Free Markets, Free People

Academia: Ivory tower or “The New Plantation”?

A friend of mine sent along a link to a brand new blog written by a former Professor at Georgia Tech.  He only has 6 posts up but I’m already intrigued.  He takes on the Southern Poverty Law Center (which he once supported monetarily) and he also has a pretty biting review of academia, an institution within which he spent 40 years.  His metaphor for academia, as the title states, isn’t that of an ivory tower, but instead that of the plantation:

The proper metaphor for the university is no longer the “ivory tower,” a shining refuge from daily life that promotes creative thought—if it ever was. A better metaphor is something more down-and-dirty. Like any metaphor, it only goes so far, but in its limited way may aid our understanding.

The modern university is a plantation.

I’m defining “plantation” as a large agricultural enterprise that raises and sells livestock and crops for profit. Antebellum Southern plantations were defined by slaveholding; after the War Between the States those that were left shifted to a different but hardly more moral system. This is what characterizes modern public research universities. Consider the parallels between universities and plantations:

Undergraduates are livestock. In an actual plantation, livestock are raised and sold for profit.

How much profit depends on quality, numbers and value. Undergraduates bring money in two ways. First is tuition and fees, and is the lesser contribution. The last estimate I heard, from two separate schools, was that tuition and fees accounted for 15% of the operating budget.* The greater contribution comes from State funding, which pays some number of dollars per student credit hour. This accounts for 35% of the annual budget, according to the same sources.

So the “livestock” are, in reality, a rather minor portion of the money coming in (tuition and fees) but worth a lot because of the government funding tied to the credit hours taken.

How is that a function of govenment again?  And why, if that’s going on, have tuition and fees become so outrageous?  Why are student loans so high?

To answer that question, it is high because it can be.  Low interest loans actually don’t help the process and students, and more problematic, parents, have fallen for the siren song of academia – “we’re vital for you child’s future and success”.

Of course, the government end of it provides another incentive that’s not particularly good.

What’s important here is that moving undergrads through the system is how universities make a great deal of money. The better the students and the more of them, the more funding.

Some schools depend more on quality to attract students (or a reputation for quality, which isn’t the same thing), some more on perceived value for tuition money, whether that includes classes or party time. The principle is the same regardless. Profit (how much is left over from direct expenses for salaries, new buildings, fancy office furniture and so forth) depends on spending as little as possible on livestock production while maintaining a salable product. What’s the outcome? Large classes taught by the cheapest employees. Dependence on online services instead of real (and responsive) human contact. Discarding hands-on laboratories in favor of computer simulations. All of these make undergraduate production easier and cheaper.

Plantations not only have livestock, but they raise crops.  And what are the “crops” of academia?

Research grants and contracts. Not research itself, but research done in order to receive outside money. Most people outside the university don’t know that grants, whether from Federal or State agencies, foundations or industry, cover not only direct costs such as equipment and salaries, but “indirect costs,” expressed as “overhead.” Overhead was originally intended to cover such necessities as building maintenance, lights, water, heat and so forth. Today overhead may add 45% or more to the cost of a grant. If, for example, direct costs amount to $1,000,000, the grant must be written for $1,450,000 or more.  This $450,000, minus actual overhead, is what corresponds to profit, and can be used by administrators for pretty much whatever they want. Overhead from grants and contracts amounts to another 35% of operating budgets.

In the modern research university, obtaining grants is a requisite for employment. Yes, one can do research without external funding, but that doesn’t count, at least not for much. An assistant professor in science or engineering must obtain grant funds to receive tenure, regardless of other contributions. A tenured associate or full professor can’t be fired out of hand (most places) for a lack of funding, but can be punished in other ways. Forgoing raises, for instance. Having one’s teaching load increased and being assigned to basic undergrad classes, for another. Losing office space, lab space, or travel funding for conferences. Having fewer grad students. These may not seem terribly severe penalties to non-academics, but trust me, they’re very effective.

While there is nothing wrong with making a profit, this points to how government has again had a hand in distorting a market.

He goes on to discuss a lot more in the post that deals with academia today (to include recommended solutions).  Worth the read and a new blogger to keep an eye on.  Seems he’s gone through the halls of academia, survived there for quite a while and is now looking back and saying WTF?  A valuable look and some interesting analysis.


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15 Responses to Academia: Ivory tower or “The New Plantation”?

  • The ‘fessor left out another BIG seller universities offer…memorials.  You can buy one for yourself or someone else…for a great deal of money, and they take various forms.  Endowed chairs, brick and mortar, etc.

    • My undergrad alma mater has been pitching me ending stuff on willing my fortune (LOL) to them.
      I’ve donated here and there, but frankly, I’m still a be POed by the parking ticket that I had appealed that they forced me to pay before I could graduate, only to deny the appeal later.  That ticket has cost them dearly.

