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.