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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.

2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?

2016 March 14

History of the CS enrollment roller coaster

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:55
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I just read a report by Eric Roberts, A History of Capacity Challenges in Computer Sciencewhich I was pointed to by a guest post on Mark Guzdial’s blog.  The report discusses the two previous rapid increases in CS enrollment and BS degree production (peaking in 1986 and 2004), comparing them to the current rapid growth.  He makes the argument that the current growth is more like the 1986 peak (triggered by the introduction of the PC) and less like the 2004 peak from the dot-com bubble.

Number of CS bachelor's degrees per year, which trails total enrollment by a couple  of years.  [Copied from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/images/BSDegrees-1975-2014.png]

Number of CS bachelor’s degrees per year, which trails total enrollment by a couple of years. [Copied from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/images/BSDegrees-1975-2014.png%5D

The crash in enrollments after then 1986 peak was a “capacity crash”—that is, it was not triggered by a loss of interest by the students nor by a lack of interest from industry, but by deliberate university policies to make CS unwelcoming to limit the demand.

The rapid growth of enrollment in CS poses a problem that academia is ill-equipped to handle, for two reasons:

  1. The rate of growth is much faster than the rate at which universities respond.  Faculty growth in any department is generally limited by bureaucratic processes to a maximum of about 10% a year and generally only allocated after a 2–5-year delay, but enrollment growth has been 15–20% a year for several years in a row.
  2. The PhDs to fill CS faculty positions are not available.  This is an unfamiliar problem for academic administrators, because most of the rest of academia has a huge buffer of under-employed PhDs (the “postdoc holding tank” in life sciences) that can be tapped to fill any new positions.  But in CS, and in some other engineering fields, the existence of attractive industrial jobs with more resources, better working conditions, and higher pay than academia means that there aren’t many people waiting for an academic position to open—in the earlier spurts of enrollment growth, there were as many as 7 faculty job openings per qualified candidate, and the current market seems to have 4 faculty job openings per qualified candidate.

Eric Roberts makes the case that we can’t know for sure whether the current rapid enrollment growth is like the dot-com bubble, but if we don’t do something to address capacity very quickly, we will trigger a capacity crash like the 1986 one.

I think that one point he missed, which is affecting UCSC strongly, is that the enrollment growth in this round is much broader than in previous ones—many fields of engineering are seeing rapid growth in enrollment, and all the departments in the Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC are seeing capacity problems.  The problem is most acute for Computer Science, but it is not a single-department problem as it was in the two previous peaks. (Note: Eric Roberts presents a slide which shows that engineering as a whole is not in crisis, while CS is, but I think that a lot depends on which engineering fields you look at—there is a glut of petroleum engineers, but shortages of electrical, robotics, and computer engineers.  UCSC is unusual in having mainly the fields in which there is high demand, due to deliberate planning to grow only those programs, rather than having the full complement of traditional engineering programs.)

He shows the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates of jobs in various fields for the next few years:

Note that computing and engineering jobs make up huge fraction of the job market, despite the relatively small proportion of engineering and CS faculty in most universities. Figure copied from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/images/BLSJobGrowth.png

Note that computing and engineering jobs make up huge fraction of the job market, despite the relatively small proportion of engineering and CS faculty in most universities.
Figure copied from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/images/BLSJobGrowth.png

Unfortunately, Eric Roberts’s paper does not offer solutions, merely historical perspective, but even that is valuable, as there are relatively few CS faculty who remember the enrollment problems of the early 1980s—too many faculty left for industry or took early retirement.  He points out another interesting challenge for newer CS faculty learning about the enrollment problems:

Much of the early history lies beyond the Google “event horizon.” In putting together this history, I was interested to discover that several relevant articles I remembered from the early 1980s were invisible online because they predate digital archiving for the journals in which they appear. Looking for evidence about faculty shortages in the 1980s becomes much harder when none of the references from, for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education, show up in Google searches.

I highly recommend reading the full report by Eric Roberts, as I’ve only touched on a couple of the highlights here.

2016 January 1

Student-to-university-employee ratio

Although many universities and summary websites collect student-to-faculty ratios (with “faculty” variously defined), it is hard to find student-to-employee ratios. Total student enrollment is fairly easy to find, and total number of employees not too hard to find for public universities, so one can compute ratios, as I have done for a small number of schools.  I’ve not been particularly careful about definitions (like whether headcount or full-time equivalent numbers were used for either student enrollment or employment, nor how student employees are counted), so these numbers should be taken as only roughly indicative and not suitable for direct comparison.

Note: I’ve seen lots of summaries of the growth of administration (variously defined) relative to faculty, but not much about total number of employees.

In 2015, University of California had about 195,000 employees [http://universityofcalifornia.edu/news/ucs-top-10-stories-2015] and about 238,000 students [http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/sites/default/files/uc_at_a_glance_011615.pdf], for a ratio of only 1.2 students per employee.  Note: postdocs are counted as staff, which is correct for the ways postdocs are used at UC, but if one pretended that they were students the ratio could go as high as 1.8 students per employee (actual numbers of postdocs are hard to come by, but the “other academic (postdocs, etc.)” is given as 42,700).

Similarly, University of Michigan had 43,651 students [http://www.ro.umich.edu/report/15enrollmentsummary.pdf] and 45,397 employees [http://orsp.umich.edu/develop-proposal/frequently-required-proposal-data], for 0.96 students per employee.

In contrast,  in Fall 2014, California State University (a non-research university) had about 47,417 employees [http://www.calstate.edu/hr/employee-profile/2014/staffing/employees_occupation/em_occupation_headcount.shtml] and 460,200 students [http://www.calstate.edu/AS/stat_reports/2014-2015/f14_01.htm] for  ratio of 9.7 students per employee. Michigan State University (a research university without a med school) had about 3.3 students per University employee [Student to University Employee Ratio | Michigan State University].

The California Community Colleges had about 1,555,500 students in Spring 2015 [http://datamart.cccco.edu/Students/Student_Term_Annual_Count.aspx] and 28016.5 full-time equivalents in Fall 2014 [http://employeedata.cccco.edu/asa_code_14.pdf] for 55.5 students per employee.

I suspect that the biggest differences in student-to-employee ratios come from the research/teaching distinction (there are a lot of employees involved in running a research operation), and the biggest differences among research universities come from how large a part of the university budget is dedicated to medical schools, as they have huge numbers of employees and tiny numbers of students.  (UCSF has 22,500 employees and  4,560 students+residents [https://www.ucsf.edu/about/facts-figures] for 0.2 students/employee.)

I’m not an economist nor social scientist, so digging up the necessary numbers and doing the appropriate statistical tests to validate this guess is too much bother for me, but I would be interested in reading someone else’s carefully done summary of university employment patterns, particularly for public universities.  Anyone know a good source?

 

 

 

2015 November 11

Not applying for that grant after all

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:56
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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.

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