A Philosopher's Blog

Performance Based Funding

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2014

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.


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Why College Students Miss Class

Posted in Universities & Colleges by mclfamu on May 5, 2014
Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall se...

Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall semester, 2010 (Photo credit: sidewalk flying)

Cutting class is a time-honored practice among college students and it is to be expected that students will honor this practice by spending some class time away from class. However, state colleges and universities are being pushed to gather and assess data in order to justify the funding provided by the state. A key part of retaining funding is to provide data showing that students are graduating in a timely manner. As might be imagined, when students fail classes, this tends to slow down their graduation.

At two recent meetings I attended there was a discussion about classes with high failure rates and the question was raised as to why students were failing these specific classes. While my classes had failure rates well within the expected norm, I decided to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes.

Not surprisingly, I generally noticed a correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade: low attendance generally correlated with a low grade. I have also noticed that attendance has grown worse in my classes over the years. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes. As such, it seems reasonable to consider that lack of attendance helps contribute to the failure rate and thus to the slower and lower graduation rate.

The hypothesis about low attendance does not get to the heart of the matter-what is needed is information about why students skip classes. To this end, I set up an initial study in which students self-reported their attendance and selected the reasons why they missed classes. I also inquired about the main reason students missed classes. Naturally, I also gather data about student attendance using the class roll.

At the end of the semester, I had 54 responses out of 140 students.  Interestingly 73% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (30%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 26% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is not consistent with my attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).

In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem.

I also found that of the primary reasons students report for missing class, the fact that the coursework is on Black Board was in second place. This certainly makes sense. Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Black Board, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class.  However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Black Board and pass might find themselves having chosen poorly.

Based on this information and other findings, Black Board is a double edged sword. On the one hand, Black Board has resulted in an improved completion rate for work precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using Black Board as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. That is, is the (possible) reduction in attendance outweighed by the advantages of Black Board.

As a final point, the current sample (54 students) is rather small (leading to a margin of error of  about +/- 14%) and not as diverse as it should be (the sample is made up entirely of my students). The sample, as noted above, could also suffer from bias since students freely elected to participate.

However, the initial findings do provide some useful information.


How regularly do you attend Dr. LaBossiere’s class?

Always or Nearly Always (90-100%) 14 26%
Very Often (80-90%) 16 30%
Often (60-79%) 9 17%
More Often Than Not (51-59%) 6 11%
Not Often (30-50%) 3 6%
Rarely (10-29%) 4 7%
Almost Never or Never (0-9%) 2 4%

If you miss class, why do you miss it?

Work. 23 24%
Family/Personal issues. 11 11%
Illness. 12 13%
I am too tired. 7 7%
Athletic event. 0 0%
Social activity/event. 0 0%
Job interview. 4 4%
I need to spend the time on other classes. 6 6%
I am not interested in the subject. 3 3%
I do not value the subject. 1 1%
I already know the material. 3 3%
I do not like the professor. 1 1%
The professor is not very good. 1 1%
There is no penalty/punishment for missing class. 0 0%
I can learn the material on my own. 5 5%
Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class. 11 11%
I can pass without attending. 5 5%
Other 3 3%

If you do not attend class regularly, what is the primary reason?

Work. 15 28%
Family/Personal issues. 3 6%
Illness. 6 11%
I am too tired. 3 6%
Athletic event. 0 0%
Social activity/event. 1 2%
Job interview. 1 2%
I need to spend the time on other classes. 2 4%
I am not interested in the subject. 2 4%
I do not value the subject. 0 0%
I already know the material. 2 4%
I do not like the professor. 0 0%
The professor is not very good. 0 0%
There is no penalty/punishment for missing class. 0 0%
I can learn the material on my own. 1 2%
Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class. 10 19%
I can pass without attending. 3 6%
Other 5 9%



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Relative Cost of Education

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2014
A Plumber at work.

A Plumber at work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I am aware that the cost of a university education has increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation. I am also well aware that this cost increase is not due to proportional increases in faculty salary. One reason for this is that the salaries of professors, especially those at state school, tend to be compressed. For faculty who have been around a long time, such as myself, the compression can be quite extreme. This is one reason why star faculty move around relentlessly in search of ever larger salaries. Another reason is that universities are relying very heavily on badly paid adjuncts. While the rates vary, a typical adjunct can make about $24,000 over nine months for teaching eight classes. There are generally no benefits at all, so the cost to schools is rather low. Given that such faculty typically have advanced degrees, they are perhaps the worst paid of the best educated.

