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Sunday, July 31, 2011

University Wars Continue

In recent months the direction of the conservative attack on the nation's universities has shifted its focus. For decades we have heard about the undeniable strong leftward tilt of the faculty and classroom. For the last year or two we have heard about the waste of time and money when college tuition for the academically unprepared is subsidized by the government. Now the blogosphere and newspapers are filled with commentary attacking the dual role of the university professor - part teacher, part researcher. This time the conservative attack misses its mark.

All of the attacks I have read conflate so many different issues that their analysis is essentially meaningless. I will try here to tease out some of the issues. First let's consider money. Research professors are more expensive than teaching faculty. Their job description (in the sciences) usually assumes that at least half of their time is devoted to research. Their promotion is more tightly coupled to the prominence of their research program than to their teaching prowess (although the attention to the latter has dramatically increased since I was an assistant professor). Moreover, there is greater competition for top researchers than for teachers. Consequently the salary for an internationally renowned research professor may double that of nonresearch faculty. Thus, the cost per classroom hour of a research professor may easily be quadruple the cost of teaching faculty. Is it worth it? How do we decide? One way to approach this difficult question is to examine what the market says.

The most prestigious private universities primarily hire research professors. Premium private four year colleges typically hire faculty with a respectable research program but give them less time to pursue their research and offer somewhat lower salaries. Teaching loads are typically 50% to 100% higher than at the top research universities. Which gives the better deal to students? Let's look at two examples, Stanford and Swarthmore. Tuition and board at Stanford currently costs approximately $53,000 per year. Tuition and board at Swarthmore will run you approximately $53,000 per year. So, we see that in name brand schools, increasing the number of faculty hours in the classroom per salary dollar does not lower student expenses. This reflects two facts: (i) faculty salaries are not the main driver of college costs, and (ii) class sizes are flexible. Four year colleges will definitely offer fewer 200 student lectures than state research universities and fewer 100 student lectures than private research universities. Class sizes are more elastic than tuition.

Some students choose to attend 4 year colleges, and others choose to attend research institutions. Putting aside the question of whether all these students are gaining admission into their preferred school, we see that some students (and their parents) value the smaller class size offered by 4 year colleges; others value the opportunity to interact with and possibly work with leading researchers. Moreover, many students at research institutions whose aptitudes and goals make them unlikely to benefit directly from the presence of active scientists still receive a second order benefit: the extremely academically focused students who are attracted to the research environment enrich the university experience for their less academically focused peers. Both types of environments have significant strengths. I find it highly amusing that the conservative commentators opposed to the research university seem opposed to allowing consumers to choose the product most suited to their tastes and needs.

If we focus on taxpayer supported public universities, then the fact that the best students in their states prefer the research university to the research inactive community colleges is not as decisive an argument in favor of supporting the former as it is in the case of private universities. I have discussed this public funding question elsewhere. We must leave that fundamental value judgement to the voters of each state. I, however, will advocate for supporting the research universities in my state.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Too Much Information

Most people are, I hope, familiar with the incredible universality of mathematics. At the most primitive level, they learn this in first grade when they learn that the observation that three apples plus two apples gives them 5 apples is a special case of the arithmetic result 3+2=5. Less well known is a common beautiful mathematical phenomenon: many problems are hard to solve until they are generalized. In other words, it may be easier to simultaneously solve infinitely many different but related problems than to solve a single one alone. The reason for this varies. Sometimes the salient features of a problem only become visible when viewed from a sufficient distance.

In government the same phenomenon holds. It is often impossible to decide rationally whether to support or oppose particular legislation unless one has a governing rule guiding one's support or opposition to large classes of legislation. There are simply too many plausible ways to spend taxes, too many unintended consequences, too many opportunities to feed sweets to a diabetic, and too many "slippery slopes" for a rational legislator to decide issues in isolation. A rational theoretic framework for deciding issues is often called an ideology. For some reason, many view this term negatively, with the subscribers to an ideology called ideologues, and the latter term synonymous with unreasoning dogmatism and inflexibility. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty observes,
" A government that claims to be committed to no principles and to judge every problem on its own merits usually finds itself obeying principles not of its own choosing and being led into action it had never contemplated."
This statement applies equally to individual legislators, and by extension, to individual voters.

In my canvassing work, I have encountered many unaffiliated voters who proclaim proudly that they adhere to no party; they always "vote for the man - not the party." Invariably, these voters are dramatically less informed about the issues and candidates than their partisan colleagues on both the left and the right. It seems their position is simply an excuse for intellectual laziness.

Life is too messy to fit into any axiomatic framework (which is another way of saying again that I am not a Libertarian), but in politics as in mathematics, the attempt to frame all issues within broader theoretical/philosophical contexts is an essential exercise for informing our views on the issues and conversely for testing and developing our ideology.