Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Academic Trade-Offs: Two Recent Examples

By Richard Vedder

Reading Inside Higher Ed this morning got me thinking about two rather disparate issues, tenure at Yale, and whether Indiana State should drop its physics and philosophy majors. Both issues demonstrate that life is all about trade-offs --where doing A may cause another problem B. Another way of putting it is that all decisions have costs and benefits, and evaluating the relative magnitude of the costs and benefits is what decision-making in academia as well as life generally is all about. (One of my hormone-charged Whiz Kids who has been trying to date multiple girls found this out recently when girlfriend D found out about girlfriend C, with predictable adverse consequences; now he is wondering, will girlfriend B find out about girlfriend A? Ah, the problems of youth!!! What is the optimal number of girlfriends!! If we worked our students harder academically, many of these problems would disappear).


Yale is thinking about instituting tenure. It is one of a handful of prestigious schools that does not have it, and very rarely does it let junior professors become permanent faculty. It can be argued that this reduces the commitment of junior faculty to treat their students seriously, that it creates an undesirable caste system of senior faculty, junior faculty, and graduate assistants, and it keeps some top flight persons wanting some prospects of permanent employment from applying. But also the current policy reduces the inflexibility of resource usage, lowers true fixed costs, and enables the school to move resources between units a bit easier than if tenure existed. Tradeoffs. An interesting question: is academic freedom any different at schools like Harvard and Yale than at other schools with formal tenure programs? If Yale does begin tenure, it will grant two full years of leave with pay to promising tenure track faculty to increase their chances of making tenure. Are we overdoing the research expectations, raising costs unnecessarily?


Yale is one of America's elite institutions, while Indiana State, a school of roughly the same size (11,000 students) is decidedly more down-scale, not even considered one of the top three universities (Notre Dame, Indiana University and Purdue) in the state of Indiana. Yet it wants to get rid of its physics and philosophy majors. On the negative side, this is another example of deemphasizing core liberal arts and science programs, at a time when there is rising national concern that we are neglecting the hard sciences. It tends to add to the growing impression that colleges are mainly upscale vocational schools. It downplays disciplines with rigor and academic substance, in favor of subject areas which are, should we say, less rigorous, such as business, communication studies, and education (this ought to bring a comment or two). But there is the other side of the coin --ISU tries to offer over 200 programs for 11,000 students, some, including physics and philosophy, with fewer than 20 majors. The accreditor, the North Central Association, says it should reduce the number of programs ---you cannot be all things to all people given your resources. My instincts are that is correct. Besides, some instruction in physics and philosophy would be maintained. So again, a trade-off: do we sacrifice the core disciplines that are integral to the development of Western Civilization in order to improve the quality and depth of other programs? Too often, institutions try to avoid making these decisions, ending up (as ISU probably has) with too many programs of mediocre quality. Sometimes we have to cut and prune in order to have a more vibrant tree of knowledge.

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