What is University?

A rather radical proposal from Texas came across my desk recently, courtesy of the Texas Exes...

A Modest Proposal for Texas Higher Ed:

"... The UT System Board of Regents ... has hired consultants who have publicly stated the fundamental view that academic research is not valuable and that tenured faculty could be replaced by lower-cost lecturers. These consultants propose a formula that excludes research in valuing faculty. They only want to look at any immediate financial value of research that can be proven on a current basis.
these same consultants also believe that tenured faculty, distinguished in their fields, can and should be replaced by part-time, contract lecturers. They point to for-profit institutions as the correct model for controlling costs, because those institutions rely almost exclusively on lower-cost lecturers.

Yes, the proposal is to turn UT Austin, and the other Texas state universities into glorified "University of Phoenix" type institutions.

Ok, I have to confess, my first reaction was: "Cool! Less competition for NSF grants!"

The Chronicle has the crescendo - the UT Regents respond - in summary, the $200k per year part time consultant was reassigned, with a $100k payout for his weeks of considered effort, I gather.
Apparently the Alumni Association was Not Amused, and still has some clout.

So, why not?
With the cutting in State funding, why shouldn't Texas Axe UT and let it Rise From the Ashes of the State Budget Like A Phoenix?

A University is a University is a University, and the University of Phoenix is apparently very successful - has lots of students and is very profitable.
What got the Texas Exes's knickers in a twist?

Well, and this is now getting US-centric, there are several different types of institutions of higher education, post-K-12 education, which like to call themselves universities, but they are not like each other...

There Private and Public institutions, and some uncomfortable hybrid Quasi Non-Governmental institutions which are "state related";
each of these may be universities teaching a "liberal arts" curriculum, or not;
and each of these may include postgraduate studies, professional schools, or not.
In addition there are various Irregular institutions, mostly dealing with a narrowly selected student population, or having narrow focus.

Liberal Arts Universities, apart from their unfortunate tendencies to produce nominal reflexive political kneejerks, of opposite parity in the US and UK, are what most people actually think of when they speak of Universities.
These, of course, focus on the trivium and quadrivium - I mean how can you argue with a curriculum that peaks with astronomy?

But, seriously, the liberal arts universities provide a general education curriculum across a broad range of subjects: a university will offer degrees in mathematics, natural sciences, history, languages, literature, philosophy, art etc.
A good liberal arts university will provide a good student with superb higher education of very broad applicability, a general education.
This is not to be confused with professional studies, like law, engineering, medicine etc., nor with vocational studies, which is what a lot of people think is the primary activity of universities.

Arguably, an institution of higher education that focuses on vocational degrees and professional studies to the exclusion of liberal arts is not a university. It has a different, narrower, purpose, and attracts a different student population.
This is confounded by many liberal arts institutions incorporating professional schools and to a lesser extent, vocational studies, into their structure.

The other primary distinguishing feature of a university, is whether it offers post-graduate degrees, in particular doctorates and non-professional masters degrees; many universities do not, they stop at the bachelors degree. Other institutions offer primarily professional masters degrees, but not the more general postgraduate study.

Other institutions include music conservatories, art academies, religious schools and other forms of narrowly focused advanced study. These have a definite role to play and not infrequently, like professional schools, are under the umbrella of a liberal arts institution, but they play a different role.

So what do we have?

  • Private liberal research universities: think Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford.
    These are liberal arts universities, often incorporating professional schools and narrow focused institutions. They offer a full suite of bachelors degrees, but have a major focus on postgraduate study: MA/MSc, PhD and professional postgraduate degrees.
    The "tell" is whether the number of postgraduate students is comparable to or larger than then number of undergraduates.
  • Private small liberal art colleges: like Reed, Carleton, Union, Vassar.
    These are liberal art universities, but focused exclusively, or almost so, on undergraduate education. The good ones provide very good liberal arts education, at a price.
  • Private technical institutes: think MIT and Caltech.
    They are not liberal art universities, the curriculum is too narrow, but they are not focused on professional degrees or vocational studies. Very heavy focus on postgraduate studies.
    These are rare.
  • Private vocational universities: like Phoenix.
    They are not liberal art universities, they provide narrow focus vocational study - job training. Now job training is good, but it is not general education, and it invites obsolescence. There is a role for these institutions, but they are not to be confused with universities - they serve generally a very different population

    The Public Universities mirror this structure:

  • Public research university: think Berkeley, Penn State, UT Austin.
    Large universities with full suite of bachelors degrees, but with a major focus on postgraduate study. But, not with as many postgraduate students proportionately, as the Private Research universities. These often, but not necessarily, include professional schools within their structure.
  • Public liberal arts university: think Cal State, State Universities of Pennsylvania etc.
    These have broad liberal arts undergraduate degrees, but little or no postgraduate study, and that primarily professional masters.
  • Public vocational universities: like the California Community Colleges.
    Generally do not offer a full range of liberal art study, but are more focused on vocational degrees and job training.

