Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rick Perry and Texas Research Universities

This story is interesting on two dimensions. It deals with incentives in academia, and with someone who tells us he wants to be President of the United States. The first I heard of this was from one of my friends, who moved from a well-regarded public university in Texas to a similarly well-regarded public university in another state, and this issue seemed to play a role in the move.

This article in the Washington Post lays out the details of the story, which involves Texas Governor Rick Perry, his friends/contributors in the business community, the Board of Regents of the Texas State University System, and the University system itself. You can also find information in this Huffington post piece. Basically, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), working in part through Jeff Sandefer, a Texan with personal and financial connections to Governor Perry, proposed Seven Solutions to what they perceive to be problems with the Texas State University System. It appears that the Governor shares the opinions of the TPPF and Sandefer on this matter.

In Texas (as in other states) the Governor can exercise a lot of power, if he or she chooses to, over how the state's public universities are run. In particular, Governor Perry appoints the Board of Regents. The media articles I link to above tell us that Perry is indeed excercising the power granted him. He has bought into the ideas of the TPPF, he is a man of action, and he wants the ideas implemented.

Indeed, officials at Texas A&M took the first step in implementing the first of the Seven Solutions, which essentially involves creating a bottom line for each professor in the university. Teaching a lot of students is a good thing. That brings in tuition dollars and enters as a plus. Earning a big salary is a bad thing. That enters as a negative. A grant is a good thing. That brings money into the university and enters as a plus. Not surprisingly, as you can see in the resulting spreadsheet, most of the Texas A&M Professors end up in the red.

A university that followed the Seven Solutions would look like the following. There would be a small number of adjunct faculty with low salaries, teaching a large number of students, and with salaries determined by scores on student evaluations. Research might be done at this university but, if so, it would be funded externally, and the research operation would be completely separated from the teaching operation. Indeed there is no reason for research and teaching to be conducted in the same physical location. One could imagine a Texas "university" system with separate teaching institutions and research institutions, though if the research institutions were totally dependent on external funding, it's hard to see why the state of Texas needs to be involved with those.

This is a particularly bad model for higher education. First, teaching and research are in fact complementary activities, both for the individual professors who work in research universities, and for the institutions themselves. It is important to have teachers in the classroom who are at the cutting edge of research in their respective fields, as those are the people with the best knowledge of what students should be learning, and who can best guide the curriculum in general. Further, one role of a university is to fund research directly - for example, the university may have better information about the individual researcher than does an outside funding agency.

Second, while students are perceptive and can pick up on some forms of misbehavior by professors - poor preparation, tardiness, lack of respect for students - in other ways students can be fooled. A student may find a course easy because they have an aptitude for the work. A course may also be easy because the professor is not challenging the students, and therefore not teaching them much. The student may find it hard to tell the difference, so the professor is rewarded for being unambitious. The student is none the wiser until he or she tries to apply what was learned in class, which may be years later. Thus, student evaluations, while they convey some information, need to be treated with a grain of salt.

A key problem with the Seven Solutions, and the top-down approach coming from the Texas Board of Regents, is micromanagement. In a university system, management starts at the department level. A good department chair understands who is good at teaching, who is good at research, allocates people accordingly to the correct tasks, and provides them incentives in terms of salary, teaching load, and other benefits. Deans set broad goals for departments. Provosts set broad goals for Deans. Presidents of universities set even broader goals and raise money, and in a state university system the Board of Regents oversees the whole thing. It is a very bad idea to have the Board of Regents - the people at the top of the system with little information about what is happening at the lowest level - trying to manage the faculty directly.

Now, the troubling part of this, with regard to Governor Perry, is that this episode reveals something of an impulsive nature. Some of your friends tell you something, and you act on it, apparently without much regard for the views of experts in the field. In this case, the friends seem to be zealots, whose ideas run counter to accepted practice among university administrators. Governor Perry is also on record as supporting the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, and appears to appoint people to the State Board of Education who are favorable to that. We might read into this a disregard for science in general.

In any case, we need to know more about Rick Perry. If we look at the current Republican Presidential field, and follow the money, this person is the likely nominee. Obama is currently looking weak, so Perry stands a good chance of being President of the United States. Right now, that looks pretty scary.


  1. What strikes me as odd about the educational philosophy that Perry has bought into is that it seems to fly in the face of one of the core tenets of his own party: that government shouldn't mess in people's business. The "Seven Solutions" seem to mandate more government involvement, not less. Does anyone know what the rest of the Republican party in Texas has to say about this?

