Tag Archives: University of Virginia

UVa Hikes In-State Tuition by 2.2%

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors has approved a 2.2% tuition hike for in-state students and a 3.5% increase for out-of-state graduates — the second year of modest increases after years of aggressive increases.

Administrators said the increases are necessary to address $24 million in new costs next school year along with a $7 million cut in state appropriations, reports the Daily Progress.

UVa came under intense political pressure during the 2017 General Assembly session when legislators proposed a series of bills that would constrain the ability of public Virginia universities to raise tuition. None of the bills passed, but they put the higher-ed establishment on notice that citizens were running out of patience with the runaway cost of attendance at Virginia colleges.

It will be interesting to see if the UVa decision portends a moderation in tuition increases at other public institutions.

Author Files Suit to Spur Investigation of UVa Admissions

Jeff Thomas delved into UVa admissions practices in his book, 'Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century."

Jeff Thomas delved into UVa admissions practices in his book, ‘Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century.”

Jeff Thomas, author of “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power,” has filed a complaint asking the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia to launch an independent investigation into admissions practices at the University of Virginia. Reports the Cavalier Daily:

Thomas said in an email to The Cavalier Daily he filed the federal complaint because the University and the state government are incapable of independently investigating what he called a “corruption scandal,” which could implicate political donors, legislators and members of the University Board of Visitors.

“If U.Va. will not release the complete, unredacted documents, then an investigating body with subpoena power must compel them to do so,” Thomas said.

Thomas brought public attention to the issue of favoritism in admissions when he passed along documents he obtained though a Freedom of Information Act to the Washington Post. The heavily redacted documents showed that the UVa department of university advancement maintained a “watch list” of applicants of interest to potential donors, and lobbied the president’s office on their behalf. The documents did not indicate whether the president’s office passed along the requests for preferential treatment or how the admissions office might have responded.

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email to the Cavalier Daily that the university objects to Thomas’ allegations. “The University remains confident in the integrity of its rigorous admission process. There is no evidence to support this speculation.”

Thomas brushed off the university’s denials: “It is also imperative that U.Va., end this potentially illegal practice immediately and that President Sullivan issue an apology to the many deserving students in Virginia who have been denied admission under her watch because their parents could not or did not contribute money to the University.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Given the evidence I’ve seen, it seems clear that the advancement office sought preferential consideration of rich-kid applicants. The question in my mind is whether the advancement office went through the motions of appealing to the president’s office so they could go back and tell their donors, “Hey, we tried,” or whether advancement officials truly expected the president’s office to intervene. The ultimate question, of course, is whether the admissions office ever caved in to a special request.

When I was publisher of Virginia Business magazine, the sales guys frequently brought me special requests from advertisers asking for preferential editorial treatment. I’d say, “No,” and the sales guys would go back to their clients and say, “We gave it a shot.” Sometimes we’d lose an advertiser, but sometimes the client felt grateful that the sales guys made an effort on their behalf.

That’s the innocent explanation of what’s happening at UVa.

Denials from the university administration are to be expected, however, and no serious journalist would accept its word on the matter without vetting it thoroughly. After all, UVa would be the exception if it didn’t play favorites. On the other hand, while giving preferential treatment to rich kids might be bad optics, it’s not clear from the Cavalier Daily article upon what grounds the practice would be illegal, even if proven to be true. I would be astonished if the U.S. Attorney picked up the case.

UVa’s Invisible Research Subsidies

David S. Wilkes, dean of the UVa schools of medicine

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health will make it harder to find new cures — and harder to create new jobs, contends David S. Wilkes, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. In 2016 UVa received $126 million in NIH funding, accounting for about 60% of its research funding.

NIH backing allowed UVa researchers to discover a link between the brain and immune system, potentially leading to treatments of neurological diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s. An NIH-supported clinical trial is providing the final tests for a UVa-developed artificial pancreas that can help people with Type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, scientific research at UVa is stimulating the rise of a job-creating innovation ecosystem in the Charlottesville area. Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed page, Wilkes says:

In 2016, the National Venture Capital Association ranked Charlottesville as the fastest-growing venture capital ecosystem in the U.S., and medical start-ups are [an] important part of that boom.

