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2016 October 23

UCSC athletics “town hall”

A year and a half  ago, I wrote a post, I’m proud of UCSC undergrads, in which I praised UCSC undergrads for rejecting a fee to subsidize the approximately 250 Division III athletes on campus, and last Spring I wrote Not so proud of UCSC undergrads this year, when they voted 63% in favor of being asked if they would support a new fee of $270 a year to support the NCAA athletes (about $4.3 million for 16,000 students, or $14,000/athlete for the 300 NCAA athletes).

Last Spring, the Faculty Senate put together an ad hoc committee to report on athletics, but only those who strongly supported athletics volunteered to serve on it, so it came out with a very strongly pro-athletics report that I don’t believe honestly reflects faculty opinion. I particularly object to the claim

Perhaps more importantly, as faculty, we have great concern that the termination of UCSC student athletics, a program that distinguishes itself in the classroom and in competition, would signal to the world that we cannot maintain a first-class university.

That is BS of the highest order—being a first-class university has nothing to do with athletics, certainly not in the world outside the USA.  And even in the USA, a few Division III teams has nothing to do with the perception of the university.

Quite frankly, I find it shameful that the administration is spending $1million a year of unrestricted funds on NCAA athletics—that amount of money would hire instructors for about 100 more classes, helping about 3500 students, rather than 300.  The big advantage of sports on a campus comes from student participation, not being spectators, so funding models that provide facilities for intramurals and club sports that any student can participate in make much more sense than dedicating funding for a tiny number of privileged athletes.

Last Wednesday the Faculty Senate athletics committee had a “town-hall meeting”, ostensibly to get comments from students, but the audience consisted almost entirely of the NCAA athletes and their coaches, so turned into a “how can we get this passed?” rather than having students discussing whether it was a good idea.  The few students there who were not NCAA athletes were probably too intimidated by being surrounded by athletes to raise any objections—though one student did bravely ask what fraction of the students benefited from the student fee (a bit less than 2%).

There were some very strange ideas being passed around—like that students who weren’t athletes were getting sweetheart funding that the athletes should be getting instead (or perhaps as well).  The question was brought up of where engineering students got their funding from (which was not answered).  That one struck me as particularly strange, as engineering students generally end up either self-funding, crowd-funding, or getting funding from grants that faculty have spent years trying to get—they aren’t getting any handouts from the rest of the students!

A case in point: the iGEM project team needed about $25,000 for the 20-member team for the equipment, reagents, and travel to the iGEM conference. They raised this money through a crowd-funding campaign (which means that most of it came from family and friends).  The instructor’s salary was paid out of summer-school tuition (again, paid for by the team members, as there is no general-fund subsidy for summer school).  Rather than getting a $14,000 subsidy per team member like the athletes are asking for, they were paying out thousands of their own money to attend summer school to be on the team, and doing crowd-funding for the rest.  I have no objection to the NCAA teams running crowd-funding campaigns.

There is some industrial sponsorship for a few senior engineering capstone projects (maybe a quarter of all the capstone projects in the Baskin School of Engineering).  That sponsorship comes as a result of many years of hard work by faculty and administrators making contacts in industry and begging for support for student projects (and those projects come with several strings attached, sometimes including ownership of the students’ work by the sponsoring company, I believe).

Funding for student projects in engineering is much more like club sports than like NCAA athletics—essentially everything is paid for by the students involved, either directly or through fund-raising.  The same is largely true of other student groups on campus (theater groups, dance groups, artists, … ).  All the groups can apply for tiny amounts of money from student fees through the student government—only the NCAA athletes seem to feel that they deserve much, much more than that.

Theater and dance groups often need instructors, the same way that athletes need coaches, but there is no built-in funding for these instructors.  For the most part, they are paid for teaching courses, as OPERS coaches are—why should one group of instructors have a dedicated student fee, when others do not?

The NCAA athletes at UCSC are not dumb jocks—they have a higher GPA and graduation rate than the campus as a whole, so they must be aware that they are asking for very special privileges that are not given to other students.  Why do they or their coaches deserve special treatment?

2016 September 4

The Great Mistake by Christopher Newfield

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Johns Hopkins University Press has announced pre-orders for Chris Newfield’s new book, The Great Mistake:

The Great Mistake

How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them

Christopher Newfield

In The Great Mistake, Newfield asks how we can fix higher education, given the damage done by private-sector models. The current accepted wisdom—that to succeed, universities should be more like businesses—is dead wrong. Newfield combines firsthand experience with expert analysis to show that private funding and private-sector methods cannot replace public funding or improve efficiency, arguing that business-minded practices have increased costs and gravely damaged the university’s value to society.

The book should ship in October 2016.

