The “New Normal” Isn’t Normal

The following essay by University of California at Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield appeared originally on the Remaking the University blog and is republished with permission.  Although the three institutions discussed are from the San Francisco Bay Area, the issues addressed are ones we faculty members are confronting everywhere. 

The New Normal Isn’t Normal–It Erodes Democracy

BY CHRISTOPHER NEWFIELD

We’ve been told that public colleges and universities have entered a New Normal. It’s supposed to be stable and sustainable. It gives colleges less–to make them learn to do more.   Happy scenes like commencement at San Francisco State, at left, are to carry on unimpeded, with lower costs but no loss of learning or research.

This week, this insidious narrative was again undone by several stories about San Francisco State, UC Berkeley, and their private cousin Stanford University.

  1. Defunding Democracy

First, a rehearsal: The democratic vision of U.S. higher ed was that the burgeoning masses could get a degree that was cognitively the same as that of elites, even though they lacked the latter’s social networks and private resources.  Twins separated at graduation, one going to Stanford, say, and one to UC Berkeley, with a sibling already enrolled at San Francisco State, would have student experiences that would differ in trappings but not essentials.  The great faculty and facilities at the two public universities would allow them to offer cognitive gain that was functionally similar to that received by the Stanford twin, who would have social but not intellectual advantages.  No one thought they were dooming public university students to second- or third-tier status in a secret caste system.

Of course four years of Stanford seminars, where the student:faculty ratio is now 4:1, had advantages that SF State’s 50-student courses or Berkeley’s 600-student lectures did not. But economists calculated that by 1980, public colleges spent 70 cents for every dollar spent by the privates (p 237). The assumption was that the gap would continue to close. As it did, artificial and unjust barriers of gender, race, religion would continue to erode as the wider society became more prosperous and more enlightened.

Instead, by the 1990s public colleges were spending only 53 cents on the private dollar.  The five public flagships that had been in the top 20 in US News & World Report‘s first ranking, in 1987, later all fell out of that bracket (p 237).  By 2013, public research universities were on average spending 45 cents on the private research university dollar.   Public masters universities like SF State were spending 21 cents.  Community colleges, the favored political cure to our national attainment ills, were spending 14 cents on the private research university dollar (all from Figure A2).  Meanwhile, UC Berkeley’s Pell Grant rate–a proxy for low family income–is 35% while Stanford’s is 15%. Since UC Berkeley enrolls over 27,000 undergrads to Stanford’s 7000, UC Berkeley educates 9 times the number of low-income students each year.  It has much less money per poorer student to educate them.

We have been taught to call this efficiency.  It is grossly inefficient, socially speaking. It is also unjust.

  1. A Tale of Two Universities

This week, Nike chairman Phil Knight announced that he was giving $450 million to found Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which would bring the best and brightest from around the world to study at Stanford so they could return to their home countries to address major problems there.  Press coverage likened them to the Rhodes Scholarships. Stanford will apparently contribute another $300 million, for a total endowment of $750 million.  The statements of the two principals, donor Phil Knight and Stanford president John Hennessy, made it clear that the goal is to create global leaders.  KQED’s Forum interview with Mr. Hennessy features repeated claims that the program will not only offer the best academic training but will create the world’s top leadership in every domain. The key word was leadership.  Hearing the elaborate plans for special treatment of a very small group of international students, I concluded the program is tightly focused on deluxe training for a worldwide super-elite.  They would preside over the broad democracy of intelligence rather than be part of it.

The micro scale of the student output is important.  Leaving aside the tarnished public image of university fundraising, increasingly defined as rich people giving huge, unnecessary donations to rich colleges, it looks as though the gift money goes to cover full cost of attendance for a total of 100 students for three years.   The program will have at most 300 students at a given time. A 5% annual return on the overall endowment will generate $125,000 per student per year.  This is not enormously more than what a private research university normally spends on each student ($90,000 in the Delta Cost figures linked above). And yet Knight-Hennessy has overnight become the #130 endowment in the country, about the size of Bucknell University’s, itself a fairly posh school with 3,565 undergraduates. It is twice the endowment of that of the University of Wisconsin system.  In short, the Knight-Stanford gift is effective as micro-scale elite training but woefully inefficient as a mode of democratic higher education.  It just isn’t part of that world.