U.Va. Innovation, which helps bring U.Va. research discoveries to the marketplace, has identified more than 50 active companies advancing U.Va. discoveries. Many of those companies were founded to develop U.Va. medical research breakthroughs.

A study conducted by the research firm Tripp Umbach found that in fiscal year 2015, U.Va. School of Medicine’s research generated an economic impact to Virginia of $425.4 million. That economic impact would be greatly diminished if NIH funding were slashed.

Bacon’s bottom line: One can pick at these numbers, but let us accept them as valid for the moment. Wilkes is making the argument that what’s good for UVa research is good for Virginia economic development. Advocates of investing in life sciences are employing similar logic for life-science initiatives in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke.

UVa is playing a hyper-competitive industry sector, however, and it starts with big competitive disadvantages as it tries to build a biomedical ecosystem from scratch in a small metropolitan area. According to the 2016 Jones Lang Lasalle study, the Boston, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham and San Diego metropolitan areas have the nation’s leading life-sciences clusters. None of the top 16 clusters are located in Virginia. The closest geographically is the “Maryland suburbs/D.C. metro.” It takes a lot more than a research university to play in this sandbox. A large labor pool is a necessity for recruiting top scientific and entrepreneurial talent, and UVa’s location in little Charlottesville presents a big handicap.

If UVa were investing only its endowment dollars in competing for NIH grants and other life-science research, that would be UVa’s business and nobody else’s. As long as the money for this initiative comes exclusively from wealthy alumni and philanthropists, and as long as Virginia taxpayers, tuition-paying families, and bill-paying patients of UVa’s medical system are held harmless, no one has grounds for complaint.

Unfortunately, UVa isn’t relying solely upon wealthy donors to fund its ambitions to build a world-class medical research center. UVa has developed mechanisms to extract wealth from others — patients, students, taxpayers — to underwrite its efforts. Because these mechanisms are so opaque, however, no one in Virginia sees them.

Wilkes does mention one of these funding sources, UVa’s controversial, $2.1 billion Strategic Investment Fund, in a positive light. The fund was cobbled together from various pots of money which were generating minimal investment returns. By combining these pools of money and handing them over to the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, the university hopes to generate an estimated $100 million a year in investment revenue. The Board of Visitors has approved using most of this money for institutional advancement, including R&D. But that is a choice. Alternatives include using the money to reduce tuition, bolster financial aid, or build non-research programs. Accordingly, students and parents who pay tuition, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, which pays millions of dollars in state support, have a direct interest in how Strategic Investment Fund proceeds are allocated.

According to the National Science Foundation, a third of UVa’s R&D expenditures are internally generated (classified as “institution funds” in the table to the left). Institution funds amounted to $74.8 million for life sciences and $122.6 million for all R&D in 2015 — before the Strategic Investment Fund existed.

I could not find a definition of “institution funds” on the NSF website, but I expect that it includes monies flowing from one or all of the following: (1) the university’s endowment, which is funded by philanthropy; (2) discretionary academic monies, which are funded through tuition and state support; and/or (3) surplus revenues (profits) from the UVa Medical Center, which is derived from patient revenues. To the extent that UVa research is funded by tuition, tax dollars, and patient revenues to cover buildings, faculty, grad students administrative overheard, and the like, it is fair to say that students, taxpayers, and patients are subsidizing research. The size of that subsidy remains a mystery. I don’t believe UVa (or any other Virginia public university) publishes such a number. It may not even calculate a number.

While R&D-generated economic development might be a good thing for Charlottesville and Virginia from the perspective of creating high-paying research and technology jobs, much of the funding ultimately comes from populations who have no idea what they’re subsidizing. Students are paying higher tuition (and accumulating more debt) and patients are paying more for medical services. The system is so opaque, the accounting so arcane, that no one sees or understands these wealth transfers. Perhaps the economic development is worth the cost of higher tuition and patient fees, but who can say unless we have an open and honest conversation?

New Question: What Role Does the President’s Office Play in UVa Admissions?

UVa spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. Pay careful attention to what he says and how he says it.

The University of Virginia’s office of University Advancement curried favor for children of major donors by working through the office of President Teresa Sullivan rather than lobbying the admissions department directly.