      • My law school sends supplications regularly.  They will need tire chains on the highway to hell first…

  • That all sounds true to me with my own  exposure to academia. and discussions I have had with professors.

  • Large classes taught by the cheapest employees.
    At least in K-12 research shows class size does not actually impinge on educational results…see also 40-50 kids per class in Asia.
    Dependence on online services instead of real (and responsive) human contact.
    Probably also over-rated. I could be wrong. I do think I learned just as much from an on-line Six Sigma course as if it were live, and the on-line discussions were pretty close to real life if you ask me.
    Discarding hands-on laboratories in favor of computer simulations.
    This is how the work will often be done in real life. Sure, you can force design students to manually draft a design for one semester, but once they get back to Solidworks, they will be much happier. If he’s referring to say, dissections, there may be more of a point to this. But in real life, we also do simulations to avoid costly real-world experiments.
    All of these make undergraduate production easier and cheaper.
    Yes, but this is not the problem. The problem is that its even easier and cheaper to crank out a social studies major. Its even easier to achieve volume by lowering standards. This is where the problem lies, not in cost saving technologies, but in weakening of quality and the promotion of weak degrees.

    • And its especially easy to sell large balloon loans to 18 year olds.


        According to the whistle-blower, Rev. Jackson also encouraged the government employees to load first-generation and low-income college students up with student loan debt — because Democrats in Congress, he allegedly promised, would eventually pass laws to forgive that debt later. “[T]hose people will continue to vote Democratic,” Jackson Sr. said, according to the whistle-blower.

      • According to the whistle-blower, Rev. Jackson also encouraged the government employees to load first-generation and low-income college students up with student loan debt — because Democrats in Congress, he allegedly promised, would eventually pass laws to forgive that debt later. “[T]hose people will continue to vote Democratic,” Jackson Sr. said, according to the whistle-blower.

        • That was the tax-payer funded conference where state employees were allegedly mau-maued to attend, and it involved Crazy Nanny Pelosi and Rep. Jackson (demented, IL).

    • 60 Minutes did a piece years ago about colleges and universities touting their Nobel winners to potential undergrads, who would never see them again during their undergrad time on campus (and perhaps never again).

  • I have matriculated at a number of institutions of higher learning over the years, and I reached much the same conclusion as Prof. Feldman. Universities are run for the benefit of the administration and faculty. Professors are not hired for their teaching ability. I have had one or two who were borderline hostile to contact with students. Most were indifferent, at best.
    I have always wondered why such a group of experts in various fields could not  solve some of the problems and cut some of the costs of higher education. Why, for example, does each prof. require a different textbook for the same course? Econ. professors, at that. One would think they had never heard of the power of the market, discounts for volume purchases, negotiating prices, etc.
    As an example, Newt Gingrich received a multi-million dollar advance for a book that sold for about $25. Textbooks routinely sell for about $100, and I will bet the authors do not receive million dollar advances.

  • And those character building athletic programs have not even been mentioned!

  • I think that we need to separate the real college degrees (science, engineering, medicine, etc..) from the filth (*-studies, political “science”, communications, anthropology, art history, etc…), the crap that could just as well be “learned” at your local community college for pennies on the dollar. In the real college degree subjects, reality reigns. Your circuit works or it does not. Your bridge design holds up or it does not. There is nothing subjective about a Wheastone bridge circuit or about limit functions. They are what they purport to be, no more, no less. Your materials professor is not going to enter into a philosophical discussion with you over the characteristics of iron. Your physics professor is not going to pretend that he has the key to enlightenment and self-fulfillment. Drop the garbage, keep the reality based part, and tuition will plummet.

    • As a math major, long time software developer, and now user experience designer, I must challenge some of that.

      The *-studies, political “science”, and other humanities that are thin facades over leftist activism need to be purged. They are beyond useless; they damage the fabric of civil society by setting groups against one another and muddling political concepts to the points that the two sides can’t even talk to each other because they don’t use words the same way. 

      The STEM subjects are the foundation of civilization, and I don’t know if supply will ever catch up to demand for people who really know how to apply that knowledge.

      In between, though, are a number of areas that can be subverted by leftists (and often are), but once were valuable parts of a broad education: History, languages, philosophy, economics, etc.

      These must be reclaimed. They help us understand what works and what doesn’t in a civilized society. They give us perspective to use in making decisions. They give us raw material to use as inspiration for innovation in dealing with a changing world.

      These are idea-based subjects, and we need our educated class to be exposed to those ideas. We need teachers of those subjects with depth, thoughtfulness, and tolerance. The concepts in those subjects may not be as testable as the laws taught in physics class, but they are still valuable.