This letter is terribly…

This letter is terribly sad.

I know the economy is awful. I know that faculty at state schools are already often underpaid, compared to their colleagues at private institutions and in industry, based on sheer market value (i.e., what they could get if they left and went elsewhere). Ourselves included. I know that when your employer starts talking about a 5% or 10% salary cut, you start wondering if you can still make your mortgage payments, or keep paying your kid's medical bills. I know that in the end, most people's instinct will be to protect themselves and their own families.

I know that if you implement such drastic cuts (or simply don't hire to replace retirements and other departures) at research institutions, there's a very good chance that your top faculty will leave, because they are no longer functionally able to do their research. That, in fact, most of your research faculty may leave for better-funded private or corporate institutions. And that, from an administrator's point of view, that may be an acceptable short-term solution, because it alleviates the crushing budget problem, since you can replace those people's course load with much lower paid adjuncts. The school stays open, the students continue to be taught. But you lose the research component, which is why most of your faculty (at a R1 institution) went into the field in the first place. Research is what they're there to do, and presumably, the administrators must value that on some level, and consider it key to the goals of the university. Maybe even core, maybe even valuing it above teaching the undergrads, since it's that research reputation that draws the students and sustains the university at a deep level. So I understand where the signatories to that letter were coming from.

And yet. Universities are for teaching as well as research. Both are valuable. They feed off each other, in the best cases, which is why we've paired them in the first place (rather than sending all the researchers off to private corporations). Academic freedom (freedom from both censorship and the corporate bottom line), the challenge and excitement of training your future colleagues in their post-docs and graduate work, the grad students and post-docs and even tenured faculty interacting with wide-eyed undergraduates, and being re-energized and inspired thereby -- that and so much more comes from the research/teaching mix that you should find at good universities.

So it saddens me, to see faculty so clearly saying that teaching and teachers and students essentially mean nothing to them. That if their own mortgages are on the line, then everyone who isn't a top researcher should get thrown under the bus.

And I say this, knowing that Kevin is a top researcher in his field, and that in large part, his experience (I can't speak for his sympathies or opinion) is similar to that of the signatories to that letter. Knowing how frustrated he's been, watching his department shrink, as faculty retire and are not replaced. Knowing that he is severely underpaid, based solely on current 'market value'. If he were paid what the market says he's worth, we'd have a lot less stress in this whole house-buying process. If I weren't fairly strongly committed to staying in Chicago, for a variety of both personal and professional reasons, we probably would have left UIC and gone elsewhere by now.

And yet.

I'm not an administrator of a state school during a terrible economic climate. I haven't researched the problem, and I don't know what the best strategy is for maintaining the 'core values' of the university while you try to ride out a budget crisis. But as a starting point, I'd have to balance the undoubted value of serious research with the mission of the university to serve and educate its students. Especially at a state university. Even if it means we, personally, can't afford the house we'd like to have.

The real answer, of course, is that if the population of the state wants to maintain (or raise) the quality of its schools, they have to raise the money to pay for those schools. And their legislators need to have the guts to do what's necessary, including yes, raising our taxes, to make that happen.

If they did that, then maybe there'd be a tenure-track line open for many of the adjuncts who are currently confined to solely teaching an overload of classes. They, and their students, would benefit so much from the money that would buy those adjuncts the time to do some research of their own, thinking and writing and publishing, letting them bring that ongoing education and experience back to the classroom. When I have the time to write and revise and publish my own books, I also become a better creative writing professor, bringing so much more to my students -- that should be obvious. Rather than deepening the divide between research and teaching, as the letter referenced above recommends, what we really need is to bridge the gap. Which means more money for faculty across the board, but especially for hiring more full-time faculty. More money, more fully-funded faculty. Not less.

But a university administrator, sadly, has no control over that aspect of the problem. Only the legislators do -- and indirectly, the taxpayers. In other words, you.

4 thoughts on “This letter is terribly…”

  1. This really is sad. I wonder if it is even possible to increase out of state enrollment in today’s economic situation. Increasing faculty teaching loads at times is happening at my University, which has the advantage of being reversible.

  2. I think we all come to the table with a bias towards our own needs, however three things stand out for me in your post:

    1. market value for a theoretical mathematician compared to what he could get in industry is a ridiculous comparison. There are a lot of lifestyle benefits to teaching/ doing research than being a corporate drone. Those benefits are part of an academic’s pay. (To put it another way: adjunct positions will disappear when it becomes difficult to attract quality candidates who will accept them. For all the complaints I hear, the one search I helped with had a plethora of candidates for a shockingly pathetic adjunct job. This should start at the PhD level – UIC is willing to have grad programs because the grad students are cheap labor, and it makes the professors happy to have someone to train, but it produces a glut of PhDs.) Similarly, universities in less desirable locations (i.e. not Chicago) will necessarily have to pay more. Location is part of your pay.

    2. 5-10% paycuts along with layoffs that mean you’re doing more work for less pay – pretty standard in some of the “industry” jobs that you might be comparing to. i.e. everyone’s market value is dropping.

    3. As far as I’m concerned, the mission of state universities is to teach the majority of undergrads. If we can attract high-quality teachers by giving them flexible hours and research labs and journal subscriptions, it’s worth some extra cost. If good teachers can get research grants that offset their salary, it’s reasonable (within limits) to cut back their teaching accordingly. I don’t think state-funded universities have a need to be excellent schools that attract top students. Yes it’s helpful to find ways to keep high quality students, and yes it’s helpful to attract high-quality students from out of state, but in our mobile society retaining those top students is unpredictable. Training the students who can’t relocate and are likely to stay in the area is the priority. Research into ergodic theory? As a state goal? If the state had a goal I’d argue it should be to discourage talented math/ science folks from hunkering in the ivory tower.

    In my experience, moreover, the “top researchers” are horrific teachers. I’d say that your “obvious” theory that doing more writing makes you a better teacher is a stretch, but in the sciences, it’s flat-out ridiculous. The way to become a better teacher is to teach. Good research is about being a specialist, an arrogant jerk obsessed with his tiny square inch of the universe and creating Mini Me’s to be obsessed with it too. It’s about putting on blinders to all the other interesting math, science, knowledge out there. Teaching is the job of a generalist, and good science teachers need to develop communication skills quite distinct from research. It should be about helping a student find their voice, teaching them the breadth of skills in your discipline’s toolbox. Think about sports: we don’t expect great coaching to be correlated to being an Olympic athlete.

  3. taxpayer, I would like to see your stats proving a negative correlation between research excellence and teaching excellence. Until I do, I am very skeptical, and I would predict, as did Mary Anne, that the correlation is positive, not negative.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Taxpayer, lots of interesting points — enough so that I’m going to respond in a separate journal post, rather than just here in the comments. Stay tuned. 🙂

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