More on the End of Public Higher Ed

by zunguzungu

In the wake of SUNY Albany’s decision to ax their French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater departments (because of state budget cuts), Stanley Fish declared in the NYT that

…if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities [since] it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained.

As Chris Newfield points out, though (via), however common it’s become to regard the humanities as sponging off the real departments, Fish doesn’t appear to be burdened by familiarity with university fiscal structures:

Universities are held together by “cross-subsidies,” and the general rule, as explained to UC officials last fall by Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, is that cheap programs subsidize expensive ones. Cheap programs include English and sociology. Expensive ones include medicine. This means that in the real world of higher education funding, English and sociology make money on their enrollments, spend almost nothing on their largely self-funded research, and then, in the cases I have reviewed, actually have some of their “profits” from instruction transferred to help fund more expensive fields. Without these cross-subsidies, plus the everincreasing clinical labors of its own overworked faculty, medical research would be losing money, as the research enterprise always does.

And as he goes on to note, my own dear President Yudof is, as usual, a giant flaming “Dumb or Evil?” conundrum:

…when [UC president] Yudof went on the PBS News Hour in November to explain the need for fee hikes, he remarked, “Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We’re doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who’s going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that’s where we’re running into trouble.”

In one short statement, Yudof foregrounded the university as a business, claimed that much of it is making money, singled out medicine as especially lucrative, identified two of the high-enrollment fields in the humanities and social sciences as needing subsidy, and described public money as subsidizing these money losers. He thus confirmed citizen fears that university leaders focus more on revenues than on education. He confirmed faculty fears that these leaders see cultural and social fields as a burden, even though they normally have the large majority of undergraduate enrollments. A viewer would reasonably conclude that the university could support both research and teaching by spending the profits it makes on its own knowledge industries, without asking the public for additional help.

As Bob Samuels reminds us, here, spending the money which students pay for instruction and which the state pays for instruction on, you know, instructors, is not really the scandal Yudof makes it out to be:

I analyzed the university’s own salary data from 2009, and I found that less than 9% of its total compensation is spent on undergraduate instructional positions. In other words, if we take the total UC payroll of over $9.8 billion dollars, and we subtract the pay of the administrators, staff, coaches, researchers, and professional school faculty (Law, Medicine, and Graduate), we find that the university spent $960 million on undergraduate instruction. If we now divide the total instructional salary costs by the number of undergraduate students, 170,000, we find that each student’s instructional costs was $5,647 in 2009.

It is important to stress that the UC receives, on average, $10,000 from each undergrad student in fees and tuition, and the university claims that a third of this amount goes to financial aid, so the university brings in a net of $6,700 from each student. However, the state also funded each undergrad in 2009 to the tune of $14,500. This means that the university made an instructional profit on each student of $15,553 for a total of $2.6 billion. In other words, teaching undergrads is a highly profitable business, and these students actually subsidize everything else universities do.

Of course administrators, will argue that we cannot exclude the cost of administration, staffing, buildings, research, libraries, and facilities; however, my point is that we cannot blame the instructional salaries for the budget problems of universities.


Update 10-13, via Moacir’s comment, Robert Watson at UCLA also crunches numbers:

President Mark G. Yudof probably meant no disrespect when he identified us as the “core problem” of the university’s budget crisis, and maybe I’m mistaken to hear more resignation than enthusiasm in the assertion that an English department is “trouble” that you nonetheless “have to have.” But he is mistaken about the economics—and you probably are, too. As Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, said in a New York Times article last fall, English students usually generate a profit. “They’re paying for the chemistry major and the music major. … The little ugly facts about cross-subsidies are inflammatory, so they get papered over.”
If you count what patients pay for treatment as income earned by a medical center, but do not count what students pay for literature courses as income earned by the humanities department, the hospital will surely look like a much smarter business. You might therefore appoint those productive health-care administrators to a death panel (called a universitywide planning committee) on lost causes like the English major
But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA’s educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.