Thursday, January 24, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Ways to Fund Departments

A new and very perceptive correspondent writes:

I’m a long-time lurker, writing now in hopes you and your readers can help explain academic funding models (ha!). I’m an ABD in a fairly highly ranked department at a large R1 university. Huge U. funds its departments based on a formula in which the largest factor is the mean of undergraduate course enrollments over the prior small number of years.

My fellow ABDs and I, over the years, have concluded that many of the problems we see are caused, at their root, by this funding model. It turns undergrad enrollments into a necessary popularity contest since we must have high enrollments to stay in the black. At Huge U., at least, that means requiring very little work, handing out lots of high grades, and being “entertaining” at all costs. Departments and programs get veto power over each others’ course offerings, so that a course offered elsewhere can’t damage the enrollment of an existing one. Vetoes are allowed even in the face of demonstrated student interest and the existing course consistently having long waiting lists. The list of issues that seem to come out of this funding model goes on.

After enjoying several years of spectacularly high enrollments, during which my department hired lots of new faculty and admitted large classes of graduate students (in part because they had the money and in part to be able to offer enough classes to meet the demand), undergraduate enrollments have fallen quickly. (We have theories as to why, and the reasons are not things we can do much about.) We are now being threatened with ending all funding to ABDs who have been here “too long” (although significantly less than the national average and no longer than the average here), cutting benefits, etc.

I have two sets of questions. First, what are some alternative models to fund departments, and what are the problems associated with them? If we’re going to complain about what we’ve got, it would be nice to know something about the alternatives.

Second, would it be odd if I asked about this issue on the job market? It certainly wouldn’t be my first question, by far, but somewhere in the course of a campus visit, I would be curious to learn how a school distributed money. The answer wouldn’t necessarily sink my desire to take the job in question, but at least I would know what I was getting into if I did.

I wish that every job applicant, at every level, would ask these questions. I'll say without reservation that the very few times someone has asked this sort of question, my opinion of them has skyrocketed. A question like this suggests that the applicant understands, at a fundamental level, that structure matters. I'm constantly surprised at the number of very intelligent, very well-educated people who don't get that.

The system you outline strikes me as an unsustainable hybrid of two systems. There's the “each tub on its own bottom” system, in which each administrative unit – be it an academic division or department or program – generates its own revenue and covers its own costs. Based on your comment about the mean of student enrollments determining funding, it sounds like this is the model you're using on the revenue side.

Under this model, each department is largely free to do what it needs to do to get its books in order. The incentives, as you recognize, are generally perverse, but the concept of inter-departmental veto power wouldn't make sense. If I want to open a restaurant in my town, I don't need the permission of the local McDonald's. The “each tub on its own bottom” system rewards initiative, and sometimes rewards promiscuous academic standards or otherwise misplaced priorities.

The other model is the “one college” model, in which there's an overall budget for the entire college or university. In this system, profitable units cross-subsidize money-losing units. (For example, the profits turned by mostly chalk-and-talk areas like history or psychology allow the college to make up the gaping losses in the Nursing program.) In this system, each subgroup's fate is entwined visibly with all the others', so external vetoes of department initiatives can make sense. It sounds like this is the model you're using on the 'cost' side.

In practice, it's not unusual for the same school to switch between these two models, sometimes on a case by case basis. (A particular department is the President's pet, or, alternately, a particular department just can't do anything right in the administration's eyes, so the usual rules are suspended in those cases.) I'm not a big proponent of that, since I think it can easily put departments in no-win situations. (You have to increase enrollment, but all of your new ideas get vetoed by 'competing' departments who also have to increase enrollment. In retaliation, you veto their new ideas, too. When all is said and done, there's plenty of internal bickering and no growth. This may sound familiar.)

Back in my grad school days, funding for graduate students came from multiple sources. The department had a certain amount that it could divvy out. The University also gave some out on its own, based (at the time, anyway) largely on GRE scores. So a grad student with University funding was effectively 'free' for the department. I've heard of some colleges doing something similar for 'diversity' faculty hires – standard hires come from the department budget, but dedicated 'diverse' hires are paid for by central administration, and are therefore 'free' for the department. (My undergrad alma mater did that.) It's the same idea behind federal matching funds for state programs: we won't make the decision for you, but we'll change the background conditions against which you make your decision.

For the record, I prefer the one-college model, though it requires thoughtful leadership to avoid slipping into the trap of milking the cash cows to death. The other model, I think, places undue pressure on new programs, which almost always lose money in their early stages, and can lead to destructive overreactions to relatively small changes. But this is a pragmatic, not theological, position, and either model is better than a haphazard hybrid of both.

As for the ABD's who have been there “too long,” my condolences. There's a much broader problem in academe of admitting grad students not because there's a realistic prospect of them getting jobs, but just for the cheap labor. When their labor isn't needed anymore, that's that. In keeping with the rest of my administrative philosophy, I'd rather see graduate admissions reduced drastically upfront, and any resulting gaps in cheap labor made up through honest advertising for it. But that's a much larger topic.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what other funding models have you seen? Have you seen one that rewards the right things and seems sustainable?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At the R1 where I did my graduate program, a department would receive $x for having one of its own undergradute majors enrolled in a class. If an undergraduate from another major enrolled in the class, the department would receive $2x. This made it more profitable for departments to recruit non majors. This also made for extreme fights whenever cores class realignments were considered.