It is true, as I mentioned, that there are some star faculty—they are the celebrities of academics who can use their status and connections to slide smoothly from one well-paying job to an even better paying job. Such stars also sometimes enjoy exemptions from the mundane duties of faculty, such as teaching. As with any profession, such stars are relatively rare and they are generally not a significant factor in the increased cost of education. As such, blaming the faculty for the higher cost is not, in general, a legitimate complaint.

That said, I do agree that complaining about the cost of education is legitimate: costs have increased significantly while there are increasing doubts about the quality and value of education. However, it is worthwhile to put the cost of education into perspective. Being a professor, I will focus on the educational aspects of the matter.

At a state school like my own Florida A&M University, a student will typically take a class from a person with a terminal degree in her field, usually a doctorate. A standard class is three credit hours, which means that a student is supposed to be in class for two and a half hours per week. My fellows and I typically teach four classes per semester and we are required to hold two hours of office hours per class. We also have various other research, advising and administrative duties. Thanks to email, students can also contact us around the clock—and many faculty, including myself, respond to emails outside of normal hours and on the weekends. We also typically do work for the classes, such as grading, preparing lessons and so on throughout the week and during “vacations.”

While the exact hours will vary, a student at a school like FAMU will have access to a professional with and advanced degree for 2.5 hours in the classroom, have access to 8 hours of office hours, and typically have unlimited email access. Most faculty are also willing to engage with students in their off time—for example, I have stopped while grocery shopping to explain a paper to a student who also happened to be shopping at that time. This is in return for the cost of tuition, only a small fraction of which goes to the professor.

Now, compare this to the cost per hour for other professionals. For example, a psychiatrist might charge between $125-$285 per hour. As another example, a plumber might charge $90 an hour. As a third example, a consultant might charge anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars an hour. As a fourth example, an attorney might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Imagine what it would cost to have a plumber, medical doctor, or attorney spend 2.5 hours a week with you for 16 weeks (divided by the other people, of course), be available an additional eight hours a week, do work for you outside of those hours, respond personally to your emails and so on.  If professors billed like plumbers, lawyers or medical doctors, the cost of school would be insanely high.

It might be replied that plumbers, lawyers and medical doctors perform services that are more valuable than mere professors. After all, a plumber might fix your pipes, a lawyer might get you a nice settlement and a medical doctor might re-attach your quadriceps tendon. A professor merely teaches and surely that has far, far less value. The obvious practical reply is that people with college degrees make considerably more than those without—this would suggest that teaching does provide some value. There is also the obvious fact that plumbers, medical doctors and lawyers need education in order to do what they do—thus showing that education does provide something of value (although plumbers typically do not go to college to become plumbers).

As such, while education is too expensive, the actual cost of paying professors is ridiculously cheap relative to what other comparable professionals cost.


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Should Everyone Go to College?

Posted in Business, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2013

Academic (Photo credit: tim ellis)

While most Americans do not have college degrees, the percentage of Americans holding a Bachelors degree (or greater) has been steadily increasing (reaching 30% in 2012). One reason is degree inflation: people now need college degrees to qualify for jobs that once only required a high school diploma. Another reason is the fact that a college degree is supposed to increase a person’s earning potential. To a lesser degree, there has been a push for people to get at least some college education. In fact, President Obama has repeatedly pushed for this. In general, the assumption held by many people is that people should go to college if they can.

While I am a university professor, I do think that it is worthwhile to address the question of whether or not everyone should go to college. Not surprisingly, I think people should become as educated as possible. However, this is rather different from attending college and this distinction is sometimes lost.

There are, of course, the somewhat cynical answers to this question. It might be claimed that everyone should not go to college because some people are simply not intelligent enough to go to college. While honesty compels me to admit that there is some truth to this, honesty also compels me to admit that people generally overestimate the amount of intelligence required to get through college. While a certain level of intelligence is required, getting through college is often more a matter of persistence and showing up than of intellectual might.