I’ve been reading his blog Remaking the University for quite some time, and I’ve found that he has intelligent things to say about how public universities are funded. I’m not sure I’d want to read a 448-page book on the subject with very few illustrations (2 halftones, 33 charts), but people who are interested in what has happened to make public universities so unaffordable in the past decade or two should read at least some of his writing.

2015 December 24

Glut of postdoc researchers

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I’ve read a number or articles recently about a big problem in academia, particularly in biomedical research—the overproduction of PhDs and resulting pool of underemployed researchers.  Here are excerpts from two of them:

Source: Glut of postdoc researchers stirs a quiet crisis in science – The Boston Globe

Postdocs fill an essential, but little-known niche in the scientific pipeline. After spending 6 to 7 years on average earning a PhD, they invest more years of training in a senior scientist’s laboratory as the final precursor to starting labs where they can explore their own scientific ideas.

In the Boston area, where more than 8,000 postdocs — largely in the biosciences — are estimated to work, tough job prospects are more than just an issue of academic interest. Postdocs are a critical part of the scientific landscape that in many ways distinguishes the region — they are both future leaders and the workers who carry out experiments crucial for science to advance.

The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.

Biomedical research training traditionally has followed a well-worn path. After college, people who want to pursue an advanced degree enroll in graduate school. The vast majority of biology graduate students then go on to do one or more postdoc positions, where they continue their training, often well into their 30s.

Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.

The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs — teaching, industry, government or nonprofit jobs, or consulting.

This wasn’t such an issue decades ago, but universities have expanded the number of PhD students they train — there were about 30,000 biomedical graduate students in 1979 and 56,800 in 2009. That has had the effect of flooding the system with trainees and drawing out the training period.

In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.

From How to build a better PhD:

Not all of these students want to pursue academic careers — but many do, and they find it tough because there has been no equivalent growth in secure academic positions. The growing gap between the numbers of PhD graduates and available jobs has attracted particular attention in the United States, where students increasingly end up stuck in lengthy, insecure postdoctoral research positions. Although the unemployment rate for people with science doctorates is relatively low, in 2013 some 42% of US life-sciences PhD students graduated without a job commitment of any kind, up from 28% a decade earlier. “But still students continue to enroll in PhD programmes,” Stephan wrote in her 2012 book How Economics Shapes Science. “Why? Why, given such bleak job prospects, do people continue to come to graduate school?”

There may be too many PhD graduates for academia, but there is plenty of demand for highly educated, scientifically minded workers elsewhere. So some scientists propose that the PhD should be split into two: one for future academics and a second to train those who would like in-depth science education for use in other careers.

Biologist Anthony Hyman, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, is one of those who thinks that a split PhD might work. Students in the academic-track PhD would focus on blue-skies research and discovery, he says. A vocational PhD would be more structured and directed towards specific careers in areas such as radiography, machine learning or mouse-model development.

Some scientists call for more drastic measures — cutting down the number of people who pursue a PhD.

Siphoning off more students into master’s programmes is one way to reduce PhD numbers, says Bruce Alberts, professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the department of medicine at UCSF. A master’s can offer advanced scientific training that is sufficient for many careers, as well as a taste of research, in one or two years rather than the four or five eaten up by a typical PhD. “In an ideal world, everyone would go in for a master’s,” Alberts says.

Engineering fields have not suffered the postdoc-holding-tank problem that bio fields and, to a lesser extent physical sciences) have had.  I believe that this has been because of several inter-related phenomena:

  • The PhD in engineering is only for academics and a few blue-sky researchers.  The degree needed for a top-notch industrial job is an MS (or, sometime, an MBA).  Most grad programs in engineering produce far more MS students than PhD students.
  • Engineering students can get good entry-level jobs with just a BS, so there is little pressure to go on immediately to grad school, unlike biology, where there are huge numbers of BS students chasing relatively few (and not very good) jobs. Many bio students, seeing that almost all the interesting jobs are advertised for PhD holders, feel compelled to go on to grad schools.
  • Undergraduate engineering programs are less subject to grade inflation than other fields—engineering faculty see passing a student in a course as certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the subject, not just that they’ve spent time in the presence of people who knew what they were doing.

Because a BS in engineering still certifies a reasonable level of competence, the BS degree is still recognized as suitable for entry-level jobs, and an MS reflects a higher level of specialization and competence. This allows the engineering PhD to be reserved for research and teaching, rather than becoming the entry-level degree it has become in bio research.

It will be very difficult for biology departments to undo the damage they have done to the academic system—draining the postdoc holding tank into real jobs will take a decade or more, even if bio departments reduced their PhD production to sustainable levels.  The huge glut of PhD-trained biologists will keep salaries low and discourage biotech companies from hiring BS-level bio students for any but blue-collar technician positions.  Perhaps the best thing university biology departments could do is to undo the grade and credit inflation that has been happening over the past three decades and start failing significant numbers of students, rather than being the STEM major of last resort for those barely capable of doing science.  This would reduce the glut of biology students and raise the quality of those who do finish BS degrees.  In a decade or so, biology departments could make the BS become the working degree for biotech industry, reducing the training time for biotech workers by over a decade.