This might seem unfair to the Knights, since they have given generously to Oregon’s flagship public university, the University of Oregon.  But of the $1 billion the Knights had donated to charity prior to this gift (on an estimated net worth of $19 billion), $34.7 million went to public university campus academics (non-medical).  The figure rises to $76.4 million by counting their gift to UO’s athlete tutoring center.)

Meanwhile, also this week, San Francisco State professor Joanne Barker revealed that the SF State central administration has proposed that the College of Ethnic Studies be cut by 13.8% next year. This would bring post-2008 cuts to 25% of COES’s budget (in nominal dollars).  COES is the only college of ethnic studies in the United States and its founding and development are a matter of national legend.  Each year it teaches most of a Stanford (6000 enrollments) with a current-year budget of $3.6 million.  COES is required to do this, on a per-student budget, expressed as a share of 6/7ths of Stanford’s instructional expenditures — which I estimate from this financial report (p 54) and the Delta averages to be between $440 and $540 million–well, the fraction is too gruesome even for me.

In Prof. Barker’s post, I was riveted by what few faculty discuss: the public college working conditions as they affect student learning. She noted that Cal State defines their basic teaching load to be 5 courses a term, which is similar to the load at a community college or high school. Faculty members then buy out courses with administration and research, generally one course per term for each activity.

The other three courses they teach, and they are expected to enroll 50 students each. The overwhelming majority of faculty in the CSU are not provided with teaching assistance. This means that faculty are expected to teach three courses and grade the work of 150 students per semester without aid.

Ideally, a humanities or social science course would assign each student two papers in a semester and then offer detailed grading of the kind that allows students to see their full range of issues and address them.  But one professor can only grade 300 papers on top of the rest of their teaching, research, and administrative job by sacrificing the rest of their life.  The other solution is to cap the quality of feedback at a modest level, by replacing at least one paper with an exam and standardizing the exams as much as possible.  The normal workload sharply limits the intensity and detail available to an individual SF State student.  Politicians who like the “efficiency” of these low costs are not thinking about the cost to educational quality for non-elite students.

CSU faculty are also expected to do research.  These days, state college tenure-track faculty have research university doctorates and the intellectual lives and research ambitions to match.   SF State students are supposed to be exposed to the same up-to-date material as their siblings at research universities in order to avoid the educational class system we’re discussing here.

Prof. Barker described the SF State/ Cal State system for research support:

The only viable support for faculty research—the foundational basis on which curriculum design, publications, and conference presentations are produced—has to come from a modicum of CSU and campus-based grants and one-term sabbaticals. These grants and awards are highly competitive.  At SFSU and in the COES, faculty wanting time for the professional development of their research and writing or for travel expenses to vet their work at conferences and workshops generally must secure outside funding from equally competitive sources. The policy has been that faculty are “charged” $10-12,000 per course per term for course release. Meaning, effectively, that a faculty person who wants time off teaching for research and does not have a CSU or SFSU grant to do so must secure an outside grant or fellowship at a minimum of $30,000 for a term and $60,000 for the academic year. Since most national fellowships, such as the Ford Foundation, average $45,000/year, CSU and SFSU has created a situation that essentially disqualifies faculty from being able to apply for these awards unless they are willing to make up the difference out of pocket.

Our colleagues in the CSU system already teach too much to do the expected research at scale, and apparently are also asked to supply from their own salary a subsidy that normally comes from “institutional funds.”  These conditions demand their heroic efforts to maintain their research programs while single-handedly developing higher-order skills in 150 undergraduates at a time.  The simple reason is that the CSU system is not funded to support research, and the very limited funding they do allot to this will not go in any quantity to the arts, humanities, and qualitative social sciences.