It might also be claimed that everyone should not go to college because not everyone can afford the cost of college. On the one hand, this is a reasonable answer. After all, people who cannot afford to go to college should not go to college, just as someone who cannot afford an expensive sports car should not buy one. On the other hand, the question could be looked at another way. To use an analogy, consider the question of whether a person should seek treatment for a disease. Even if the person cannot afford it (and thus, in one sense, should not seek treatment), it still makes sense to say that they should seek treatment for the disease. Likewise, even people who cannot afford college might be people who should be going to college.  That said, the cost of college is clearly something that a person should consider when deciding whether or not she should go to college.

Continuing with the matter of cost, a rather obvious answer is that not everyone should go to college because, as a practical matter, it would not be possible for society to provide the educational resources needed for everyone to attend college. The obvious reply to this is that countries like the United States do provide universal public K-12 education and hence it would presumably not be impossible to extend the education system to cover an additional four years, especially if people are expected to pay at least some of the cost themselves. However, even if society committed to making it so everyone could go to college, this does not entail that everyone should go to college.

In terms of arguing why everyone should go to college, one option is to make use of the arguments as to why everyone should complete high school. These include the usual arguments involving being educated for employment and being educated to be citizens of a democratic state. There is, of course, an easy way to counter these sorts of arguments. As a counter, it can be argued that for most (or at least some) people a high school education would suffice for these purposes and hence not everyone should go to college.

However, even if high school would suffice for some people, it can be contended that this does not prove that not everyone should go to college. After all, the fact that basic food, water and shelter would keep a person alive does not entail that everyone should not have more than the very basics of survival. Likewise  the fact that a high school education provides the basics  does not disprove the claim that everyone should go to college. By analogy, just as everyone (or almost everyone) would benefit from having more than the basics, the same would hold true for college as well.

The obvious reply is that the fact that everyone would benefit from having more than the basics does not entail that everyone should have more than the basics. Likewise, even if everyone would benefit from college, it does not follow that everyone should go to college.  After all, this would require that people should do what would be beneficial for them and perhaps this is not the case.  There is also the concern that college might not benefit everyone. If this is the case, then it would seem reasonable to claim that everyone should not go to college. On the face of it, this would seem to be the most fruitful avenue of consideration.

In general, it could be argued that people should go to college if doing so would be beneficial to them. As noted above, it could still be countered that even if something is beneficial, it does not follow that people should do it (the usual “you cannot get an ought from an is”  line of attack can be used here). However, it seems sensible to lay aside this somewhat esoteric problem and focus on practical matters. In a practical sense, it seems reasonable to hold that people should make a decision about whether to go to college or not based on the benefits relative to the costs.

In practical terms, the main question for most people would be whether or not a college degree would result in a better job, which is often defined in terms of better pay. In general, a college degree results in better pay than a high school degree. However, there are well paying jobs that do not require a college degree and thus the money motivation does not yield the result that everyone should go to college (especially when the cost of college is factored in).  There is also the matter of job satisfaction: there are people who rather enjoy jobs that do not require a college degree. Some of these jobs do require a great deal of skill, education and intelligence and they should not be looked down on as inferior to the jobs that require a college degree.

There is also the matter of the role of college in preparing a person to be a citizen of a democratic state. However, as was noted above, perhaps a high school education suffices for this. After all, people with college degrees do not seem to thus be automatically better citizens than people with high school degrees.

As a final point, there is the value of college in terms of developing as a person and other intangibles such as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There are two obvious counters to this. The first is that people do go to college without college contributing very much to their personal development. The second is that people obviously can undergo personal development and learn a great deal without a college degree. That is, as noted above, a person can be well educated without having a formal college degree. Although most of my friends are college educated, I also have many friends who did not complete or even attend college. However, they are generally well-educated.

Thus, it would seem that it is not the case that everyone should go to college. This is not to say that college is without value, but it is to say that not everyone needs to walk the same path to their life goals and their education.

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Working to the Rule

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2013
State Seal of Maine.

State Seal of Maine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The May 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured “Working to the Rule in Maine” by Ronald J. Mosley, Jr. In his article, Mosley notes that the last time the faculty in Maine’s public higher education received a raise was four years ago. He also adds that the faculty have been working two years without a contract and that mediation and negotiation with the administration have failed. Oddly enough, this situation is not the result of a financial crisis: there have been three consecutive years of the highest annual surpluses in Maine history.  Mosley’s claims match those of my father, who just retired from the system this month.