  2. What's even stranger is that it's not even a good way to run a large business. If you were the CEO of IBM, you would not treat an accountant working in Omaha as a profit center.

  3. "teaching and research are in fact complementary activities"

    I attended large research universities as an undergraduate and graduate student, and I have taught at two of them. Until a few months ago I would have agreed with your statement without question, but accompanying my daughter on visits to small liberal arts colleges has caused some rethinking. Is the quality of instruction worse at, say, Carleton than Washington University? Are acceptance rates into graduate schools different? If not, why not experiment with separating state supported research and teaching institutions?

    If teaching and research institutions were separated, couldn't undergraduates do internships at research centers and couldn't researchers sometimes take a year off to teach and vice versa?

    I'm not convinced that the current setup is optimal, and experimentation at the state level might not be a bad thing.

    State support for research is a different question, and hard to answer. I wonder, if 10% fewer academic papers were published, saving $X billion per year, would aggregate welfare be higher or lower? What about increasing the number of papers at a cost of $X billion?

  4. "Is the quality of instruction worse at, say, Carleton than Washington University?"

    I obviously know much more about the latter than the former, but I'm going to say yes, at the risk of offending you. I haven't looked at the numbers, but I'm guessing tuition is similar, as is the student/faculty ratio. But there is more human capital per head on the faculty at Wash U (again risk of offense here I know), and part of that has to do with research. Tell your daughter to come here. Also, I know that a state university is large and intimidating, but I also think an independent-minded student with the right information can get a first-rate education at a strong public university in the US, relative to a liberal-arts-college alternative.

  5. No offense taken at all, I am truly open minded about all of this. I agree that WU has more human capital measured by research output. Is there evidence on teaching quality? This is the sort of question that Perry in Texas and Gartner in Iowa are asking.

  6. My wife (a mathematician) and I have always advocated to our children in favor of large research universities relative to liberal arts colleges. We found it informative when our son (now a PhD student in math at Princeton) told us that his undergraduate math advisor at Stanford said their PhD program has an all-else-equal bias against students from liberal arts schools, since they're generally not sufficiently challenged. Casual empiricism from the greater Philadelphia area, where there are several top-tier liberal arts schools, is consistent with this; advanced students from those schools often end up taking classes at Penn.

    BTW, no offense Steve, but our son didn't apply to Wash U; the SAT profile wasn't sufficiently attractive to justify the expense relative to a close to free ride at UNC-CH as the lower bound.

  7. Phil, while potential math or physics grad students are probably at a disadvantage attending liberal arts colleges, I suspect for many subjects this doesn't hold true. Here's my anecdotal evidence for what it's worth.
    As a history grad from a small liberal arts college, many of my fellow history majors went on to top phd programs (i tried looking for some statistics, but found none.) Whereas my friend, who was a math/econ double major near the top of his class went to University of Michigan. University of Michigan is, of course, a great school, but if he were a history student with a similar profile coming from my college, I have no doubt he would have been accepted by schools with higher rankings.

  8. Anon @6:12pm: I also don't know the stats, by I would agree with your hunch that, all else equal, students in less 'technical' majors are at less of a relative disadvantage by going to liberal arts schools. If your math/econ double major friend had a similar performance at UNC-CH, he probably would have ended up at a top-5 econ PhD program (i.e., above Michigan); my set of anecdotal evidence includes such outcomes. One factor behind my claim is that the 'letter readers' probably would have been far more familiar with the 'letter writers.'

  9. Phil,

    No offense here either. My son could have gone to Wash U for free, but he's going elsewhere.


    I have only a vague idea what people have done to measure teaching quality. I've mentioned the problems with teaching evaluations. Obviously you're going to have trouble making comparisons across schools in that respect. Sometimes business school rankings include survey measures of student satisfaction - hard to believe that's worth much. I have heard talk of value-added measures - e.g. take SAT scores going in and then test the students on graduation. But who is going to decide what goes on that test? You have to have the knowledge to test the knowledge, but what is the knowledge supposed to be? See if you can find agreement on that.

  10. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  11. Being economists, perhaps we could look at exiting wages of students from research institutions vs. liberal arts?

    My hunch is that while liberal arts colleges will not be at the very top, they will rank pretty highly once you leave the top 5.

