Five Ways to Fix College Education

Mark Kleiman’s gracious rejoinder to my letter to Janet Napolitano as she takes the reins of the University of California reminds me of an old joke:

A rabbi of Chelm is assailed by two neighbors demanding he settle a dispute. The first presents a devastating indictment of the second’s housekeeping, garden management, child-rearing, and more. He listens and says, impressed, “You’re right!” The second woman denies all these assertions, and then accuses the first of setting a terrible moral example for the neighborhood, entertaining strange men at all hours, dressing inappropriately, and the like.

The rabbi says, “that’s terrible, you’re absolutely right!”

His daughter says, “but Daddy, they can’t both be right!”

After reflection, he says, “you’re right, too!”

Yes, we can. Mark is right that the president of ten campuses, each with a chancellor, isn’t in the same position as the president of a one-campus institution. Much of what I said to Napolitano is, as Mark suggests, more directly relevant to the chancellors, though they are always academics and not new to the business. It’s also true that if Napolitano doesn’t take on Mark’s charge to get the funding tap reopened, she’s not doing her job. But doing that is not, in my view, just a matter of reciting the facts about UC’s importance to the state and society, and glad-handing important pols. The citizens of California have withdrawn their traditional support for us, admittedly through very noisy and flawed political machinery, because they do not see us as creating net value for money. Without rebuilding that support, neither smooth lobbying craft skills nor “radical political action”, whatever Mark means by that, will work.

Why don’t voters realize how wonderful we are? Mark and I can see, and after all, we’re paid professional experienced expert professors, highly qualified in assessing the precise wonderfulness of public programs! He and I and all our colleagues are happy to tell everyone how great we are, and we do. My students write down what I tell them in class and repeat it back to me; outrageous that the public doesn’t show the same respect.

Well, it is the case that any elite institution is an easy target for the ignorant and the cynical, and there have been those who like to take a shot for a quick hit of publicity. We can’t do much about that directly, but it’s important to remember that there was a time when we were viewed quite differently and such ridicule didn’t resonate with established memes. The really enormous salaries we pay more and more administrators, only some of whose positions are justified by the growth of regulation and red tape that afflicts us, are an easy target. The president has some control of this and needs to wield it.

The wonders of our research accomplishments are actually difficult to honestly represent to the public, partly because an advance at the frontier of science or anything else is hard to even describe to someone who isn’t conversant with the territory bounded by that frontier. Sometimes we come up with something that makes a gee-whiz news story, but it’s rare. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to round up the hi-tech business leaders who hire our graduates in the sciences, but UC is a university, not a STEMersity, and we need to do a much better job explaining why we have English, Art Practice, Music, History and similar departments. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t hurt for entertainment business leaders, artists, and such to step up and explain how a liberal education – and a liberal arts scholarly enterprise-makes a society worth living in.

We (faculty) are simply not able to make this case outside our own echo chamber. For one thing, we come across as arrogant and entitled, disrespectful anyone who doesn’t share our view of our own merit and importance. We don’t offer evidence, we don’t demonstrate our value, and we are unskilled at explaining what we know to people who know something else. I think we’re also a little spoiled by mostly interacting with an audience that knows we are giving them consequential grades. More important, university faculty demanding public support for the university inevitably come across as self-serving, even when we dress it up in pleas to reduce the students’ tuition. There’s a big affective difference between food stamp recipients and the unemployed demonstrating and lobbying for better social services, and tenured professors who earn six-digit salaries for nine months, with really nice benefits, lobbying for our company to be given more money. Affective: it doesn’t matter to be right on the facts when you sound like you’re just trying to tilt the pinball machine of life even further your way.

Finally, and here I am surely inviting a lot of my colleagues to call me really mean names, the research we do, at least, is not uniformly wonderful. A lot of repetitive, unsurprising stuff is getting published, research that is not essential to the work of others and only gets four or five citations ever. A lot of it is written in private disciplinary gobbledygook incomprehensible outside a small circle of adepts, and unenlightening to colleagues in related (much less distant) disciplines. There is too much showing ourselves to be really smart, and not enough making other people smart.

Teaching, on the other hand, should be a piece of cake. We send thousands and thousands of ambassadors to the California public, all across the state, starting with their first Christmas break, to tell friends and relatives that every meeting of every class was a great intellectual experience, that the comments on their papers were thoughtful, helpful and detailed, and that after only one semester of Italian they can order dinner, get the gist of the front page articles in La Repubblica, and even joke with their classmates a little! This must be what they say, because as everyone knows (well, all my colleagues know!) great researchers are just automatically great teachers…and the few who don’t say it, just don’t deserve us and the heck with them. Probably didn’t actually study much, right? Reader, what’s that…you know a UC undergrad who came home and didn’t say those things?