That’s the big reveal in reporting by Daily Progress reporter Derek Quizon in his follow-up to the Washington Post reporting on documents showing that the University of Virginia’s fund-raising office routinely intervenes on behalf of applicants from families of potential donors.

More than 160 pages of records, uncovered by writer Jeff Thomas through a Freedom of Information Act request and given to the Washington Post, reveal dozens of instances in which the university advancement office monitored the progress of particular applicants through the admissions process.

Quizon built on the WaPo story by highlighting the fact that, rather than seeking to influence the admissions office directly, advancement officials often appealed to Sean Kirk Jenkins, a special assistant to President Teresa Sullivan. Jenkins is repeatedly referenced in the documents.

However, Quizon concludes after his review of the evidence, “It’s not clear how successful the advancement office was in these outreach efforts.”

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn denied that the university favors the children of donors, but he conceded in communication with the Daily Progress that the advancement office does maintain contact with donors and alumni “recommending students who have an interest in attending UVa.”

De Bruyn’s statements (as quoted and paraphrased by Quizon) seem carefully wordsmithed.

“This practice allows development officers to serve as a buffer with those alumni, donors and friends who have provided prospective student endorsements during the admission cycle,” de Bruyn said. “However, the admissions office makes the independent determination on whether a student is admitted or not.”

In line with university protocol, the admissions office does not coordinate with the advancement office during the admissions process, de Bruyn said.

But the concern now isn’t that the advancement office coordinated with the admissions office, it’s that the advancement office coordinated with the president’s office and that Jenkins might have intervened with the admissions office. Quizon continues:

When asked whether the advancement office has ever successfully changed an applicant’s admission status, de Bruyn repeated that admissions officials are the only ones who determine who gets into the university.

“The advancement office does not determine whether an applicant is admitted,” he said.

Again, de Bruyn is answering Quizon’s queries very narrowly. Someone needs to ask him directly, “Does the president’s office ever seek to influence the admissions process?” Another question to ask: “Even if admissions officers have the final say on who gets in, does influence from the president’s office carry any weight?”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s what we know: (1) UVa donors and potential donors frequently seek special treatment for their children. (2) They enlist the help of the office of University Advancement. (3) University Advancement seeks to influence selections through the office of the President. We don’t know whether the office of the president exercises any influence on Admissions. But the FOIA documents and UVa’s careful response to questions fuel our suspicions.

Nothing de Bruyn said contradicts the hypothesis that Jenkins intervened on behalf of University Advancement, and it’s difficult to understand why advancement officials would have repeatedly worked through Jenkins unless they thought that he might be able to help them. But there is no proof. We cannot rule out the possibility that, in contravention of our cynical expectations, Jenkins never lifted a finger for the favor seekers.

Reporters covering this story should focus on the Jenkins connection. Thomas’ original Freedom of Information Act request was limited to the advancement office. Someone needs to expand the FOIA request to obtain Jenkins‘ communications with the admissions office.

At the same time, we need to be careful what we make of this favoritism, if in fact it occurs. As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, we may be talking relatively small numbers — only 59 children of potential donors were mentioned in the FOIA documents. The actual number might have been larger — we don’t know for sure. But the number given preferential treatment, if indeed such treatment can be documented, could be much smaller. If a couple dozen of the roughly 10,000 students admitted to UVa this year benefited from favoritism, this is not a massive scandal. Yes, it strips away the veneer that UVa admits all students on a purely meritocratic basis (leavened by aggressive recruitment of minorities). That would put it in the same camp as every other university in the country. If there is a scandal, it is national in scope, and we have no way of no way of knowing whether UVa’s (alleged) sins are more or less egregious than those of any other institution.

A Thumb on the Scale for Rich Kids Applying to UVa

The University of Virginia — how meritocratic?

The news hardly comes a surprise but it’s unnerving to see the details in print: The University of Virginia’s fund-raising arm seeks to help the children of potential donors gain admittance to the university, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Post.

Writes reporter Rees Shapiro: “The records from the U-Va. advancement office, which oversees fundraising for the prestigious public flagship, reveal nearly a decade of efforts to monitor admission bids and in some cases assist those in jeopardy of rejection.”

One of several examples cited in the article:

The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.