So, there is the issue - the consultant was proposing to replace a full suite of public universities - the UT system includes everything from top ranked research universities through public liberal arts universities, with a privatized community college.

Although both are institutes of higher education, they really have quite different purposes and serve different student populations, and they can't be interchanged.
The proposal is trite, and it beggars well, something, that six figure sums were paid for such inanity, but it also begs the question: namely what is university, and why are there all these different subtypes, and which are effective at what?


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I am going to quibble with your taxonomy.

California Community colleges (and many others!) serve two roles:

1) broad liberal arts education with the ability to then transfer into a UC or Cal State after 2 years.

2) focused vocational training.

This tension makes a California CC a pain to budget for, as you have two very different student groups using the same institution.

Perhaps broaden your outlook and look beyond the USA. Over here, for instance, there is no separation between research and liberal-arts universities, almost all universities are public, and institutions of vocational tertiary education aren't called universities.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 28 Mar 2011 #permalink

Well this is disturbing. The "University" (and I use that term loosely) of Phoenix is profitable because it runs on student loans. It will let in anyone who can pay and it makes sure that everyone can pay because it helps them apply for high interest student loans. It doesn't care what kind of grades you had. It doesn't care what kind of credit you have. It doesn't care if you graduate or if you can repay the loans. All it cares about is getting that loan money. A public university is not supposed to be a for-profit business!

By Paula Lovell (not verified) on 28 Mar 2011 #permalink

Recall that a large number of todays universities used to be teachers or normal colleges, that existed to train teachers. This is why there were so many of them. Starting after WWII they all decided to become full universities, as did the land grant schools, which were originally Ag, Engineering and Rotc schools under the Morril act.
Anyway if you look at Western Governors University, the proposal is essentially to replicate that model, offer only degrees of a vocational bent (teaching Nursing IT and Business). Essentially its a university of Phoenix except non profit where a bachelors degree costs about 24k all up. This is done by using distance learning only, no tenured faculty, no research, just teaching. Mostly not by the old fashioned lecture method, using a competency based model.
Perhaps the idea is to go back to no more that 1 or 2 full universities in a state, as in the old days instead of systems all competing to do business in more and more places.

@bph - Quibbler! Yes, I was classifying by "terminal degree", and transfers complicate the picture, especially in the US.

@David - I was educated in Europe. The french and germanic higher ed is more structured, the british system deregulated under Thatcher, causing a US style mixup when the polytechnic institutions jumped enmasse to be universities. The US is still uniquely heterogenous though.

@Paula - the "Phoenix" model clearly has a niche, but, yes, it has leveraged enormously off the federal loan system, and with low graduation rates and concern about the quality of the education, it is out of whack.

@Lyle - that is where I am going, and why I left the open question at the end. The "normal colleges" had a role, but the research university path has a lot of pull, and so university missions drift. The game of transfer to optimise cost to the student complicates the issue further.
Question is what the balance ought to be, whether it is best achieved by a competitive system of institutions, how perverse the incentives are, and what size institutions are appropriate. A state the size of Texas or California would need a very large university if they settled on just one R1 institution.
Either way it is fairly clear, given the distinctions, that zero public research universities is not a good balance for a large state.

I don't know anyone who takes the University of Phoenix, or its many clones, seriously. One anecdote: a neighbor's son was taking classes through them and was struggling with his algebra class. I reviewed a test, his work, and the "key" that was provided after the fact: his work and answers were correct: the key was incorrect, and there was no recourse: in order to obtain a passing grade he had to follow their examples and put down choices he knew were incorrect. That's some quality work.

Serious question.: Where do "universities" like Bob Jones, Liberty, and so on, fall on this scale?

You raise valid points. But I think you left out a (if not the) major reason that at least some (if not most) students benefit from a research university.