My recurrent nightmare is of such a student whose father asks on that first visit home, right after the first round of hugs, “so, what’s college like?”

“Well, it’s OK, I guess. I have a couple of really nice new friends, and I think my grades will be OK. But I couldn’t get into my two first choice courses. My physics GSI [graduate student instructor] tries really hard, but he’s Chinese and his English is really sketchy, and there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t understand, and with three hundred people in lecture we can’t really ask questions. I couldn’t get into my professor’s office hours two weeks in a row after sitting on the floor in the corridor for an hour. A lot of us just don’t go to class when they don’t take attendance because it isn’t really worth it. There’s one course I really love, every day we have these great discussions that really make me think. A bunch of us took the prof out to lunch, and she said she’s just an “adjunct”, whatever that is, and that she would have to get some other kind of job next year because it didn’t pay enough, we were really sad.”

That student’s father is the finance chair of her state senator’s campaign committee, and has a golf date with the senator next week.

OK, Mark, what can the president do about this? Well, here are a couple of ideas. Please, Ms. Napolitano, for our survival (never mind our growth and progress):

(1) Organize the business, performers’ and professional leaders’ committees hinted at above, not just alums, to make some real noise. We need people who are not on our payroll to show Californians why and how their university matters. A day a year for people to visit campuses and whisk through laboratories with cool bubbling equipment isn’t cutting it. These are people who can sell stuff that isn’t nearly as intrinsically cool as UC, from movies with Los Angeles being blown up, to organic chicken, to software with really elegant screen interfaces; they can sell us. But they can’t make any of their stuff without us and need to make that clear to voters and politicians.

(2) Order every chancellor to present, within a year, the multi-year research management program he or she will institute on his campus, the criteria his research development committee will use to evaluate progress and for midcourse corrections, and the outreach and marketing program it will incorporate [note: sales is talking; marketing is listening]. Make it clear to the chancellors that simply increasing research funding cannot be a primary indicator of success, and neither can a count of articles in academic journals. Make it clear to the public (and to us) that academic freedom is a core principle of the university under your leadership, and also that academic freedom does not mean a lifetime entitlement to think about whatever you find diverting.

(3) Order every chancellor to present a ten-year plan to rationalize the human resources scheme for faculty. How many PhD graduate students is each department admitting, how much of their time are they teaching instead of moving their research along, how long do they take to finish, and how many new PhDs are getting academic or other appropriate jobs; how many professional graduates are getting jobs in their field? The ten years should wind down the abusive exploitation of adjuncts (except in the few cases where non-academics have specialized knowledge useful for a program but not practical for academic appointment), with tenured and tenure-track faculty doing the teaching. This program also needs to include a bottom-up review of tenure practices and look at alternatives like five- or ten-year rolling tenure for at least some new faculty. What qualities of mind and practice are actually leading to tenure? Are we observing them properly in junior faculty? Are we taking enough risks with out-of-the-box colleagues? How is teaching really scored and weighted when we give promotions and tenure (see (4)?

(4) At the same time, demand from each chancellor, also within a year, the quality assurance program his campus will implement that leads his whole campus to continuous increase in student learning. Not the teaching practices he will urge faculty to use; not hiring staff teaching coaches; not doubling up on student teaching evaluations: a quality assurance program that a middle manager at, say, Toyota would recognize. Quality assurance means watching each other work, looking at our product (student learning) from a few different angles, trying different ways of doing the job, and talking about what we see. Quality assurance is not done to the production workers by a quality czar or consultants: it has to be done by the faculty and pervasively (of course expert coaching can add a lot of value).

Have a statewide annual conference, open to press and public, in which the chancellors (not their ‘deputy assistant vice provosts for teaching quality’!) present their respective QA programs’ current evolutionary state, and demand from each of them within two months the three best ideas he has found in the other campuses’ programs that he will incorporate in his own going forward.

(5) Use all the discretionary funds at your disposal to enforce and encourage these initiatives. Kick butt. And make it clear that (2) and (4) are not projects but programs: ongoing, permanent parts of campus management. You cannot persuasively advocate for us until we can show that we are actively getting better and better at what we do, and that we understand that what we do has to be justified not by our own evaluation, but by the value it creates for the citizens who pay us to do it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.