A university spokesman denied that the admissions office coordinates with the advancement office, although he did acknowledge, “The Office of Advancement is occasionally contacted by alumni, friends and supporters recommending students who have an interest in attending U-Va. Such a practice is not unique to U-Va. and can be found at similar institutions.”

The Post obtained 164 pages of documents, mostly spreadsheets, from Jeff Thomas, author of the 2016 book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power,” who in turn had gotten them through a Freedom of Information Act request. In the book Thomas was highly critical of UVa admission and financial aid policies, but he did not make use of the materials he passed on to the Post.

The University is one of the richest schools in the country, with an endowment of $5.8 billion, notes the Post. Building the endowment through contributions is a never-ending preoccupation of the UVa brass. The funds are needed to meet the Board of Visitors’ ambitious goal to break into the ranks of the Top 10 universities in the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, UVa gives special treatment to students whose wealthy parents might donate big bucks to the university. UVa denies it happens, but nobody believes the disclaimers. The fact is, almost every university in the country does what UVa does. Every institution grubs for money to pay for its dreams of institutional glory.

But let’s put this in perspective. How frequent is the phenomenon, and how many meritorious students does the practice displace?

The documents cited by the Post show that the admissions office tracked at least 59 applicants for the incoming class of 2021. I do not know how Jeff Thomas phrased his FOIA request, but if we assume that he asked for all relevant documents and that UVa was responsive to that request, 59 is probably a ceiling.

How many of those 59 received preferential treatment? Consider the following possibilities:

  • Some applicants would have qualified for admission on their own merits and needed no preferential treatment.
  • Interventions were not always successful. As one advancement officer wrote in a tracking file: ““According to people who have talked to him, [the donor] is livid about the WL decision and holding future giving in the balance. Best to resolve quickly, if possible.” The implication here is that a resolution favorable to the donor was no sure thing.
  • Not every one of the applicants who received an acceptance letter chose to attend UVa. Some students receive better offers elsewhere and turn UVa down.

Even if all 59 students got accepted, if all 59 owed their success to the good graces of the advancement office, and if all 59 decided to attend, they would have accounted for fewer than o.2 percent of the 36,807 applicants to the university that year, and only 0.6 percent of the 9,957 admissions.

Finally, let’s consider who would get knocked off the acceptance list. It wouldn’t be some poor kid from inner-city Norfolk or a coal mining town in Appalachia. UVa admissions prioritizes the best and brightest from poor communities. The victim probably would be an upper middle-class kid from Fairfax or Henrico counties whose SAT scores, high school transcripts and essays didn’t stand out quite enough. Gee, they might have to settle for Virginia Tech or James Madison, both highly regarded schools. What a heartbreak!

In terms of numbers, the displacement of 59 applicants by kids from mega-donor families is almost trivial. A far greater barrier to attending UVa is the ever-escalating cost of attendance. That’s where our focus should be.

Update: Jeff Thomas contacted me to say that the reason he didn’t use the FOIA’ed documents in his book is that the book was published in October 2016 and he received the materials in March 2017. “You’re correct in assuming that I requested ‘the list for all available years,’ and they provided them for the last ten. I did not request all the documents related to them.”

Ian Baucom’s Plan to Change the World

Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Big Thinker on Campus.

As the University of Virginia approaches the 200th anniversary of its 1819 founding, university officials are thinking big. Very big. Change-the-world big. The university aspires to raise $4 billion over the course of a ten-year fund-raising campaign, and it has established a vision to match.

“What will it take to extend the unique promise of this place in the next century?”asked Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences when addressing a gathering of UVa alumni at Richmond’s five-star Jefferson Hotel last night. His answer: Secure the university’s capacity “to bend the arc of history.” And not just on a national scale, but a global scale.

UVa’s newly defined mission is to evolve from a premier state university into an actor on the world stage addressing what Baucom called “seemingly insolvable global challenges.” Issues such as water scarcity and human health; religious pluralism and religious violence; understanding the neuroscience of autism and anxiety. In the process, UVa will produce a new generation of citizen-leaders, equipping young men and women to participate in a democratic society and contribute to the common good.

The new vision comes at a time that the university is undergoing “the largest turnover of faculty since the founding,” Baucom said, who came to UVa in 2014 after seventeen years at Duke University. The College of Arts & Science expects to hire 200 new faculty members within the next seven to ten years as the Boomer generation retires. The opportunity exists to hire the brightest young minds in the country, strengthen the university’s Ph.D. programs and bolster the university’s status as a world-class educational institution.

