Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The Grant Program I’d Love to See

I spend a fairly alarming amount of my time these days on grant-related projects.  Each is worthy in its own way, of course, but they have certain limitations in common.

The dollars come with a time limit, and they require management.  Each has its own reporting requirements.  For the ones that work directly on academic issues, one or more full-time faculty have some time bought out by the grant so they can work on the grant project.  (Put differently: with every new grant, either we increase our adjunct percentage, or we decrease our course offerings.)  Each requires a liaison to somewhere else, and several of them require a full-time project director.  

For certain academic disciplines -- STEM, mostly -- so many projects are brewing that simply covering classes is becoming a challenge.  (Last week someone from Student Affairs practically begged me to open up more sections of math, since they were having an awful time finding slots for students.  I explained that I can’t just conjure up faculty on short notice.  But with available adjuncts finite, every course release for yet another project is yet another section we can’t run.)  Some projects are actually bumping up against each other, which creates issues when the funding streams can’t be crossed.

Meanwhile, other academic disciplines -- nearly everything outside of STEM -- are largely on their own.  

So for any philanthropists or politicians out there who’d like to do some good, here’s an idea:

Give open-ended grants to hire full-time faculty to teach classes.

That’s the one expense category I’m expressly forbidden to apply to any of the grants we have.  And it’s the one I most desperately need.

A time period of just a few years won’t do it.  When you have a tenure system, each year gets closer to a lifetime commitment.  The funding needs to be sustained over time.

In research universities, positions like these are usually called “endowed chairs.”  But that’s more high-falutin’ (higher falutin’?) than I need.  I’d settle for endowed assistant professorships.  

In an attempt not to hollow out the instructional core any more than it already is, my college handled the last few budget cuts largely with cuts to the administrative side.  That means that we just don’t have any more fat there to cut.  If anything, in some areas we’re running so lean that the opportunity cost of things we just can’t do are starting to mount.  And the costs for IT, regulatory compliance, and benefits just keep climbing.  State funding isn’t in free fall anymore, but it’s nowhere near where it was even five years ago.  And there are political and moral limits to how much faster to increase tuition and fees.

So if we’re to maintain the level of day-to-day instruction, a new paradigm in grants could not come at a better time.  

If you're looking for math adjuncts, where do I apply?
It is interesting to hear Dean Dad say that acquiring a grant actually add to the cost of a college education rather than helping to make tuition less expensive. I gather that the amount of overhead money brought in by the grant is not nearly enough to pay all the costs involved in administering and running the grant, the costs of record keeping, the costs of mandatory reporting, the costs of ensuring that the day-to-day administration operation of the grant satisfies this regulation or that regulation, plus the costs of the release time for the faculty members who work on the grant. In addition, there is the cost of maintaining the program once the grant support ends.

When I was teaching at Research Intensive Technological Institute we had a whole staff of administrators whose main job was to watch over professors who had research grants to make sure that they were following all the rules and were not spending any grant money on things that were not called for in the grant proposal. I wonder if the salaries of these administrators absorbed most of the overhead money brought in by these grants.

When I was a graduate student at Ivy League University, my thesis advisor spent most of his time in reporting to the agencies which funded his three grants, as well as in writing new grant proposals. These activities took up so much of his time that he was very rarely seen in his own laboratory, relying strictly on his graduate students and his postdocs to do the actual research. In most cases, he added little more than his name to the papers written by his graduate students.

One of the things that drove me out of academe was the constant need for faculty members to raise research money. Just like a candidate running for political office, a faculty member must spend a large fraction of his/her time in fundraising. At Research Intensive Technological Institute, perhaps the most important requirement for attaining tenure was the ability to “bring in money”, that is the ability to write winning research proposals that get funded. One’s teaching ability was considerably less important if it was considered at all. Actually, even publishing lots of papers in refereed journals was only secondary in importance, a long list of publications being seen primarily as a means by which grant support could be obtained.

Dean Dad, is the grant game much the same at your community college? I gather that things are somewhat different at a community college. I imagine that most of the grant support money goes to support educational innovations rather than to support basic research. I had always assumed that at a community college, good teaching would be far more important than research, publication, and chasing after grant support dollars. But maybe things are changing? Is the securing of grant support money now so important that it is the primary means by which faculty are rated by the administration? Is the ability to “bring in money” the primary requirement for being granted tenure? Is teaching ability only of secondary importance in relation to a faculty member’s ability to raise funds?

I was also surprised to hear that it is somewhat hard to find adjuncts to teach STEM disciplines. I suspect that there are not quite as many STEM graduates looking for work in an academic setting as there are graduates in liberal arts disciplines trying to find permanent teaching jobs. But there are still a lot of recent STEM graduates who aren’t able to land tenure-track jobs and who are playing the adjunct game while they seek out some sort of permanent employment. Probably one place to look for potential adjuncts to teach in STEM fields is to seek out recent retirees from large corporations who want to keep their minds active by teaching in their spare time. Unfortunately, another possibility for STEM adjuncts is to look for those people who have been dumped out onto the street by recent corporate layoffs.

So for any philanthropists or politicians out there who’d like to do some good

I think the real problem is that most people who fund and run foundations are doing so because they want to gain higher status by telling people that they're doing something. So they gravitate to programs that are visible more than they do to programs that are useful.

I've written about this dynamic in more detail, but I think it helps explain the basic reason why less glamorous, more essential activities, like "open-ended grants to hire full-time faculty to teach classes" are ignored in favor of various projects.
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