Free Markets, Free People

Jack Feldman


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.

~McQ

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