In defense of the modern research university

Research universities aren't perfect, but they do have a role to play. They should start by reallocating their best resources, their faculty, to serve the undergraduates instead of the graduates.

Ari Denison / The Christian Science Monitor / File
The strength of any research university is its faculty. Courses that educate one or two graduate students could be eliminated in favor of strengthening the undergraduate experience. Graduate programs could be eliminated at all universities except the 'Ivies,' like Harvard University in Cambridge, here photographed in December, 1997.

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus are on a roll as they offer a populist critique of the "fat" modern research university. Part of writing a good book is timing.

Their timing is good. During a lasting recession, Americans want to know who continues to enjoy the "good life" and he points a finger at the tenured professors and Deans of leading private universities.

I would argue that research universities are one of the last great institutions that the United States has. If China will build great universities, they will resemble our great universities in terms of incentives and responsibilities.

While I have spent my adult life in "the Ivory Tower" --- I am self aware enough to know that they can be improved. I will return to my policy tweaks below.

In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus make several points;

1. tuition is rising over time faster than the rate of inflation

2. Universities have too many sports teams

3. Universities have too many deans and deputy deans.

4. University Presidents are being paid too much.

5. Senior tenured faculty have really cushy, high paying jobs with light teaching loads.

6. Universities focus on campus amenities such as gyms and good meals that are unrelated to their core function (education)

Point #1 is a fact and I agree with points #2, #3, and #6. Faculty members at the University of California know very little about why we have layers of administration at our home campuses and Oakland but it adds up to 100s of millions of dollars of compensation for people who do not teach or do research or have day to day contact with students.

Point #4: University presidents are well paid because they are effectively CEOs of a strange hybrid public and private firm. There are dozens of interest groups lobbying the University President and he/she must play nice with dozens of constituents. To attract talented people to such a tough job requires "combat pay".

Now, there is a barrier to entry that raises University President pay. Almost all Presidents have a PHD. They are former academics who opted out of research to enter administration. If Universities considered hiring MBAs to lead their school, then the compensation package would fall due to competition but there would be ugly fights about the "values" of the university and not running it as a business.

Now, let's turn to point #5. Senior faculty. At any university, there

is deadwood on the faculty who the Provost wishes would retire. Mandatory retirement used to remove this crew at age 70. Research universities would be reinvigorated if all of the faculty had to retire at age 65 and then the school could selectively choose who to hire back.

Do senior faculty teach too little? There are only 24 hours in the day. Our research does matter and it does take time to do. At UCLA, I teach very large survey classes (over 200 people in some of my environmental economics classes) so that a large number of students can be exposed to my ideas. The internet (through blogging) allows me to reach even more readers. I give lectures on campus and meet with parents groups. I hire undergraduates to be my research assistants and work with PHD students on their thesis research.

A serious faculty acts as a co-ordination device. Serious students choose to go to a university with serious faculty and the students learn from each other. The students sense the dedication and the sacrifice that faculty make and this becomes "infectious" as students see what it takes to make original discoveries. As Edison said, it's 99% perspiration.

How can the modern university be reformed?

There are too many PHD classes offered. Back in the 1990s at Columbia, there were many courses with 2 registered graduate students. Those courses should not be offered. Faculty should team teach a course and each be given credit for a fraction of the course. There are diminishing returns to taking a class with any professor. A senior faculty member should teach one PHD class per year and all of his/her other teaching should be undergraduate classes. (I have edited this part of the post.)

I know that people will disagree with this point but ever since I was junior faculty at Columbia University --- I have consistently argued that more faculty teaching resources be geared towards undergraduate teaching. Schools such as Columbia and UCLA should have PHD classes of 10 entering students per year (MIT admits 18 per year). There is a quantity/quality tradeoff in terms of advising and the faculty could invest more per-student. Faculty time would be freed up and could be devoted to teaching and advising advanced undergraduates to make their undergraduate research experience more meaningful.

People will counter that PHD students are needed to be teaching assistants in classes. But I disagree, the star undergraduates can serve this role and Paul Romer's Aplia has shown that information technology can play this role. Faculty can form their own reading groups to stay sharp in terms of discussing cutting edge research.

My vision for Research universities that are not "ivy league" rich is for them to reduce the quantity of PHD students at their schools. This will allow them to invest more per-graduate student and will free up faculty time to focus on the undergraduates.

Permit me to offer an example. Here is Washington University in St. Louis' Economics Department's Teaching Matrix for Fall 2010. Courses with a number < 500 are undergraduate courses while courses with a number > 500 are PHD classes. While the department offers many sections of undergraduate classes, the total count of different courses is roughly equal between the undergraduate courses (16) versus the PHD courses (13) and I'm not counting the graduate research seminars. Also note that non-tenure track faculty teach most of their intro and intermediate micro and macro classes but the bulk of the students take these classes. In my view, the tenured faculty (such as a Greg Mankiw or a Sali-i-Martin) should be teaching these classes. This is exactly my point. Resources have been misallocated and the undergraduates suffer. They don't have the same meaningful experience and they are not as loyal alumni as they might have been. The same issues arise at UCLA.

The modern university needs to give more undergraduates a research experience so that they can participate in active learning. We are asking undergraduates to pay a lot per year of education. We need to deliver "value added". I'm still trying to figure out how to employ more UCLA students on productive tasks that are a "win-win" for me and the student.

There is a major difference between modern research universities and publicly traded for profit companies. If the latter perform badly, their stock price will fall and they will be risk of a leveraged buyout by a T. Boone Pickens or a Carl Icahn. The anticipation of this credible threat creates good management incentives.

We need a good contract theorist to study whether university managers have sufficient incentives when such a "stick" is not available and output is hard to measure and contract on.

Tenured faculty do have strong incentives to write good papers and to be good teachers. Your own reputation will suffer if you shirk on either of these tasks.


The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link above.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.