I'm motivated to pose this question from seeing yet another piece in the Chronicle about the threat to tenure. I get frustrated when reading such pieces, partially because of the threat itself, which is real enough, but mainly because the defense seems too weak to me. Those inside the academy take the need for research as a self-evident truth and mainly they talk with one another. What about external audiences? If they are much harder to convince what then might do the trick? This is still too optimistic as a way to pose the question, for perhaps there is nothing that will do the trick. What then?
And here is the thing. At the administrative level, we in academe may not really believe in tenure to support research, at least the sort of research that isn't also supported by external grants. This other type of research, when done at a public university, is supported by other funding, mainly tuition and state tax revenue, nowadays with much more of the former than the latter. Before looking at the data on this point for my university, let's note that there are a few reasons why research is expensive when viewed from the perspective of it being a tuition supported activity. The first is the claim on faculty time, i.e., teaching loads. Research faculty are required to report their time allocations as percentage of the total. I would always report 50% research, 40% teaching, and 10% service. I'm going to assume that is typical.
At the time I made such reports the teaching load in the Econ department was two courses per semester, so those two course supposedly took up 40% of my time working. The way the university counts, the load should be measured in IUs (instructional units) produced. IUs are measured as the product of number of students and credit hours for a course. When I taught intermediate micro, typical class size was around 60 and it was a 3-credit course. So my section would generate around 180 IUs. Graduate courses in Econ were typically 4 credit hours, but with many fewer students. (Except for the core courses, which I did teach for a while. Those were larger because students from other departments, notably Ag Econ, took them.) The expectation of a faculty member with tenure or on the tenure track was to teach one undergrad course as service and one grad class per semester. And the faculty preference was to teach grad classes, not because of the fewer IUs, but because the subject matter was closer to the faculty member's research. Adjunct faculty typically teach only undergraduate classes. And they generate much higher IUs, either by teaching more classes or by teaching much larger classes.
The other factor that makes research faculty expensive is their salary plus non-wage compensation to support research, such as travel money and the ability to hire a research assistant. I should note that whether on the tenure track or not the instructor needs an office and office space is scarce. So allocating that might enter into the cost calculation. But the reality is that departments don't rent the space they occupy. They are assigned space that the university owns. One might impute a rental price from that allocation. But it is not the custom to do that, so I won't do it here. Likewise, the benefits that employees receive, nowadays mainly health insurance, are borne by the university but not costed at the departmental level. (Illinois has an issue that most other public universities do not, as contribution to the retirement system is mandatory and the system itself is in arrears.) With these caveats we can focus on just the salary number. Tenure track faculty are paid more than adjuncts. That reality is undeniable and contributes to making teaching with tenure track faculty a more expensive way to go.
Now let's look at some data, which are taken from the Campus Profile. What is shown below are percentages of teaching by research faculty, grad assistants, and specialized (non-tenure track) faculty. This is done with three different looks: overall, 100-level courses only, and all undergraduate courses. I added the line space between each look to enhance readability. Also shown are total undergraduate IUs, which have been trending upward.
Can these trends continue or will something fracture if they do? Who knows? At root here is whether undergraduate instruction needs faculty who are research oriented to make the instruction high quality. Really, the issue is how this is perceived by the students and their families, at the time when they are applying for admission. But one might also consider the question whether the same course would be taught differently depending on whether it is taught by a tenure track faculty member or an adjunct, regardless of the perception by potential students. And then one might ask, in addition, whether when such a difference exists if it matters for the student post graduation, via the type of human capital that the student acquired while in college.
I don't believe we know the answer to this, but I want to note my own view about how my course might matter to the former students who took my Economics of Organizations class. I'd expect for it to not matter much at all for students in entry-level positions. It might matter some for those who attain managerial positions, though this would be more for mindset broadly considered than for specific knowledge. This, too, is how I believe critical thinking skills impact people in the world of work. In other words, there is a long fuse before the education really pays off. And couple with that the preoccupation students have with boosting the GPA which makes them myopic and focus on that very first job out of college. So they themselves might not see the long-term benefit of their education this way, which might explain why they may not care whether the instructor is an adjunct or not.