As part of this transformation, UVa is “re-imagining” the curriculum, Baucom said. Without going into details about how the current curricular requirements have gone astray — he merely said that it is possible to graduate without getting a grounding in writing on the one hand or math and science on the other — he described an overhaul that is scheduled to be executed by the 2017-2018 school year.

The curricular reform is not a matter of “tweaking” requirements but of thoroughly rethinking the meaning of a liberal arts education. One centerpiece, said Baucom, will be instilling a capacity to ask ethical questions — not to force-feed students the answers, but to teach them to work through the issues and reach their own answers. Another is to experience the arts “as a way of grasping the complexity and wonder of the world.”

On a more practical level, UVa’s new curriculum will hone students’ writing skills and teach them to use data as a way to understand “a world grounded in statistical and quantitative fact.”

The liberal arts should be rooted in “deep knowledge,” not just workplace skills, Baucom said. A core competency for liberal arts graduates should be the ability to express themselves well in writing, which he sees as “the articulation of thought.” He has taught at Yale, Duke and UVa, elite schools all, and has encountered students who cannot put together a grammatical, well-ordered essay. At UVa, some 30% of students test out of the university writing requirement. That will change. Mastery of writing will become a core of the curriculum. “Tweeting is not an education in how to express yourself.”

Also critical is a familiarity with data and numbers. In an age of “big data,” every profession and discipline is saturated with statistics. “Computation and data science are transforming everything.” Technology is transforming the world, creating the potential for good and bad. According to one analysis, he said, by 2050, between 25% and 40% of the workforce will be unemployable. Not unemployed, but unemployable — unable to find a job. (I believe he was referring to the world’s workforce, not the U.S., but my notes are not clear.)

To prepare UVa students for such a future, Baucom foresees more required courses and more inter-disciplinary courses. He anticipates philosophers co-teaching with biologists, historians with mathematicians. Students will be taking first-year classes in ethics and empiricism.

When asked about a recent letter issued by faculty and students expressing unhappiness with the university’s glorification of Thomas Jefferson, a slave-holder, Baucom said that he “fundamentally disagrees.” The signatories have a right to express their opinions, but he believes that they are “wrong-headed.” In an implied slap against the suppression of politically incorrect views on college campuses, he said that a university should be a place where “incredibly complicated” issues should be debated.

“It is not our job to tell students what to think. It is our job to teach them how to think,” he said. “We can’t tell them the right moral disposition.”

When addressing alumni, Baucom certainly emphasized Jefferson’s genius, vision and leadership. “We were founded by a revolutionary,” he said. And UVa needs to carry on in the same spirit as we live through “the revolutions of our times.”

University Research — Your Tuition Dollars at Work?

Bacon’s Rebellion reader “Izzo” pointed us to a National Science Foundation database that breaks down the R&D funding sources for U.S. universities. I have extracted the numbers for Virginia’s three leading research institutions — Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University — and converted them to pie charts. The yellow segments show the percentage of university research dollars that comes from each institution’s own resources.

Funding university research.

Funding university research. Data source: National Science Foundation Academic Institution Profiles database.

In raw dollars, here’s how much money we’re talking about:

Virginia Tech — $219 million
UVa — $123 million
VCU — $52 million

While some of those institutionally originated R&D dollars may come from endowments, Izzo contends that much of it is supported by tuition revenue.

“Where does tuition money go?” he asks. “I think it is an open secret in academic circles that a lot of it goes to fund research and graduate studies. For instance, one might think all research comes from external sources, but that is certainly not the case. … For UVA, $123M of research was institutionally funded in 2015, or $5,600 per student per year. … The majority likely comes from tuition and fees, and specifically undergraduate tuition and fees. When students and families are paying tuition and going into debt to do it (and this debt is subsidized and guaranteed by the government), this is where a lot of it is going, and they don’t even know it.”

I don’t know who Izzo is, and I don’t know with what authority he (assuming Izzo is a he) speaks. But his statement that most institutional funding comes from tuition and fees, if true, warrants much closer examination. While students and their families surely would like to see state universities conduct more R&D, they might well rise in insurrection if they thought that they were personally subsidizing that R&D, without their knowledge and consent, to the tune of $5,000 a year.