Quite frankly, I don’t expect biology departments to raise their standards and choke off the flow of cheap postdocs.  NIH funding is arranged to make postdocs be the preferred researcher (cheaper and more productive than either grad students or faculty), and biology research labs have become structured around the postdocs.  Universities (particular ones with med schools) have made the “soft-money” researcher, whose job exists only as long as there is a grant to pay it standard. The disposable researcher has become the norm, just like disposable plasticware has replaced glassware in the labs.

I think that there will need to be some shakeups in the federal funding of research to break up the postdoc factories and encourage universities to return to the days of small labs with faculty actually running their own experiments with just a handful of students.  A few things that might help are

  • limiting PIs to no more than 2 federal grants at a time,
  • limiting the size of grants to no more than is needed to support a technician and a handful of postdocs or grad students,
  • greatly increasing the number of grants (not necessarily the total $), by breaking up the current scheme of big grants into many little ones, and
  • requiring that grant-seeking institutions pay at least half the salaries of any non-student researchers from non-federal sources.

Changes like that would force universities to convert a lot of soft-money positions into permanent faculty positions (in order to have enough PIs to submit grant requests), and would force the funding agencies to spread the grant money out over a much larger pool of researchers (rather than focusing it all on a handful of golden boys).  There would no longer be an incentive to have huge numbers of inferior “hands in the lab” as grad students or postdocs, and students and postdocs would get more attention from faculty as labs shrunk and faculty became focussed on research and teaching instead of grant writing and administration.

Of course, it will never happen—those who run the funding agencies like having a postdoc holding tank full of cheap labor and think that grant writing and grant administration is far more important than research or teaching.  They’d rather be responsible for a pointless but huge “moon shot” project than for hundreds of small projects, some of which actually advance science.

It has become my belief that the real purpose of federal funding for science is to slow down the progress of science and engineering so that politicians can keep the world from changing too fast—they might lose power if things change too quickly.

2015 November 11

Not applying for that grant after all

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As long-time readers of my blog may know, I’ve given up on chasing grants (see Sabbatical Plans 2 and Sabbatical Leave Report), but I got sucked into planning to apply for NSF Engineering Education Program and Improving Undergraduate STEM Education/Professional Formation of Engineers’ RED Solicitation NSF 15-607, which would provide a minimum of $1,000,000 spread over 5 years to the lucky winner of the grant lottery for improving engineering education.  Because I have refocused my effort since my last sabbatical on improving education, this grant seemed like something worth some effort.

I was a little worried about it not being a lottery, but having an already targeted program that someone at NSF wanted to fund, as it had a very short timeline for putting together a rather complex grant, and somewhat bizarre requirements for the composition of the group applying for it:

The Principal Investigator(s) must be a department chair/head (or equivalent) to establish institutional accountability. Additionally, there must be a RED team that includes (at a minimum) an expert in engineering education or computer science education research, who can ground the research plan in the literature, and a social science expert who can evaluate department dynamics and monitor change processes. The social scientist must have expertise to advise on strategies for developing a culture of change and on strategies for creating meaningful collective ownership of the effort among faculty, students, and staff.

I was first informed of the existence of this program on 2015 Oct 7, by the engineering associate dean for undergraduates.  Apparently the deans of engineering schools had been informed of the program on 2015 Oct 5 by NSF, with letters of intent due on 2015 Nov 10, with each institution limited to 2 proposals.  I responded with cautious enthusiasm within an hour and a half, outlining what I’d like to see improved in the engineering program generally and why I thought that our Hispanic-Serving Institution was a good fit for the goals of the program to “educate inclusive communities of engineering and computer science students prepared to solve 21st-century challenges.”

I was willing to help write the grant, but I did not want to be the PI—not that I could anyway, as I’m a “Program Chair” but not a “Department Chair”—that means that I have to do all the catalog editing, curriculum revision, and responding to the administration about every bone-headed idea they come up with for education, but I have no resources and no carrots or sticks to get any other faculty to help me.

In my message to the faculty expressing interest, I detailed what I saw as the problems to address in the bioengineering program, some of which I felt were shared by other programs.

Another engineering faculty member (in a different department from mine) was in agreement with me, particularly on one point: “Students spend too much time getting book learning, and not enough time applying their knowledge to design problems.”  Our engineering programs have excellent senior capstone courses, but there is not enough design work in the first two years.  (Incidentally, this resonates well with a post that just came out today from a community college on the other side of the country.)