    This is admittedly crude, since it does not control for student quality. But if we keep our focus on the middle of the pack (not so high that a large proportion of outliers will be there, not so low that students will come from unfavorable family backgrounds) it should be informative, perhaps?


    1. Is economics like formulas or strictly securities market formulas I have no idea what you do in economics or what im getting my self into next quarter.
      Simply what is economics its a class i have to take at least two versions as part of my current business and economics degree which includes accounting im in right now which is easy for me and business law is almost done here pretty hard.What does Keynesian economics say the government should spend money on to create Jobs ?

      phlebotomy schools in TX

  12. Putting it another way: The best liberal arts college may not be better then the best research university. But it may be much better then a middle of the pack one.


  13. RV,

    It's basically a value-added issue. As economists we could also look at our system of higher education and think about how that wide array of educational models serves a heterogeneous group of students. I have said that I think research and teaching are complementary. Some of the popular books out there say just the opposite - i.e. research detracts from good teaching. But maybe everyone should not be doing research, and a liberal arts college that emphasizes teaching over research does a good job of serving a particular segment of the market. A liberal arts college may not do well in engineering and the natural sciences, which require large fixed investments in technology and lab space, but it could be comparatively better in the humanities and in providing one-on-one guidance.

  14. I don't see it as big deal. The good thing about the U.S. is that there are hundreds of colleges/universities. If state universities in Texas go down the toilet students will go elsewhere quickly. Most students put little time into school. They are probably better suited for a cheap and weak Texas A&M as opposed to a good and expensive Wash U. Sending most kids to an expensive school is a waste of money. Even at Wash U I bet that most students spend more time partying than working.

  15. I think it is a big deal. It takes a long time and much effort to build the pieces of a university and to make them fit together. A good institution is much more than the sum of the parts. If you disperse the faculty and the students elsewhere, the United States will in fact be providing less higher education. The flagship Texas universities, University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M, are in fact top-echelon public universities in the United States. You would not characterize Texas A&M as "weak," and I think most aggies would agree with me.

    "Even at Wash U I bet that most students spend more time partying than working."

    Actually, our students are a rather nerdy bunch. 3,000 of them live at the end of my street, and they are pretty quiet.

  16. Texas A&M is ranked 63 nationally. That is not great. The Economist reports that undergraduates now do half the homework that a college student did in the 1970s. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth suggests that they spend less than 2 hours a day on homework. Americans do very poorly in graduate school, at least in Economics and the Sciences. I think reform is needed.

  17. RV: Alan Krueger's 'Penn vs Penn State' paper has an interesting approach to calculating the returns to attending a particular tier of college/university. Some updated work on this can be found at:


  18. Steve: On Wash U undergrads being so quiet and nerdy, perhaps they are. If you look at the 'Not a Paradise' section of the following SJ MERCURY piece, you can see my son's take on how such things stand at Stanford:


  19. Phil,

    Thanks for the references.

    Last anonymous,

    1. You have to be careful with rankings of course, though #63 may be accurate. Not great, but there are many public institutions that are worse. UT Austin is quite good.

    2. Students will do what we ask them to, and it's certainly not their fault if in fact they are not working very hard. I'm sympathetic to some of what you say. What I see in American economics undergrad programs (and I think this carries over to other departments as well) is a dumbing-down of the curriculum. We could ask a lot more of our undergrads, but some of the incentives we face encourage high enrollments, and we know that we scare students away if we make things too difficult. In our graduate programs, most of the successful students come from other countries. Some of this may be due to the fact that Americans have more lucrative alternatives - law school and business, for example - and academia is a particularly risky business. However, some of it is the poor preparation some students receive in their undergrad programs. Graduate level economics can look like a foreign language to a student coming from a US undergrad program - particularly one of those liberal arts colleges we were discussing above. In my intermediate macro text I try to be serious and to get students up to frontier economics in a rigorous way. But, I know that I would kill my market if I used calculus, so that is relegated to the appendix.

  20. Can I coax you into writing a post on the undergrad-grad divide in economics? Seems an awfully important issue which is almost always misunderstood or dismissed.

  21. I could do that sometime. I get comments from time to time here that have some bearing on this issue. I think we we would be doing our undergraduates a favor by increasing the technical content of our undergraduate courses - basically more math, statistics, and computation. However there are some very passionate people who think that graduate programs have gone too far in that direction, and that the grad programs should look more like the undergrad programs. They seem to think that too much math, for example, increases the barrier to entry and that this is too elitist, or something like that.