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Published research is a public good, at least to the extent that everyone has access to it. So we should consider the public good benefit from the research, even if the public are free riders and don't fund the research directly or indirectly. The previous section was meant to get at the benefit to those who are doing the funding. Here I want to take up the benefit to the free riders. Is there really such a benefit or not? I will stick to economics in considering an answer to this question, though the question should be posed for any discipline that does liberal arts education and is not vocational in its orientation. Among such disciplines, economics may be closer to the vocational end of the spectrum than other disciplines (comparative literature, for example), at least as perceived by the students I considered in the previous section. I want to observe here, in contrast, that the research I mentioned at the outset of this piece has no vocational value whatsoever. In this regard, the main difference between economic theory and research in other fields within the liberal arts is the reliance on math models as a necessary part of the discourse. In this sense, economic theory research is about developing interesting (at least to other economists) math models and drawing the implications from those.
If the set of beneficiaries of the research includes only other faculty members at other universities and/or graduate students who are aiming to become faculty members in the future, one might view the research self-serving and not necessary at all. So the first step here is to identify potential beneficiaries outside of higher education. Some economics research might benefit public policy, or how organizations (trade associations, labor unions) go about their business, or how individual companies do likewise. It might also benefit how news organizations report economic phenomena and thus how the general population comes to understand those phenomena. And it might filter down into the teaching of economics in high school which, arguably, should be about preparing citizens to understand the economic phenomena that they learn about from their news sources.
Thus, it might be tempting to parse that sort of research with evident potential for external benefit from other research that is simply too abstruse to produce such a benefit. The former then might be necessary but the latter surely is not necessary. Is that right?
I'm going to try to counter this naive view in a couple of ways. One is to note that process by which research is produced. An individual author or a set of co-authors work through an idea and produce a draft of a working paper. This is an intermediate product. They then will want to present their paper in a departmental seminar and perhaps externally. The conversation the authors have with the audience, both during the live presentation and also in individual office visits, serves as an additional input for producing a revision of that first draft. In a very real sense, all research is a community product, even if those lending comments don't get acknowledgment for their input. (Comments offered during an office visit might be acknowledged in a footnote. Those offered during the live workshop session are typically not acknowledged that way.) The process can sometimes be adversarial or even combative, though my experience is that an underlying collegiality is essential to make it work. The important point is that research as a community affair may not be well understood by those outside academia.
If it were understood, then we'd want to know what makes somebody an effective member of this research community. My answer is that at a minimum, the community member must be doing research. And my experience is that those who do applied research benefit from having conversation with theorists, at least those theorists who can translate the theoretical issues in a way appreciated by the applied scholars. This gives the potential for theoretical research, which provides no direct external benefit, to nonetheless produce a substantial indirect external benefit, by giving credibility to theorist who then interacts with the applied researcher on an equal footing and helps to make the research better.
The other point is to note that the distribution of research output across research faculty is heavily skewed with the superstars producing the bulk of the research, but even with that there is some difficulty in measuring research output. One measure is lines on the CV, perhaps weighted by the quality of the journal where the paper appeared. Another measure is of impact, perhaps by counting citations for the paper. But impact can happen in other ways, for example, by being part of the readings assigned in the core curriculum or in the appropriate field course. The superstar who writes the seminal paper in the field needs other scholars to extend the work and draw out the full implications. And sometimes important papers have errors in it, which go unnoticed for some time before they are corrected. I will illustrate with some of my own work. The following is from a post I wrote as eulogy for Leon Moses, prior to participating in a workshop held at Northwestern to honor his memory.