As Mosley points out in his article, faculty have traditionally voluntarily engaged in service activities and often do so beyond what is actually expected (or contracted). While it might be tempting to some to dismiss this service as valueless,  faculty often contribute a great deal to their school and the community. In terms of schools, faculty often engage in service that is essential to the operation of the university and to the students, yet is not compensated. To use a concrete example, I am currently contracted at 20% to teach one summer class. That is all my Assignment of Responsibility (AOR) specifies. As such, I have no contractual obligation to do anything beyond that class. However, students still need advising in the summer and I have administrative tasks that need to be completed, such as serving on a critical accreditation committee and handling the various matters required to run the philosophy & religion program. In terms of the community, faculty also provide services to the professional and general community. To use one concrete example, I serve as an (unpaid) referee for professional journals and engage in other (unpaid) community service activities. These extra services, then are often rather important.

In normal conditions (although what is normal now seems to be rather abnormal) faculty willingly engage in such extra efforts “for the good of the_____” (insert “students”, “school”, “community” and so on as needed). There is also the fact that in better times, faculty are treated with some degree of respect and are reasonably well compensated and thus morale (and generosity) can be good.

However, as Mosley points out, conditions are not normal (or there is a “new normal”): while the cost of living increases yearly, there are few (or no) raises to even match this increase-thus faculty are effectively paid less each year.  There is also the fact that faculty are expected to do more each year. While Mosley does not mention this, the new obsession with assessment has added to faculty workloads and there seems to be a general trend in shifting more administrative burdens to faculty (while, bizarrely, the number of administrators and their salaries increase).  For example, I served on nine committees and ran a program review last year-all on top of my usual duties. As a final point, there is also the feeling that faculty are less (or not) respected. Such things rob faculty of motivation and income and this is certainly not good for the faculty, the schools or the students.

In response to the situation in Maine, Mosley has proposed that the faculty work to the rule. By this he means that the faculty should conscientiously complete the requirements of their contracts, but do not go beyond them. He does note that each faculty member should decide whether s/he will go beyond what is contracted. After all, students depend directly and indirectly on much of the “free” work done by faculty and many faculty members will want to work beyond the rule to avoid hurting the students. I suspect that some administrators count on this and perhaps cynically hold students “hostage” to get faculty to do uncompensated work. After all, most faculty will not refuse to advise students in the summer even if the summer contract includes no assigned advising duties.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Mosley (and not just because we are both Mainers). As a general rule, a contract is a contract and thus defines the obligations of the parties involved. While it might be nice of one or both parties to go beyond the contract, this is obviously not obligatory for either party. That is, just as the university is not obligated to drop some extra cash in my account just because it would be “for the good of Mike”, I am not obligated to put in extra hours “for the good of ___” when it is not in my AOR.

The usual counter to this view is that there are things that need to be done (such as advising or meeting the requirements for accreditation) that go beyond what is spelled out in the AOR. The rational counter to this is that things that need to be done should be added to the AOR and properly compensated. After all, if something is important enough to be done it would seem to be important enough to actually pay someone to do. If it is not important enough to pay someone to do it, then it would seem to be not worth doing.

As another point, it is worth reversing the situation. If a faculty member shirked his duties, it would be fair and just of the school to reduce his compensation, fire him or otherwise respond to such a failure to act in accord with the contract. But this would entail that the reverse is true: if the school decides to push the faculty member beyond the contract, then due compensation should be expected.

One way universities “get around” this is by having vaguely defined obligations for salaried faculty. Various other techniques are also used. For example, at my university the typical faculty member teaches four classes each semester. Each class counts as 20% of her work, thus leaving 20% for other duties. This 20% seems to be infinitely divisible-that is, no matter how many things are added to the 20%, it is always 20%. In the 2012-2013 academic year, my 20% included being the facilitator for the philosophy & religion unit, running the department web pages, advising, publishing, professional service, running the seven year program review and being a member of 9 committees.  Another faculty member might have her 20% consist of much less than my 20%, while another faculty member might (God forbid) have even more jammed in there.

