Sunday, December 26, 2010

University Financial Crises: Lessons From Ancient Rome

In ancient times, the Romans engaged in enormous building programs, particularly in Rome itself, which they largely financed by raiding the provinces for tribute. Rome started to fall when the marginal costs of maintaining the empire began to exceed the marginal revenue extracted from it, coupled with excessive spending in Rome, under direction of emperors of dubious quality such as Nero.

Sounds pretty similar to American higher education. Vast spending and empire-building in the 1970s through 1990s was partially financed by taking tribute from taxpayers and private philanthropists. In the last few years, though, tribute collections (taxpayer support) became more limited while the spending on a lavish capital (i.e. the university campus) continued relatively unabated. Rome built the Colosseum shortly after Nero’s disastrous rule, late in the first century A.D., and the “bread and circuses” approach to appease restless masses did not stem the decline: It actually accelerated it.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to American college campuses. Like in ancient Rome, stadium-building and other forms of bread and circuses today (climbing walls and luxury dorms) are hiding an increasingly rotten institutional setting that often suffers from both mission failure and excessive spending. Most colleges and universities have not clearly articulated what they want to do, have done a crummy job of even measuring what they have accomplished, and have viewed university resources as something that need to be spent in a way to minimize discontent from alumni, administrators, and occasionally students and faculty—rather than to achieve a well defined academic goal.

I was reminded of all of this in the last week or two at my own university. Like most states, Ohio is having huge budget problems, and my university likely faces sharp (15 percent or more) reductions in state subsidy payments in the coming couple of years. Prospects are great that staff will be discharged, programs will be eliminated, etc. Already I am told that my telephone probably will have to go, and if I want to talk to anyone more than a few feet away, I will have to pay for it myself. But is the university really engaging in austerity programs, looking for new models to teach more cheaply, lower costs of auxiliary services, etc.?

Maybe, but actions speak louder than words, and the reality is that it is actually accelerating spending on what is apparently its top priority: intercollegiate athletics. (Under the current president, the academic reputation of Ohio University has sagged, falling more than 20 positions in the U.S. News & World Report rankings in just 6 years. Never mind: The path to success, we are told, is being very good at throwing balls).

Our moderately decent football team managed to win eight games and get into the least prestigious of the bowl games, the iconic R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl—one of 35 bowl games this season. Attendance was allegedly 29,159, but most observers I know guessed the number at much less (and there were at least 43,809 empty seats in the Super Dome). Ohio University was correctly worried that hardly any students would attend, which would be embarrassing, so they offered several hundred students transportation from several Ohio cities, lodging (at a Hilton hotel), tickets, etc.—all for $40. This promotion cost the university conservatively $150,000, more than the annual subsidy of its highly regarded Ohio University Press, which will probably close because of declining university support.

Our team got slaughtered in a lopsided contest, and beyond having to heavily subsidize students to attend, it costs the university to participate—as opposed to major bowls, like the Rose Bowl, where participants reap millions in revenues.

But that is not all. We are told we cannot “reach the next level” in athletic greatness without a new indoor practice facility, so, voila, a $10-million grant for a “multipurpose” facility (translation: indoor football field) has just been announced from a wealthy alum who obviously has been conned into believing the bread-and-circus approach to greatness. No doubt, had that facility existed, my university would have lost to Troy State by maybe only 10 points instead of more than 25.

Meanwhile, funding for other politically correct but otherwise dubious smaller projects continues, including replacing a “sustainability coordinator” whose main claim to fame was advocating that we eat locally grown organic foods, which is a bit hard in a area with very little farming and poor soil.

