A rather radical proposal from Texas came across my desk recently, courtesy of the Texas Exes…
“… The UT System Board of Regents … has hired consultants who have publicly stated the fundamental view that academic research is not valuable and that tenured faculty could be replaced by lower-cost lecturers. These consultants propose a formula that excludes research in valuing faculty. They only want to look at any immediate financial value of research that can be proven on a current basis.
these same consultants also believe that tenured faculty, distinguished in their fields, can and should be replaced by part-time, contract lecturers. They point to for-profit institutions as the correct model for controlling costs, because those institutions rely almost exclusively on lower-cost lecturers.”
Yes, the proposal is to turn UT Austin, and the other Texas state universities into glorified “University of Phoenix” type institutions.
Ok, I have to confess, my first reaction was: “Cool! Less competition for NSF grants!”
The Chronicle has the crescendo – the UT Regents respond – in summary, the $200k per year part time consultant was reassigned, with a $100k payout for his weeks of considered effort, I gather.
Apparently the Alumni Association was Not Amused, and still has some clout.
So, why not?
With the cutting in State funding, why shouldn’t Texas Axe UT and let it Rise From the Ashes of the State Budget Like A Phoenix?
A University is a University is a University, and the University of Phoenix is apparently very successful – has lots of students and is very profitable.
What got the Texas Exes’s knickers in a twist?
Well, and this is now getting US-centric, there are several different types of institutions of higher education, post-K-12 education, which like to call themselves universities, but they are not like each other…
There Private and Public institutions, and some uncomfortable hybrid Quasi Non-Governmental institutions which are “state related”;
each of these may be universities teaching a “liberal arts” curriculum, or not;
and each of these may include postgraduate studies, professional schools, or not.
In addition there are various Irregular institutions, mostly dealing with a narrowly selected student population, or having narrow focus.
Liberal Arts Universities, apart from their unfortunate tendencies to produce nominal reflexive political kneejerks, of opposite parity in the US and UK, are what most people actually think of when they speak of Universities.
These, of course, focus on the trivium and quadrivium – I mean how can you argue with a curriculum that peaks with astronomy?
But, seriously, the liberal arts universities provide a general education curriculum across a broad range of subjects: a university will offer degrees in mathematics, natural sciences, history, languages, literature, philosophy, art etc.
A good liberal arts university will provide a good student with superb higher education of very broad applicability, a general education.
This is not to be confused with professional studies, like law, engineering, medicine etc., nor with vocational studies, which is what a lot of people think is the primary activity of universities.
Arguably, an institution of higher education that focuses on vocational degrees and professional studies to the exclusion of liberal arts is not a university. It has a different, narrower, purpose, and attracts a different student population.
This is confounded by many liberal arts institutions incorporating professional schools and to a lesser extent, vocational studies, into their structure.
The other primary distinguishing feature of a university, is whether it offers post-graduate degrees, in particular doctorates and non-professional masters degrees; many universities do not, they stop at the bachelors degree. Other institutions offer primarily professional masters degrees, but not the more general postgraduate study.
Other institutions include music conservatories, art academies, religious schools and other forms of narrowly focused advanced study. These have a definite role to play and not infrequently, like professional schools, are under the umbrella of a liberal arts institution, but they play a different role.
So what do we have?
- Private liberal research universities: think Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford.
These are liberal arts universities, often incorporating professional schools and narrow focused institutions. They offer a full suite of bachelors degrees, but have a major focus on postgraduate study: MA/MSc, PhD and professional postgraduate degrees.
The “tell” is whether the number of postgraduate students is comparable to or larger than then number of undergraduates.
- Private small liberal art colleges: like Reed, Carleton, Union, Vassar.
These are liberal art universities, but focused exclusively, or almost so, on undergraduate education. The good ones provide very good liberal arts education, at a price.
- Private technical institutes: think MIT and Caltech.
They are not liberal art universities, the curriculum is too narrow, but they are not focused on professional degrees or vocational studies. Very heavy focus on postgraduate studies.
These are rare.
- Private vocational universities: like Phoenix.
They are not liberal art universities, they provide narrow focus vocational study – job training. Now job training is good, but it is not general education, and it invites obsolescence. There is a role for these institutions, but they are not to be confused with universities – they serve generally a very different population
The Public Universities mirror this structure:
- Public research university: think Berkeley, Penn State, UT Austin.
Large universities with full suite of bachelors degrees, but with a major focus on postgraduate study. But, not with as many postgraduate students proportionately, as the Private Research universities. These often, but not necessarily, include professional schools within their structure.
- Public liberal arts university: think Cal State, State Universities of Pennsylvania etc.
These have broad liberal arts undergraduate degrees, but little or no postgraduate study, and that primarily professional masters.
- Public vocational universities: like the California Community Colleges.
Generally do not offer a full range of liberal art study, but are more focused on vocational degrees and job training.
So, there is the issue – the consultant was proposing to replace a full suite of public universities – the UT system includes everything from top ranked research universities through public liberal arts universities, with a privatized community college.
Although both are institutes of higher education, they really have quite different purposes and serve different student populations, and they can’t be interchanged.
The proposal is trite, and it beggars well, something, that six figure sums were paid for such inanity, but it also begs the question: namely what is university, and why are there all these different subtypes, and which are effective at what?