In an otherwise excellent article about the failures of the U.S. collegiate educational system, Kevin Carey makes a common mistake: he assumes that the pressure to publish is primarily about prestige for the university. It’s not. It’s about revenue.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Carey (italics mine):
Universities like to pretend that great scholars make great instructors, but one indifferent, outdated lecture from a tenured professor is enough to conclude otherwise. Because scholarly outcomes are visible, in the form of publications and citations, while teaching outcomes are currently not, colleges privilege the former above the latter. Tenure-track professors are routinely discouraged from spending too much time teaching, lest students distract from the mandate to publish. Legitimate evaluations of professorial teaching skill are practically unknown.
What this ignores is overhead on grants. I’ve discussed overhead before:
Overhead, also referred to as indirect costs, are a surcharge on the direct or actual costs* of the grant. More people on a grant and more research costs mean more ‘indirects’ for the institution. Typically, these indirects run 50-75% of direct costs. Personnel are a particularly good way to run up indirect costs**, since you can not only charge on the salary but on an additional 16% which pays for Social Security and FICA (and some places add on more than 16%–these costs are often referred to as fringe).
A certain amount of indirects is needed: all institutions have administrative and infrastructure costs (e.g., personnel, IT, utilities, and so on). But 50%-75% is exorbitant (and, incidentally, reduces the total number of awards federal agencies can give. Federal granting agencies subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars every year***). At smaller colleges, a large federal grant can underwrite much of a department, and at larger universities, science departments are often ‘profit generating centers.’****
To put this in context, a professor (and it’s telling that, within administrative circles, they are often referred to as ‘PIs’–principal investigators–and not by an educational title) who brings in a single modular R01 NIH grant ($250,000 per year) is also bringing in $100,000 of extra money, much of which goes straight to the university (to the chagrin of faculty who want it to remain in the department). Faculty who bring in more money, and $500,000 – $1,000,000 per year in some departments is not unusual, are free money for the university.
Even in disciplines that aren’t flush with money, administrators would prefer faculty that bring in grants: why have a history professor who brings in no overhead, when you can have one that brings in $10,000 per year?
I’m always amazed that when colleges are discussed, this never comes up. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not telling most ScienceBlogs readers something they don’t already know (or, in fact, are intricately familiar with). Many science departments are unhappy with the amount of overhead siphoned off to the general fund (whether justified or not). This is not a secret. If you want to reform teaching at universities, and if you think there’s a tradeoff between teaching and research, then you have to follow the money.