Until recently, schools have been able to rely on the willingness of faculty to engage in extra work. While some of this was done in order to earn tenure, much of it was done out of a sense of obligation to the students and school and, perhaps, from a sense of being a valued member of a worthy community. However, this willingness seems to be eroding in the face of administrative decisions and attitudes. Interestingly, we might see the academy become rather like a business with each party sticking tenaciously to its contracted obligations and refusing to do more for the general good, since this notion has no place in the business model being exalted these days. Well, except as a tool used to milk free work from unwary faculty and staff.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2011
upward mobility

I recently heard a news blurb in which is was reported that university admissions officers admitted that they were looking for students who could pay full tuition. This is hardly a shock. After all, education budgets are being cut as is financial aid and some way has to be found to support the ever increasing number of well paid university administrators. Naturally, the other expenses (such as faculty salaries) have to be paid as well.

While this is a sensible approach to a financial problem, it does raise some serious concerns. First, admission is supposed to be based primarily on merit rather than the ability to hand over cash. Second, preference given to people who can pay full price will mean that better qualified but less affluent students can  be excluded in their favor.  This has the potential to damage one of the primary means of upward mobility in America: the ability of people from the lower classes to rise up via education. In addition to being bad for the students in question, it would also seem to be bad for the country in general. After all, much of our social stability and success as a country has come from the fact that upward mobility based on merit is possible. Diminishing this could have rather unfortunate consequences as is shown quite clearly by the history of countries who either lacked such mobility or saw it reduced.

Naturally, it could be argued that true merit rests in the market forces. Universities that pick students based on ability rather than their available wealth are not following the proper business model. After all, products are not given out or discounted based on merit or need in the world of business. Rather, it is a matter of who can pay. Switching universities to a profit based model in which students are assessed based on their ability to pay and are treated primarily as paying customers rather than in the traditional ways surely is the best way for education to go. What has ever gone wrong with excluding talented lower class people from the system? What could possibly go wrong with an education system that is focused on profits? After all, it is worked so great in business that it surely cannot fail in the context of education.  Also, once universities operate just like other corporations, they can expect support from the Republicans.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2011

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

I started my college career as an undergraduate in 1984. After graduating in 1987, I went on the graduate school and then ended up as a professor. As such, I know a bit about college then and now.

College enrollment has increased significantly since then (the 1980s). Naturally, part of this is due to the increase in population: if there are more people, there will be more people in college even if the percentage of college students remains the same. Another factor is that colleges are seen as being more open to minorities, women and low income people than in the past. It is also true that people have a greater need for the college degree, thanks to degree inflation. Jobs that once required just a high school degree now require college degrees.

Ironically, as enrollment has increases, budgets for state schools have been cut. For example, my own university has been hit with massive cuts as our enrollment shoots ever upward.  One impact is that class sizes have been getting ever larger. For example, my Introduction to Philosophy class used to cap at 30. When I taught it in the fall, it had 63 students. Thanks to inflation and increases in insurance costs, I am actually making less money and teaching larger classes. There is currently talk of cutting salaries, reducing benefits, increasing class sizes and adding more classes to the faculty teaching load (I teach four classes per semester). As in the private sector, the people who do the actual nuts and bolts work are expected to do more with less.

Also somewhat ironically, as enrollment has increased and as most faculty are expected to do more for less, the cost of college has increased significantly. Back when I went to college, the average price was $2,119 per year. In 2009 the average price was $7,605. This is about twice what would be expected from inflation alone.  Some of the increase can be accounted for in terms of new technology (the cost of computer labs and smart classrooms) and energy costs. However, one large factor is the same one that occurs in business and government: administration and bureaucracy. As such, a significant slice of tuition dollars does not go to paying for the actual process of education.

What is needed is, obviously enough, efforts to control costs. The place to begin is, of course, with administrative costs. Naturally, budget cuts are currently inflicted primarily on faculty (who teach) and staff (who actually do things). In this regard, education functions exactly like business and government.

Because of the greater cost, it is no shock that students need to turn to loans to pay for school. In 1993 about 45% of students took out loans. When I was an undergraduate, I took out loans-I finally paid them off during my first year as a professor. This year about 66% of students will take out loans for school. In 1995 the typical student graduated with about $10,000 in debt. This year’s students ended up with an average of $27,000. This means that a greater percentage of students will start out with school debt and that they will have more debt, which means they will have less to spend on other things, things that would help the general economy.