This is the context in which the New Normal demands the public university be cut yet again.

  1. Berkeley’s Failed Formula

The other widening gap is between a university like Stanford and one like UC Berkeley.

The post-2008 cocktail of cuts and austerity has been very hard on UC Berkeley’s budgets.  Officials followed the post-public formula to the letter: accept the public funding era is over and keep increasing fundraising and sponsored research.

They also renewed the fixation on inefficiency.  The Birgeneau administration hired outside consultants, and they generated a plan for administrative savings called Operation Excellence (OE), which had a number of component programs.  The idea was that the projected annual savings of $75 million would help the campus weather the latest round of major public funding cuts (from 2002 to 2012, UC Berkeley’s state general fund appropriation went from nearly $500 million to under $300 million per year, a drop of 54% in real terms).

Some of OE’s programs made a lot of sense, like simplified equipment sourcing.  Others would provide little or no return in exchange for degraded service, like the herding of departmental staff into a separate building off campus under Campus Shared Services.  The promises of savings were always overblown (see “Bain’s Blow to Berkeley”), and the implementation seemed to be undermining the efficiency of distributed innovation rather than reinforcing it. Faculty were being separated from staff, and it appeared that different departments were going to get different speeds and quality of service depending on their ability to pay, United Airlines style.

But neither the staff segregation nor the new service inequalities have had budgetary benefits. The overall OE annual savings are about half of the projected $75 million.   Campus Shared Services has failed completely. Its annual savings are now expected to be zero–actually negative, since the campus has lost millions on this program so far.  Even if everything had gone according to plan, OE is a classic example of a “nickel solution”– $75 million a year is 3.33% of the campus’s $2.25 billion annual budget, and this benefit would never have fixed larger budgetary problems.

Some of these figures come from outgoing Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration John Wilton’s 2013 budget commentaries, “Time is Not On Our Side” (Part 1 and Part 2).  The structural deficit was already well known to officials by then, and in fact had been a topic of discussion quite a bit earlier.  But the strategies that were part of the deficit’s formation were still expected to fix it.

The half-way privatization model has been broken for a long time, and is now scaring everyone, even the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times editorial boards.  They are right to be scared. Public flagships no longer have the resources to do teaching and research at the top level of quality–and for new social conditions– that the state assumed for all its non-elite students.

I don’t know which of the old ideas UC Berkeley officials thought would fix the structural problems. Perhaps they hoped that growth in non-resident tuition, coupled with a doubling in professional school fees (since 2005), plus a few big fundraising wins, some new industry partnerships, and more non-operating revenues, would get them to the other side of the Jerry Brown austerity era where they would see serious tuition increases again.

Perhaps they didn’t think they could fix the structural problems.  John Wilton made this case very well.

While it is tempting to believe that reductions in our operating expenses are the key to long-term stability and sustainability, it is fairly easy to illustrate that it is not possible for costs to become consistent with current revenue projections if we are to maintain the current standards of access and excellence.

Since cost-cutting wouldn’t actually work, and since, as Mr. Wilton had observed, Berkeley now competed for its three largest revenue streams (tuition, research, and philanthropy) against every other university in the country, Plan B would be, by default, a reduction in quality.

Plan A has of course always been restored public funding, which is the only way to pursue the democratization of intelligence.  But senior managers seem to have given up on that.

  1. Berkeley’s Faulty Forum

This is the context for Chancellor Dirks’s “Announcement of Comprehensive Planning and Analysis Process.”  It’s most important move is to announce the structural deficit.   It also describes short- and long-term measures. They won’t have much effect: they have all been in place for years, and their effects are already baked into the budgetary cake.