Some people think most learning occurs in a classroom setting. Students get exposed (to varying degrees depending on their stage and motivation) to the process of research. Instead of learning what is already in books and journals, they participate in conducting research to address questions with no known answer. That includes things like: asking good questions, developing hypotheses and rigorous methodologies to test those hypotheses, analyzing data that may not give a clear cut answer, recognizing when data is inconclusive, figuring out how to adapt your plans based on new data, etc. If our society/economy values people creating new knowledge/technology, then it only makes sense that we would have some way of training students in how to do that well.

While it is theoretically possible to teach some of these skills to some extent in a classroom, it is basically impossible on a large scale. The best way to train students is to involve them in the process of research. Unfortunately, doing a good job requires individual attention from someone who is both an expert in some area and highly experienced at creating new knowledge. That doesn't come cheap.

While some of our lecturers could mentor students in this way, it would require just as much (if not more) of their time to do a comparable job. So the only way you can save money would be by paying the people who do it less, presumably by hiring people with less experience, less expertise, and/or a less impressive track record of success in creating new knowledge.

Of course, society probably doesn't need to invest in this level of training for everyone. However, to not invest such a level of training for anyone would be a far worse scenario.

Another more minor quibble...
"Private technical institutes: think MIT and Caltech.
... the curriculum is too narrow"
This is an inaccurate perception. Back when I was researching potential undergrad schools (granted many years ago), I looked at the number of humanities courses required of physics majors. From most to least, the order was: U Chicago, Caltech, MIT, Cornell, and then a bunch of other
"top tier" schools. While it's true you can't get an English Literature Ph.D. at MIT, the top tier technical institutes do offer and even require an undergraduate curriculum that is as broad or broader than most non-technical research universities.

@astro: As with any classification scheme like Steinn's there will always be borderline cases which combine aspects of more than one category. MIT is one such example: it has aspects of both a technical institute and a liberal research university. It has some well-known programs in non-STEM areas--economics (one of the highest concentrations of Sveriges Riksbank prize winners) and linguistics (Noam Chomsky's department), to name two--but is predominantly known for science and engineering. Another example is Dartmouth, which boasts of its undergraduate education (which is why the alumni insist on calling it Dartmouth College rather than Dartmouth University) but also has a medical school, a business school, an engineering school, and several Ph.D. programs in the sciences, making it a hybrid between the small liberal arts university and the liberal research university.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Mar 2011 #permalink

Another quibble - there is a top tier of public versions of your, "Private technical institutes: think MIT and Caltech.".

Public technical institutes: Georgia Tech (go Jackets!), U Illinois Champagne-Urbana, Colorado School of Mines, others I'm missing/not aware of (NJIT? is Rutgers public?)

There are, of course, general research universities also include top flight technical porgrams, including Stanford, UT Austin, and others. But that goes to the point of heterogeneity of the US model.

By Daniel Rothman (not verified) on 29 Mar 2011 #permalink

Sorry if it seemed that I was criticizing your classification scheme. I just wanted to help dispel myths about technical schools having "too narrow" curricula.

I am not so easily disturbed.
I actually thought explicitly about Dartmouth and Georgia Tech as examples of cross-border institutions - though I'd put Georgia Tech probably across the line in liberal arts.
I was at Caltech - they have a lot of class requirements, yes, but the breadth of offerings is nothing like a regular liberal arts college, they're just not big enough and their resources are focused on their strengths.

I'd put UIUC and UT Austin very firmly way over on the "public liberal art research universities", they are not institutes of technology.

I am going somewhere with this, actually ponderings that have been for a while on my wishlist to write up in my copious spare time - the Texas Exes triggered me.
That whole affair is actually still reverbrating around the community.

There has been a general consensus since WWII that some research is an important function of higher education. Every state has at least one public university with a significant research component--the one state which doesn't have an obvious public research university (South Dakota) does have a public technical institute (the SD School of Mines). There are signs that this postwar consensus is breaking down, as it has in other areas. This is due in part to the rise of religious fundamentalism, with its distrust of many areas of science, and in part to active efforts in certain circles to distort scientific research to suit political goals.

Undoubtedly Texas is big enough to support at least one research university, and currently they support several. The question there is whether the people who are not willing to support such institutions have enough political power to force that vision on people who point to the obvious benefits of supporting research. So far, they don't, at least in Texas--but similar factions in other states are watching to see how this plays out. If UT Austin is ever forced to abandon the research university model, expect many other state university systems to follow. The case for supporting research universities in other states, while strong, may not be as strong as in Texas simply because these other states are smaller. These other states may be reluctant to move first as long as UT Austin is still in the research business, but if Texas moves that way, they will follow.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Mar 2011 #permalink