To make matters worse, unemployment  is over 9%. When I was in school, it was about 6%. Salaries have improved a bit ($46,600 in 1995 and $50,034 for college graduates today), but clearly not that much relative to the increase in debt.

As such, today’s students can expect to take out loans to pay a lot  to be in larger classes taught by underpaid and overworked professors. Once they graduate, they can expect to have a lot of debt and a decent salary-if they can find a job.  Of course, with the budget cuts hitting many state schools, tomorrow’s graduates might be competing with yesterday’s faculty for jobs.

You can see some spiffy graphics of all the data here.

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Defending the Arts & Sciences

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2011
Bertrand Russell

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A week ago I received a call informing my of an emergency. In the light of budget woes, the Board of Governors intends to restructure the university. As with corporations, this restructuring seems to be aimed at eliminating certain programs and various programs ranging from Biology to Social Work have been called on to justify their existence. An emergency meeting was called for Monday of this week and we had until noon to prepare our responses .

Since the budget woes are widespread and education is always a prime target (politicians pay and largess for corporations and buddies of politicians are never at risk) I thought I would share my defense with other folks who might be in similar straits.

The main attack against us is based on a quantitative analysis based primarily on the number of majors graduated, the number of students who take the classes in a program and the money brought in via other means. Naturally, the quantitative analysis is based on a set of qualitative assumptions about what should count and how much it should count relative to other factors.

My general suggestion was a six part defense for the arts and sciences programs that attempts to respond to the quantitative challenge.

First, many programs in the arts & sciences tend to be rather low cost. To use some specific examples, English, Philosophy, Religion, and History have no need for laboratories or special equipment and this makes them rather inexpensive to operate. As such, they tend to be “budget” programs.

Second, eliminating a major in the arts & sciences typically will result in no monetary savings. Most of the programs, such as English and Philosophy & Religion, provide classes that are graduation requirements in the general curriculum or in specific programs. Since there are no special fees that must be paid to keep a major “on the books”, eliminating a major that contains such essential classes deprives students of options while yielding no financial savings.

Third, the new global economy requires that American students learn how to understand other cultures and diverse view points. It also requires that American students develop critical thinking skills. The arts & sciences provide critical thinking skills and the knowledge needed to understand specific value sets. As such, the arts & sciences will be critical for American success in the new economy. Eliminating programs might seem to yield short term benefits but the long term consequences would seem to be negative.

Fourth, while certain programs in the arts & sciences tend to have relatively few majors, the number of majors should also be considered in the context of the proportion of such majors needed by society as a whole. To use an analogy, quarterbacks make up a rather small number of the people on a football team. However, it would make no sense to eliminate quarterbacks so as to save money. After all, while they are few in number they are still rather important to the team. So, for example, while philosophy produces few majors, there is a relatively small need for professional philosophers. This need is, however, legitimate. At the very least someone has to teach all those critical thinking and ethics courses that people will need.

Fifth the arts & sciences also provide key classes that have value beyond mere numbers and money. One such value is the cultural value provided by the arts. Another is the value of scientific inquiry and training. A third is the value of having a truly liberal education. While the notion of such non-numerical values has considerable appeal to folks in the arts & sciences (which is usually why we are in these fields), they might carry little weight with the folks who are mostly concerned about dollars in and dollars out.

One of the most moving defenses of education was given by James Stockdale:

“Generally speaking, I think education is a tremendous defense; the broader, the better. After I was shot down, my wife, Sybil, found a clipping glued in front of my collegiate dictionary: “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” She certainly agrees with me on that. Most of us prisoners found that the so-called practical academic exercises in how to do things, which I’m told are proliferating, were useless. I’m not saying that we should base education on training people to be in prison, but I am saying that in stress situations, the fundamentals, the hardcore classical subjects are what serve best.”(Stockdale, J.B., The World Of Epictetus, The Atlantic Monthly, 1978)

In addition to my general response, I also formulated specific responses to the five questions we were asked to address. I have included these as well:

1. Provide summary information on any concerns or issues within your program that may not be addressed by quantitative data.

