What’s in a number (or, trying to understand the minds of university administrators)

After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.

I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.

However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.

To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.

It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.

Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.

Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.

A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.

To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.

This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.

For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.

But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.

Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.

In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.

Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).

Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p

My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.