Monday, June 13, 2005

On Cost Containment at Major Public Universities

It is extremely difficult to talk about cost issues in Higher Ed, especially among faculty who embrace learning technology and folks who support instruction. Cost ideas are perceived to be either orthogonal or antagonistic to the mission, promoting good teaching. Moreover, these "folks in the trenches" don't normally deal with fiscal issues so they don't readily see how cost saving innovation would benefit themselves. The one exception to this rule is on cost savings that directly reduce their own efforts, particularly efforts in administering a course. Instructors are willing to engage when they are the direct beneficiary and staff are of course happy when they can please instructors. But economies in capital resources or with other staff, for example reduced use of heavily scheduled classrooms, are not of interest to them. There is no thought that such a savings might come back to them or their students through some indirect path. In other words, cost savings are not a value per se.

And indeed, since many have seen their work burden rise as campuses have had to take budget cuts in the name of efficiency, there is a general suspicion that costs savings imply personal harm, not personal benefit. (Today Steve Gilbert sent out a message on the TLT listserve entitled "Overwhelmed or just Whelmed.")

This means that cost reduction is not likely to come from grass root efforts and instead must be done top down, if it is achieved at all. How should that be done? William Massy is one of the few people who has written on the subject. Honoring the Trust gives a thorough treatment of the main issues.

I want to ask a different set of questions, namely, do all departments have to do both research and (undergraduate) teaching? Can some be only one? How would the size of the departments differ in one case versus the other? Who benefits from the department aside from the faculty who are in it?

Asking these questions may sound like sacrilege, especially on my campus. But, in particular, if revenue is insufficient to make for a really good research department and the research is highly theoretical, only appreciated by other scholars in the field, and if the field itself is quite safe from extinction in that many other universities have such a department, where is the harm?

A standard tenet of project management is that if you must curb cost then reduce scope. I believe the same applies to the university as a whole. But how would accreditation committees view a campus that took this approach? And what about potential students? It is reality here that Engineering is the hardest college to get into, measured by minimum required ACT scores, while LAS is much easier. Engineering departments are, in general, big generators of external grant funds. LAS is more schizophrenic, roughly dividing on the lines of science versus humanities.

Now one more question to get back to the theme in the title. Campuses such as mine are all about new programs. There is programmatic innovation, whether in something interdisciplinary between Engineering and Business, an Information Technology minor for Humanities students, or a new International Studies program. The rule is that such programs are resource consumers.

How can we do anything new without raising cost unless we cut something old? And if we bought that logic, what would we cut?

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