One concern is that quantitative data fails to take into account contributions that are not readily quantified.

First, graduates of the philosophy and religion program have gone on to become significant figures in academics. To use but two examples, Dr. Tommie Shelby is a professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University and Dr. Darryl Scriven is a professor of philosophy at Tuskegee University.

Second, the program is directly relevant to three of the learning outcomes: critical thinking, ethical values and cultural diversity.

Third, philosophy has been at the heart of academics since the beginning of academics at Plato’s Academy.

Fourth, philosophy and religion are essential components of a liberal arts education. The value of these contributions has been argued by such thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Bertrand Russell.

A second concern is that the program reviews have consistently noted that the program would require additional resources (including more faculty) in order to increase productivity. As such, the current productivity could be regarded as being in accord with the allocated resources. The program seems to be producing majors at a rate comparable to other programs which operate with similar resources (number of faculty, etc.).

A third concern is that in addition to simply looking at the overall number of majors it is also important to consider the proportionate, but legitimate, need in society as a whole. To use an analogy, to only assess on the basis of overall numbers would be on par with being critical of a soccer team’s resources being spent to train goalies because the team only has one on the field at a time. While society does not need a multitude of philosophy and religion majors, there does seem to be a legitimate need for the program to exist so as to produce those that are, in fact, needed.

A fourth concern is that the philosophy and religion majors are very flexible and open programs relative to the requirements of other majors. This makes the major very useful for students seeking to graduate. Roughly put, the flexibility of the major allows it to serve as a safety net that has often caught students and enabled them to graduate in a timelier manner (or graduate at all).

A final concern worth noting is that eliminating the philosophy and religion major would not result in any savings. Assuming there is no special cost involved in keeping majors available to students, eliminating the philosophy and religion majors would save no money. If the faculty positions were eliminated, this would merely result in the need to hire replacement faculty to teach the humanities courses that students need as part of the General Education requirements as well as for the specific classes that many other majors require (such as Aesthetics,  Introduction to Philosophy and Logic). Overall, I would contend that the volume of service classes provided to the university offsets any concerns about the relatively low number of majors produced.

2.  How do you see your department and its program(s) contributing to the realization of the University’s strategic vision? (consult the University Strategic Plan at  http://www.famu.edu/OfficeofInstitutionalEffectiveness/UserFiles/File/Strategic_Plan_2010_2020_Approved.pdf)

In light of the economic, political and social changes in the 21st century it is evident that students will more than ever need critical thinking skills, an understanding of ethical values, the ability to understand other cultures and a comprehension of the religions of the world.

The philosophy and religion program faculty endeavor to provide the students with the tools and knowledge they will need to compete and thrive both on campus and in the diverse world beyond.

The faculty will make use of the latest available technology as part of the learning process, making full use of the new smart classrooms as well as web technology such as downloadable lectures and videos of class material. While philosophy and religion classes are traditionally regarded as being discussion based, many of the classes would actually be ideal for being offered as online classes.

In addition, the faculty contribute to the general mission of recruiting and retaining students, enhancing the academic program and improving graduation rates.  As noted above, the flexible and open requirements for the major provide an effective means of providing graduation options to students.

Special emphasis is also being placed on low (or no) cost means of recruiting students using online means including establishing an online presence for the department via such means as blogs and social networking.

3. List any existing or expected interdisciplinary or inter-university activities in which your program is engaged.

Currently the program is working with Dr. Will Guzmán in developing the African American Studies Minor in History & African American Studies.

4. What disciplinary, national or international trends do you anticipate that may impact your program, and what impact may they have?

First, as the current QEP indicates, the concern about critical thinking is certain to be an ongoing trend. Given that critical thinking belongs within the domain of philosophy and that the classes in the program generally contain strong critical thinking components there should be an ever-increasing need for classes within the program. Of course, critical thinking is not something germane only to philosophy; considering the plethora of religious/spiritual beliefs in the world one has to be critically engaged to determine what is wheat and what is chaff. As such, the study of critical thinking in general and its specific applications will be of ever increasing importance to students and hence in demand.

Second, given the fact that ethics is a branch of philosophy and the ongoing need for education in ethics (as the recent financial meltdown, which was largely a moral failure, indicates) there will be an ever increasing need for classes and other programs relating to ethical values and ethical reasoning.