Across the country, schools are following the Emperor Nero approach of overbuilding, overspending, and ignoring reality (a cautionary note: it caught up with Nero, who died at the age of 30 after a reign of but 14 years). The University of Michigan, in the midst of high double-digit unemployment and declining state-subsidy support, spent an amount approaching a good hunk of the annual GDP of some small poor nations on making its stadium bigger and providing more comfort for the ├╝ber-rich attending football games. At some schools, where academics gets more than lip service, the spending is for superstar faculty who rarely see students; at others, for sumptuous facilities, to create a country club El Dorado around those boring things called classrooms, libraries, and laboratories.

Will this continue indefinitely, or will sanity and realism finally reach the academy? Already, cash-flow problems are forcing schools to furlough staff, reduce salaries (University of California), and the like out of desperation. But is this the beginning of a true rationalization and restructuring of a bloated enterprise that has been for far too long accountable to no one? I don’t think so—not without more fundamental organizational reforms—but stay tuned.

This post originally appeared on the "Innovations" blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on December 21, 2010.


Dan King said...

A grain of truth, exaggerated.

For most schools (OU apparently an exception) football makes money. Failing that, it's an end run around Title IX (pun intended).

But Vedder is right on the larger point: the old vision of a liberal arts education is as dead as a doornail and needs to be buried as quickly as possible. Students need to learn practical skills, not unmarketable philosophy or history.

It's not that philosophy, history, etc. are not worth learning. It's just that they can now be learned for free at any time in life, on line. There is no reason to pay to listen to Professor Bozo gussie up her personal politics as some sort of "critical thinking skill."

Fat Man said...

Dear Mr. Vedder,

Although I respect you and your work greatly, and I agree with the point you are making, I must advise that historical metaphors are exceedingly slippery. The fact is that Nero ruled in the Empires' youth. The fall came more than 3 centuries later.

Time is a funny thing. Remember that 3 centuries ago the United States was a howling wilderness lightly populated by people who had a low level of technological sophistication.

The great age of the Empire came after Nero, not before. At the beginning of his great work, Gibbon describes the state of the Empire after Nero:

"In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."


Katy said...

I think my dad had this vision from the start. He wouldn't pay for me to go to college if I wanted to study art, and he impressed upon me the need for a marketable skill.
I'm an engineer now and my brother is a boat mechanic. (I was accepted at OU but ended up at Wright State)

I have already decided that my kids will not be going to a 4-year school unless they want to study either engineering or medicine. (Even medicine is a horrendous expense, better to go into the military and be trained as an MD there)

I think we are going back to trade schools and apprenticeships. I know way too many people with worthless degrees and jobs that they could do with no education at all....

Kieran said...

The OU governing board approves of the current priorities. It has the power to make changes, but does not.

This is a failure of stewardship, in at least two ways. The first is obvious - money. The university takes money from students and taxpayers, and spends it in dubious ways.

The second failure is a failure of trust. Students go to OU, and say, "I entrust my future to you." Does OU deserve that trust?

How to change? I don't know. Perhaps one way to start is to document how much OU invests in improving instruction. What % of the budget goes to the teaching center, vs. sports? Are excellent teachers rewarded? Is the president walking around campus, talking to faculty about the importance of good teaching? Can a professor who is a great teacher, but a mediocre researcher, get tenure? Is the scholarship of learning held in as much regard as, say, the scholarship of history, or accounting? If a professor wants to improve his/her teaching, will the university give that person a course release, in exchange for serious study of learning science research?

In discussions, are statements on education held to the same scholarly standards as statements on research? For example, a professor might say, "Researchers make the best teachers." Where's the evidence? If such a broad statement was made about a research issue (e.g., in tribal life, the best hunters always make the best shamans), would it be accepted without evidence, or at least a cogent argument?

Measuring learning outcomes is very difficult. An easier alternative is to document an university's institutional behavior.

Would evidence of stewardship failure make a difference? I don't know. But it might, if there are politicians and donors ready to use the information. Or if the public was receptive to a marketing campaign from a competitor university, showing that it offers a better education for no more money. Or if the university's governors realized that improving instructional quality might help the school survive the coming (real or perceived) online edupocalypse.