I don’t know how one would go about ascertaining the level of R&D subsidy embedded in the tuition. I seriously doubt that the universities themselves know the number or have the analytical capacity to calculate it. But Izzo has raised a fundamental issue here.

Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sarah E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

UVa Professors Working Harder than You Think

 UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet. Photo credit: C-VILLE Weekly.

A few days ago, I delivered a rap on the knuckles to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. He had made what I found to be a remarkable statement in a radio interview: “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean. They’re serving students very well.” Really? Universities that had hiked tuitions 75% over the past decade were “running lean?”

In that post, I observed that UVa’s media studies department of 24 professors and lecturers was offering only 39 courses, and that lecturers had much bigger teaching loads than the professors. Moreover, I noted, Vaidhyanathan himself is not teaching a course this semester, offering the possibility that he was on sabbatical. What does that say about faculty productivity? It looked like UVa was paying big money — Vaidhyanathan $253,000 in 2014 — to spend time on research and writing instead of teaching.

Well, Vaidhyanathan saw the blog post and reached out. We had a friendly chat Monday. He credited me with asking “trenchant”  questions, but said there was more to the story that what I had conveyed in my blog post. In the spirit of exploring all sides of the higher education controversy, I summarize here what he had to say.

The reason he’s not teaching any classes this semester, Vaidhyanathan said, is that he is one of twelve faculty members selected by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to redesign the curricula. He has been involved full-time delving into the scholarship of teaching and in the design of new courses.

The College of Arts and Sciences requires students to take a minimum number of courses in math and natural sciences, the social sciences, history, non-Western perspectives, and humanities. Often, students take a checklist approach to areas outside their major, often gravitating to easy courses or professors and not getting much out of the experience.

A few years ago, he says, UVa professors began asking whether the process was really beneficial to students or just an exercise in catalog shopping. “We want students to understand the thought in all these areas, learn how scientists think, understand what the debates are in the humanities,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Can we restructure at least the first-year experience to give students a better tour of the modes of thought?”

Faculty members do more than teach courses, by the way. They advise students. “Even though I’m not teaching any courses this semester,” he said, I meet with two students who are writing theses. I’m meeting with a student doing independent study. We do all these extra things. Not to mention what we do with graduate students.”

Moreover, regarding the faculty-course ratios I mentioned in my blog post, he noted that four media studies faculty members are on research leave, paid by other universities to visit them. The average course load per professor is higher than my numbers indicated.

From what he has seen in academia, including teaching at two other universities, UVa places a high priority on teaching, Vaidhyanathan said. “Just last Wednesday, I sat through three of an assistant professor’s courses watching her teach and taking detailed notes. There’s a constant conversation on how to improve, how to try new technologies. There’s an ongoing debate on whether to use PowerPoint.”

When he taught at New York University, Vaidhyanathan was warned by his departmental chair not to place too much emphasis on teaching. The attitude there was that getting recognized as a good teacher before earning tenure marked a professor as someone who was giving insufficient attention to research. The attitude at UVa is different, he said. He sees scholarship and teaching buttressing one another. Staying on the cutting edge of one’s field makes one a better teacher; interacting with students gives perspective to the scholarship.

As astonishing as it may seem to some, Vaidhyanathan says he sees his job as a public service. He frequently asks himself, “Am I doing right by the taxpayers? Am I doing right by the students who are paying tuition?”

The best day of the year for him is graduation day, he says. “All the parents and students applaud us. I’ve never worked anywhere where that’s the case. They appreciate the work we do. It makes me feel really good.”

While he praises UVa, Vaidhyanathan concedes that it is a work in progress. He says that the institution had been “self-satisfied” for too long. “We’re no longer happy with just being listed in the Top Five public universities. That’s not really success.” UVa has had a shift in the conversation. “It’s not just about scoring well. Can we make a difference in childhood diabetes? Can we make a difference in big data research? Can we leverage our strengths to be one of the leaders?”

For too long, he said, UVa did not think strategically. That’s changing. “We’re hiring amazing young faculty members. We’re better connected to the needs of the Commonwealth than we’ve been in a long time.”