Changing Higher Education; A Question of Economy of Scale

We spoke in class yesterday about what we could or would want to change in higher education.  I said that I would like to add some accountability to University growth demands at a departmental and college level.  Universities have to operate like a business to keep the lights on and stay on the cutting edge.  Professors can write grants and acquire great equipment for inspiring research, but if the ceiling above their head is falling down the research will not succeed.  We are aware that Federal support in grants and loans to students has lead to increases in undergraduate enrollment, while science and technology are expanding at rates that demand cutting edge equipment and research.  Distribution of funds around the university atmosphere can create a demanding system of requirements and ultimatums.  I have seen such ultimatums and question the apparent disconnect between administrative goals and achievable standards.

Growth and change are very necessary, especially if universities hope to remain salient.  What happens if growth exceeds demand?  For example; departments are being mandated to nearly double the number of PhD students, while maintaining matriculation rates and research standards at the same time that members of the scientific community express concerns about the numbers of PhD’s compared to the jobs available for people of such qualifications.  Then, when these graduate students leave with their respective degrees, the opportunity cost has changed significantly from when they started.  The value of their degree has changed, especially if they cannot find jobs.  The hiring rates of university graduates is as much of a measure of success as graduation rates and national rankings.  Where then is this disconnect?

Economists are all too aware of the affect that accelerated growth can have on the economy as a whole.  Perhaps it is time to look at the university as an economy.  The divisions are all there.  Market sectors are colleges and growth could be measured by enrollment rates and grant funding.  Investment in colleges and departments could be viewed as just that, while maybe even providing for additional accountability for funding.  How are these metrics taken and used regardless of the model used to analyze them?  Being on the working end, where graduate students carry out research under managers called advisors, it looks like the upper management wants to run the machines faster without proper upkeep.  Mentioning this briefly in class did not provoke any discussion.  Fine I get that.  I do not get how administration is not viewed as a necessary part of academia by those who aspire to be successful members of the Academy.  I looked around the room and realized that 50% or more of my classmates would not return to academia after they graduate.  Then the majority of those that do, will work tirelessly to obtain tenure and become the stodgy professors that act alienated by colleagues that are “upwardly mobile.”  Who should carry the torch?  Business leaders are often highly successful members of their industry who were called “up and coming.”  Why then would there be a stigma associated with experts in the field going on to be advocates for their colleagues?  I am interested in becoming an advocate like that.  Right now, from behind the lab bench, it is difficult to see the path that would prepare me better to do so.  Maybe the disconnect starts here.


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