So within 2 hours of the associate dean asking if anyone was interested, the two of us agreed to work on it and see what we could come up with.  We both have heavy teaching loads this quarter, and he was working on several research proposals, so we did not manage to get together to talk for another nine days (Oct 16). We’d both done a fair amount of thinking independently before then, so we had a very productive meeting for an hour or two, finding that we had very similar ideas about the goals and complementary ideas about how to achieve them.

I got a couple of pages of notes out of that meeting: which courses needed to be expanded, which freshman and sophomore courses could feasibly have a greater design component, and how we could create and push courses back into the high schools to raise awareness of engineering among applicants (the other faculty member had already taught and recorded a summer course on robotics for high-school students that could be improved and adapted to be a “course-in-a-box” that could be taught by interested but not expert high-school teachers, and I would like to push my applied electronics course down to advanced high school level, though that would require some massive book rewrites).

The basic theme of our ideas was pretty straightforward (quoting from my notes on the Friday meeting):

The theme of the proposal is expanding hands-on project-based learning particularly in the majors Robotics Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Bioengineering (bioelectronics and assistive technology:motor concentrations).  Project-based learning has a good track record for increasing participation by women and under-represented minorities [citation needed].
The key concepts for the course and curriculum design are the following
  • System thinking: breaking into subproblems and well-defined interfaces
  • Trade-offs: most design decisions involve trading off one desirable feature for another
  • Documentation: the design needs to be thoroughly described in order to be maintainable or duplicable.

We concentrated on a part of the engineering program that already had a pretty good design component, trying to build from strength rather than trying to foment a revolution in programs that had very little design until the senior year.  Given the very short timeline (3.5 weeks to get a team together for the letter of intent), we did not think it wise to go for something unachievable, but rather to make a pretty good program exemplary.

Our next step was to see whether we could get a team together by the Nov 10 deadline for the letter of intent, so I started cold-calling (well, e-mailing) social scientists and education researchers on campus, trying to find people who would be suitable and interested. I’m not naturally a networker—I don’t remember people’s names or faces, and I don’t often go to social events where I run into new people, so I was having to rely on what I could find on the UCSC web pages and asking everyone for recommendations of whom to ask. I put in a fair amount of time looking through web pages and sending e-mail to strangers, asking for help.

Two weeks later (Oct 30), I managed to present the ideas of the proposal to a group consisting of one psychologist, three education researchers (one via a Skype connection that kept failing), and an EE teaching professor (who happened to be in the process of trying to improve the core EE course in the direction we were trying to move things).  The presentation must have seemed a bit bizarre to them, as it was the closest class day to Halloween, and I was dressed in a 15th-century houppelande, having just come from teaching my class.

After describing what we were trying to do and some lively discussion where the education researchers tried to figure out what NSF meant by their rather unusual team composition (not like any of the education research grants that they had ever participated in), I left with the EE professor eager to join the grant and the others saying they’d let me know.  By the next week, the psychologist (Nov 2) and the two best-fit education researchers (Nov 6) had agreed to join the team.

I had also had asked the dean’s office about the administrative support that had been promised in the original call for faculty interest, and got a rather minimal response (amounting to no more than the usual budget-writing support that tiniest research grants get—no grant writing support at all).

In the meantime (Nov. 5), another hurdle had arisen: the relevant department chair was not willing to be PI. Since we now had faculty from three different departments leading the grant, we tried convincing the dean to be the PI, but he’s stepping down at the end of the year, and did not feel that he could commit the incoming dean to whatever we were planning (Nov 9).  We made one more last-minute appeal to the department chair to let us file the letter of intent by the end of the day Nov 10, with the department chair still having veto power on submitting the final grant proposal, but were turned down.

So we’re not even getting a shot at the $1–2M lottery.  I suspect that many places that could have put together reasonable proposals will have had similar unsuccessful flurries of activity leading to not even being able to submit a letter of intent—the NSF request for proposals seemed deliberately structured to suppress applicants, leading me to suspect that there was a favored program somewhere that this whole charade had been set up to fund, or perhaps a few institutions with grant-writing machines already cranked up and ready to spew out whatever boilerplate NSF wanted.

The three of us faculty will go ahead and do what we can (without resources) to improve pedagogy in the engineering school, but the whole process has left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I’m feeling that not only did NSF not want proposals from us, but that the engineering administration didn’t want us applying for funding (which seems completely out of character for this university’s administration).

I think it is unlikely that I’ll go through that much effort again, just to be told that we can’t even file a letter of intent.  I’ve always hated grant writing, and I’d sworn off of research-grant writing a couple years ago as a completely unproductive use of my time.  Now it looks like I might swear off writing grant proposals for improving teaching also, as it seems to be even more painful and even less productive.

I would have been better off putting in the time revising another chapter of my book—at least there I can see progress when I can the time to work on it.

2014 December 28

Public univerisities as mass quality

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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

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