The other paper marked my switch from the dissertation research to study of oligopoly models, where I had more success. One of these was a paper on dynamic duopoly with inventory. I'm rather proud of this paper, as it made a fundamental point that wasn't in the rest of the literature. Heretofore people who worked in this area assumed that asymmetric outcomes (one firm is the market leader, the other is a follower) were a consequence of some asymmetry in the initial conditions (the leader got there first and leveraged that for strategic advantage). My examples showed that you could have symmetric starting conditions but still get asymmetric outcomes and, indeed, that is to be expected in these sorts of models. Google Scholar says the paper got 32 citations, which is second highest among the pieces I've written. I would never had thought to write on this topic at all if it had not been for the earlier work with Leon.
Some years later Thomas Sargent, who would subsequently win the Nobel Prize, gave a talk in the department on some macroeconomics model he had written with a co-author. (I can't remember who the co-author was now.) My research was not in macro, but the model Sargent showed us was linear-quadratic and it shared some of the same properties that the model in my duopoly paper had. So after a fashion I asked, do you know if your equilibrium is unique? (He had assumed that it was.) In posing that question I was pretty sure it was not. He became noticeably flummoxed by that question. It simply hadn't occurred to him to ask it himself. I had hit a nerve by posing the question. Even the Nobel Prize winner needs assistance from other economists now and then to get at something that is good and correct research. This is an argument for having some larger tail of non-superstar scholars who nonetheless are competent researchers active in the profession. Yet I would readily agree that how large that tail should be is not easy to determine by criteria we would all deem sensible.
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I tried to be careful in the previous section by talking about the potential public good benefit from research. Here I want to ask, if the potential is there is it actualized? As in my previous post I led off with a point from Peter Drucker - the active party in any communication is the receiver/listener - I will contain myself to consider the issue of actualization from that perspective. Is the message of the research well received or is it ignored? If it is ignored, then the potential beneficiaries clearly don't need the research. And if the ignoring part is willful rather than inadvertent, one might then presume that such potential beneficiaries actually view the research as a waste of time.
Alas, this bring politics into the question. Those who believe that shrinking government is the right answer will view research that demonstrates effective government programs as pernicious. Is it possible then for academics to make a convincing argument to those people about the benefit of research so they'll change their mind?
There is a second issue here, which sometimes goes under the label of corporatizing the university. The audience already knows what it wants and has the means to get its wishes so then pays for research to deliver just that. The Koch brothers are notorious for supporting research centers that produce libertarian anti-government policy proposals.
Evidently there is some of both of this going on. Given that, what of arguments to protect tenure, and thereby enable research by scholars who are independent and not beholden to an external audience? Can those arguments possibly work?
My sense of things is that they can't work as long as Republicans control most of the state governments, with the attack on tenure as part and parcel of that control. The arguments might work as part of setting the stage for future Republican defeat and a return to control by Democrats, but I'm guessing that this issue is pretty far removed from most voters who vote mainly for Democratic candidates. The student indebtedness issue has gotten most of the bandwidth in the press, when considering higher education. Teaching with adjuncts is a way to contain the cost of instruction. In this world view, research seems like a luxury we can't afford. Are we ready to come to grips with that perception?
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If there is actually a substantial public good benefit to the university, in both its teaching mission and in the research it does, the latter as described above while the former as discussed in this post, then the university should largely be funded out of tax revenues, as that is the correct way to fund public goods. It occurs to me that this might still be possible - if we federalize the system. I believe we've outgrown the current approach and we'll be seeing public research universities continue to decline in the future as the current approach persists. One reason for this is that the current approach is poor on cost containment, particularly on the matter of salaries and other perqs for high caliber research faculty. A federalized system would be better that way and thus be more sustainable, plus there is a larger potential tax base from which to draw to support the system. Then, too, one might argue that there is superfluous redundancy of public research institutions. Does every state really need at least one? I don't know. It's not a question you see a lot of people asking.
In the absence of federalizing the system as an answer, academics should be prepared to hear from friends who are not in academia that what they do is esoteric and unnecessary. We need to engage those people in thoughtful argument. I'm afraid, however, if we do that, too often we'll end up getting the short straw. This one is tough.