At the R1 where I am an assistant professor, each department is funded based on the number of undergraduate majors with each college have some flexibility to provide more funding for courses which require more resources.
not to be obnoxious, but why in the world would I be expected to know this and/or ask about it on the job market?
I was actually thinking the same thing, Anastasia.
not to be obnoxious, but why in the world would I be expected to know this and/or ask about it on the job market?

It's an indication that the applicant has some knowledge of institution of academia. Just as in any other industry, savvy and knowledgeable applicants are a plus.
DD, Thanks for this post. I don't think I realized, before today, that a some universities purposefully follow the "unit model." I'm with you in favoring the "one-college" model.

Why? For starters, the unit model screws the humanities. Since most students come to college with a vocational orientation (I won't flatter them by calling it a conscious philosophy of education), classes that don't ~clearly and obviously~ further their career/major are seen as a waste of time. Since few students, across the U.S. higher edu spectrum, are humanities majors, those units would be screwed in the unit-funding model.

This was my experience in graduate school. My university spun off a particularly profitable unit, and the rest of the institution suffered horribly (particularly the humanities). I don't believe, however, that my grad. school followed the unit-funding model. However, even the proximate one-unit similarity was painful.

And on the subject of teaching as entertainment, well, it's enough of a problem due to individual vanity without institutionalizing it as a corporate goal. Humanities instructors seem (in my experience) to be particularly prone to the wanting-to-be-wanted syndrome. Don't feed the monster!

To Anastasia and Anonymous #1: Knowing your subject alone will ~never~ be enough. Those not knowledgeable of their industry will end up as mere wage earners in the same. - TL
I think its great that this question has been brought up. I realized that I actually have no idea how funds from the state and from tuition were allocated at my graduate uni or another where I worked on the research staff. In both places I knew a lot about how "research overhead" from grants got allocated, but not how other resources are managed. It would help me now to have that knowledge as a reference point.

Our CC operates with state resources that are mostly allocated using an averaging formula rather than current enrollment, which must make the budget planning process fairly rational. I can't imagine one where you might not be able to cover regular faculty salaries at the end of September if your "yield" for fall was well short of expectations. Goodbye new hire!

(Yes, I know state budgets are notorious for fluctuating with the business cycle. I've lost count of the number of recession cut backs I've seen in my career, and I expect good managers to plan for those contingencies.)

Our college also builds all f-t faculty and staff salaries into the base budget. The parts that fluctuate with enrollment are the parts you would expect to vary with enrollment, such as adjuncts. The number of f-t lines for faculty or staff also depend on enrollment, but only on a much longer time scale than an annual budget.
At my R1 it turns out that approx 95-97% of the budgets are faculty salaries. These are allocated annually based on existing tenured and tenure-track faculty, without regard to enrollments. (It is also w/o regard to sabbaticals, so a dept doesn't benefit financially when one of its faculty is on sabbatical.) New hire positions are scarce and difficult to come by.

The debates among researchers correspond to the distribution of TA resources, which map fairly directly to undergraduate enrollments, particularly classes that have large TA needs. Chemistry, for example, has a lot of TAs and they work the hardest among all TAs. English also has a lot, and they work hard too. There are many fewer TAs over in engineering (approx a factor of 1/5 per department vs chem or English).

This works well in terms of staffing the labs, writing sections, etc. It fails, though, when the same administrators who allocate these resources ask (genuinely!) why the graduate programs in chemistry or English seem to be larger than those in engineering.

I agree with prev posts about why this is a good question. It shows that you (the candidate) are thinking about the many ways that a job as a professor is different from being a grad student.
I forgot to add that one alternative is to require the "big" TA departments to hire a few TAs from other departments. This can decouple the choices of which departments to fund the most from the realities of where TAs are needed the most.
I am still having a hard time figuring out how all this works at my own institution, so this discussion is useful. I had no idea until I became faculty how very important it is to understand how funding works - esp. to be an effective advocate for your program area. I remember the phrase "it's all about the benjamins, baby" running through my head my entire first year. It was a shock, because I assumed my being academia I somehow was not in the business world. My bad.
At the RI midwestern flagship state university where I work, we don't have a "one college" model, but a "one campus" model. The College of Arts & Sciences runs a massive surplus (that is, tuition attributed to its courses is vastly more than its General Operating budget), with the extra money then used to fund other colleges and various administrative, non-teaching, non-research offices. The result--faculty salaries in the college are much lower than most others; the administrative units funded by the college surplus demand enormous fees from college academic units to do anything ($10,000 to set up a Wi-FI network in one building!) and the Provost is constantly on the college about its large "debt" to the university central administration.
My school mostly uses a "continuing" and mixed model of funding. Each unit (or whatever) has a base budget that's continued from year to year, and then special allocations have to be made to add to that, either on a one year basis (some special grant), or to add to the base. There's talk of changing to a model where each year the base is up for grabs to some extent.

I think it makes good sense to have some checks on new courses. First, it's inefficient to add new courses simply to add new courses; they should have a curricular purpose. Unfortunately, the funding model discussed seems to work against curricular thinking.

And in the business world, you MIGHT be able to open a fast food place just up from a McD's, but the McD corp supposedly wouldn't sell another McD franchise if it might send the first under. And then there's all sorts of ways that businesses push zoning stuff to prevent competition. Rich companies do that quite successfully sometimes. (Heck, even Walmart gets prevented sometimes.)
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