The sole exception is “realignment” of academic structures.  That will make a meaningful difference only if it involves (a) mass staff layoffs, perhaps in the company of (b) faculty layoffs, accomplished by shrinking some academic departments and closing others.   Staff groups have already been raising the alarm about this prospect, which was the lead-in to the Forum the campus’s senior leaders held last week.

Chancellor Dirks et al. defined four major planning areas: athletics, fundraising, administrative initiatives, and academic realignment.   Faculty members from whom we’ve heard thought there was little news about the actual planning.  One wrote,

Well, (1) it would have been considerably shorter if four words had been proscribed: “excellence,” “strategic,” “synergy,” “realignment.”  (2) Provost Steele offered no substance except at the end, when he pretty much admitted that they plan to solve the problem of (a) increased enrollment; (b) shrinkage of graduate programs/increase in $ amount of each fellowship by…. increasing lecturers.   (3) on fundraising, they claim “the work shows that every dollar returns $7.”  I have since asked someone in the relevant office for the numbers and have been told it doesn’t have that information. In the Forum, they parried the fact that 99% of giving is restricted by claiming gifts have funded buildings, endowed chairs, etc., which is of course true but not to the point about covering operating costs.  The foundation and campus board get representatives on the advisory committee for the “Office of Strategic Initiatives.”    (4) Sibley auditorium was FILLED, and faculty asked many good questions–about how much of our structural deficit is debt servicing (I think they said that’s now at $100 million, and will grow soon to $150 million, but they’re seeking debt relief from UCOP).  One asked, why not use cash to pay down principal, instead of trying to “generate revenue” by entirely “realigning” a university that is, academically speaking, working well. Answer to this and to all: “everything’s on the table” (but really, we only have 3 years of savings, so we can’t do what you’re asking).  (5) they’re pretty much using the PhD job situation to justify their plans for expanding the # of money-generating Masters programs, both professional and academic. Again, a lot of push-back against this: one scholar saying that if Masters programs are to be good, they need faculty attention, which means less faculty attention to undergraduates. Answer to this and other objections: not if it’s managed well–look at U Chicago’s MA program.  No acknowledgement of completely different scale and income of U Chicago. Dirks said “societal changes” warrant move to Masters anyway; no jobs, people don’t want to spend 8 years of life in grad school, etc.

That writer also noted that Berkeley Faculty Association Co-Chair Michael Buroway made a statement that seemed to speak for many faculty, judging from the applause that greeted his questions:

Over the last decade there have been a number of costly ventures – from the renovation of the stadium to the Lower Sproul Plaza development; from Operation Excellence and Campus Shared Services to the experiment in On-Line Education; from the Energy Biosciences Institute to CITRIS. Each project is rolled out with great fanfare as a lucrative investment to be recovered sometime in the future, whereas each one has proven to be a financial albatross. There seems to be systemic pattern of fiscal irrationality. But from where does it come?  If I may answer my own question – a major part of the responsibility lies with the administration itself. The university appears to have been hijacked by what we might call spiralists – those who advance their careers by spiraling from one organization to the next. They stay for a few years, advancing their portfolio with a signature project that then launches them into a higher orbit and plunges the university into a downward spiral of accumulating debt. The latest case in point is the outgoing VC for Finance and Administration, John Wilton, who arrived five years ago to replace another spiralist, Nathan Brostrom. Like Brostrom, Wilton is now moving on, leaving behind a train wreck.  Will Wilton’s replacement be yet another spiralist from the financial world?  Why don’t we replace him with one of our own great economists? If we are a recruiting ground for the chair of the Federal Reserve Board and for the Director of the National Economic Council, why not for the VC for Finance and Administration?   I’ve really only got one question: is the administration prepared to acknowledge its own contribution to our annual deficit and, if so, what does it propose to do about it?

There were apparently no answers to these questions.  But the trend is clear. Without restored public funding, the New Normal means the permanent downgrading of all levels of public higher education, and the reversion of top-quality learning and research to small elites. Unless we restore cut public funding, California will continue to pioneer educational post-democracy.

 

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