the salary growth of presidents of private institutions of higher education suggest several things --colleges don't care much about teaching, they are taking federal research dollars and diverting them for private gain, etc. But they also hint that implicitly university presidents are working on commission -- the more research grant money they raise, the bigger the salary payoff.

Presidents at the universities receiving the greatest amounts of federal research dollars got the largest raises; schools with moderate amount of research dollars received generous but smaller raises, while presidents at lowly liberal arts colleges received small raises. The salary differential between the big research university presidents and the liberal arts college presidents grew markedly. Why is putting your attention to getting research dollars more important than improving the quality of the teaching product at a teaching institution? The reason is simple: universities get easily measurable dollars from research grants, but better teaching is hard to measure and does not have financial rewards, because it is increasingly a loss leader that some universities offer almost reluctantly to provide some rationale for alumni donations and some non-research federal grants. The real name of the game is research --actually the real name of the game is MONEY.

I remember when I was teaching at a top flight liberal arts college and the economics chairman at Stanford told me he was sending his son to the college I taught at because it took teaching, advising, and nurturing young undergraduate minds seriously, something far from the thoughts of most senior Stanford faculty. Yet the Stanfords of the world are getting the huge financial rewards, while the teaching schools are leading a life of genteel prosperity, not starving to death my any means but not sharing in the big bucks financed by third party payments that are being captured by the major research universities.

P.J. O'Rourke once wrote a book entitled Parliament of Whores, humorously analyzing how politicians scrounge for dollars rather than weigh the evidence and follow principles. In America, it looks like we have An Academy of Whores, with our governments rewarding those academic hookers (the researchers) and their pimps (the college presidents) who grab the most dollars much more than those who do a good job of educating kids. All of this is aggravated by the fact that teaching is hard to measure very well anyway given the lack of performance testing in American universities.


David said...

"implicitly university presidents are working on commission"...paying people on commission is a very good thing to do as long as you're careful to measure the right set of indicators--and, as anyone who has ever done performance-based compensation plans knows, this is fairly hard to do. The classic case is the Soviet agency that measured its plumbing factories on "tons of output", resulting in lots of bathtubs but very few faucets. Even ordinary sales commission plans often produce results that their authors did not expect and do not enjoy.

It sounds like we have here a case where the comp plan wasn't ever consciously designed, but its implicit structure incentivizes behavior that is not to our collective self-interest.

superhiker said...

So now I'm a whore because I raise money to do research.

This and other conservative websites really seem determined to turn off all but an extreme fringe of anti-higher education, even anti-science fanatics.

Vedder has sunk to a new low with his foul-mouthed diatribes.

Enough of this sewer of a website. It gets no attention anyway. I'm outta here.

Charles Jillian said...

Universities are being pressured by state governments and business interests to be run more like corporations than state schools. Universities that manage to raise money and make money are being rewarded at the top.

Not to mention the fact that while universities raise more and more money the cost of tuition. When I began studying at a small eastern Kentucky university in 1994 the cost of tuition was about $790 for full time. I could manage that while I worked as a pizza delivery driver. Today the tuition is around $3000.

I believe the common goal university presidents appointed by boards of regents and trustees made of of regional bankers and other people of the higher class is the privatization of education throughout the country.

Anonymous said...

From a source in NJ:

Today's Asbury Park Press did a Page 1 expose on ex-pols for whom (I loved this line) "the podium of higher learning can serve as a refuge for higher earning" at our state universities.

Examples: James Florio (ex-governor) $96,632 a year for teaching one course at Rutgers one day a week.

Or an ex- environmental commissioner: $147,000 as director of a Rutgers center on energy policies.

Or ex-commissioner of Dept of Community Affairs:$142,975 a year as director of another Rutgers Center.

Or McGreevey (gay ex-governor): $17,500 a year teaching one class on the China campus of Kean University.

It boggles the mind, but then, corruption is a way of life in NJ politics.

Lady Justice said...

You know, at first I thought this to be interesting due to reading about the rampant PC-fascism and crushing of free speech/freedom of thought on college campuses, but come on. Is this about IMPROVING the schools, or just bashing them all?

There's a reason that Harvard and U Chicago rank high in the ratings from everyone to students and peers alike.

I see that Mr. Vedder is possibly affiliated with some conservative think tanks, if I read it correctly, and while many Americans do have gripes about higher education, it isn't THAT bad, just when they aren't checked/balanced by some pushback from other profs/students/the media. etc. when they do something silly (like let Ward Churchill, the academic fraud, teach, just as one example).

This stuff is interesting, but come on, don't universities do anything right, Mr. Vedder? Once you start looking at those at the absolute top of the rankings, you don't see a ton of negative stuff.

Again, Harvard, U Chicago, and schools of that caliber are at the top for a reason. Let's keep a sense of balanced perspective here.