Third, religion shows no sign of decreasing as an important factor in national and world events. As such, it can be expected that the study of religion will continue to be rather important in preparing students for their careers and life after college.

Fourth, the new economy will be ever more international in character and will require students capable of understanding other points of view and this includes various faiths. As such, there will be a critical need for training in philosophy and religion.

Fifth, there is role of technology in education as well as a subject of education. As noted above, faculty make extensive use of this technology and incorporate it into their classes.  There are currently plans to develop online classes when the resources are available to do so. Additionally, faculty as also involved in the shift from the traditional academic avenues to the online world. For example, a faculty member is a contributory to a professional international philosophy blog.

5. How will your program contribute to generating revenue for the University?  Please be specific.

First, the primary way the program contributes to generating revenue for the University is via providing courses that are consistently at or (more commonly) over their University set caps. For example, an Introduction to Philosophy class (taught by a single professor) typically has 60+ students. Presumably this contributes to the University’s revenue stream. Since the program requires no special expenditures for laboratories, equipment, non-teaching supplies and so on, the program is also not consuming revenue beyond the cost of salaries and the cost of the classroom facilities.

Second, the program can, like other programs, seek to acquire grant money and other outside sources of funding that can either offset University expenditures or provide direct revenue for the University. Unfortunately, support for philosophy and religion from outside sources tends to be rather limited. In addition, the four courses per semester teaching load tends to impede the ability of faculty to develop grants and create  alternative revenue generating projects.

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The Non-Productivity of Office Hours

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2011

Like all professors who actually teach, I have to keep office hours. Having been a student, I do understand their importance-after all, there are things that need to be done outside of class and professors need to be readily available at set times.

When I was younger and far less experienced, I also saw office hours as a time in which I could be somewhat productive. At the very least, I figured, I would be helping students. Experience has, of course, changed my perspective.

While I have not conducted a scientific study of the matter, a large chunk of my office hours seem to be non-productive. Lest someone think I am a slacker professor, I consider working with my students during my office hours productive. As such, it is not a matter of “my students wasting my valuable time.” Rather, it is a matter of other people wasting my time.

While my office is a bit off the beaten path (I am down a short corridor that branches off the main hall and only one classroom is nearby) people seem to be drawn to me when I am here. During my last office hours I had people coming in to ask directions to various far away places on campus, people coming in to ask about classes taught by other professors in other departments, people coming in to borrow pens, to sharpen pencils and even to use my microwave. I did, fortunately, have a few of my students come in.

While the interruptions are not long, they occur very frequently so that I am generally not able to spend more than 15 minutes at a time without someone who is not a student of mine popping in for something. I cannot, of course, close my door-that would keep my students from knowing that I am here. And, of course, I have found that people will knock at the door (even the door to the corridor to my office) relentlessly. I found that out when I tried to spend more time on campus doing work rather than doing it at home. I learned that lesson rather quickly.

I’m still trying to sort out why the volume is so high. As noted above, my office is not in a prime location-yet people seem to always end up here. Maybe my office is some sort of metaphysical nexus that draws people. Or maybe it is that lava lamp that my sister gave me-people always gaze at it when they come in, so perhaps its rays extend beyond the walls and draw people like moths.

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A New Semester

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2010
Florida A&M University
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Tomorrow is the start of Fall classes for 2010. I started teaching at Florida A&M University back in the fall of 1993, so I have been doing this a long time. However, the start of a new semester is always (mostly) fun and exciting.

While my freshman days are long over, I try to remember the enthusiasm and sense of newness I felt all those years ago. I do this in the hopes of infusing my classes with that spirit. I dread the prospect of becoming a zombie professor who merely goes through the motions of education lifelessly and who has been left behind by the currents of time.

This can be a hard thing to do. After all, college life is no longer new to me and I now have so many years behind me. However, I seem to be able to call up those old feelings when I get in front of a class. True, I don’t always deliver educational gold. After all expecting gold when a person is teaching four overloaded classes and has many other responsibilities is like expecting a peak performance from a runner at every workout and race decade after decade.

Though I am rather tired from a rather tough end of the last semester and the pre-semester adventures in moving, preparation and chairing a search committee, I am gearing up for the new year.

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