  22. Steve,

    It is a shame you do not use more calculus in your book. It would be an awesome text (ok, now it is an excellent one, but it would be even better with more math in it).

    Moreover, have you thought of including a model with tradeables and nontradeables goods into the open economy part? It would further enrich the economic analysis.

  23. The Fed reports an enormous increase in student loan debt in recent years, a far faster rise than in other forms of debt. I don't think that college/universities rationally divide cash across disciplines. This is probably going to have to change. They should cut out some of the liberal arts. Some engineering schools offer graduate classes via video conferencing. Students from any participating school can ask questions to the professor, say at Stanford. MIT offers online classes in computer science courses. Some of us could be in a sector where there will a shake out.

  24. "...it would be even better with more math in it..."

    Yes, I agree. We're not living in a perfect world, though, and have to adapt.

    last anonymous,

    "They should cut out some of the liberal arts."

    This may be optimal. However, in any university the liberal arts faculty is large, and can be powerful. That would be a tough battle.

    Online delivery: It's certainly cost-effective, but in my experience you lose a lot. Students dislike the electronic communication. Human beings seem to thrive on face-to-face contact.

  25. "It is important to have teachers in the classroom who are at the cutting edge of research in their respective fields, as those are the people with the best knowledge of what students should be learning,..."

    The problem with your argument is that far too many of the cutting-edge researchers do NOT want to be bothered with teaching undergraduates (the students who foot most of the universities bills).

    How many undergraduate courses/students did you teach last year and how many are you scheduled to teach this year?

  26. "The problem with your argument is that far too many of the cutting-edge researchers do NOT want to be bothered with teaching undergraduates (the students who foot most of the universities bills)."

    You can't generalize. Some top researchers like to teach undergrads, and some do not. It is true that a researcher gets something out of teaching graduate students that he/she does not typically get from teaching undergraduates, in that it feeds more directly into his/her research program - you use the graduate teaching to learn and stay at the top of your game. But there are ways to do similar things with undergrads if you put your mind to it.

    "How many undergraduate courses/students did you teach last year and how many are you scheduled to teach this year?"

    In a school with a good graduate program, the research-active faculty might have a teaching load of about half undergraduate and half graduate courses, in terms of hours spent in the classroom. Of course there is a lot of variability across people and schools. Depending on the school, a typical PhD class will be small. Core PhD courses can be 20, or get up to 30 or 40 in a very large program, but field PhD courses may have 10 or less. Undergraduate courses go from hundreds in a freshman class (in a large state university) down to 20 or 30 sometimes in upper-year courses. Thus, typically PhD courses don't look very cost-effective given the money they are pulling in (particularly as the PhD students are not paying tuition). However, particularly in large public schools, the PhD students can do a lot of work, as teaching assistants in particular. Graduate assistants can be very effective in the classroom. Thus, that system can work very well to pursue multiple goals. You have a department that is educating both undergraduate and PhD students, and research is getting done. Further, all the students are getting a good education, and at low cost, because the PhD students you are teaching are also teaching the undergraduates (and the PhD students are not getting paid much). The PhD students don't mind because they are being trained to be like us - to teach and do research.

  27. Problem is that large numbers of non-phd granting schools/departments have adopted the 'teach less undergraduates' model of the big state schools, the result being large classes and poor instruction (by temporary instructors and winos picked up off the street if they can spell the fist name of the course they are teaching) all so the full-time faculty can churn out ever-increasing quantities of research, the vast majority of which is mediocre at best.

  28. so "we need to know more about Rick Perry" but a post (without comment) that links to a WSJ article doing just that disappears. honest mistake or...?

  29. second-last anonymous,

    That's a good question. Even at liberal arts colleges where teaching is the priority and research is emphasized less, professors are expected to publish something. Even if this is not pathbreaking stuff, it might still be useful to have these people putting some effort into keeping up. Note as well that professors at liberal arts college are encouraged to do research on teaching methods. They are getting credit for research that can directly make them and other teachers better at teaching.

    Last anonymous,

    I don't know what you are talking about. Be specific. What post? What link? Whose mistake?

  30. the original post disappeared. it contained this link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304760604576428262897285614.html

    but as 'we need to know more about Rick Perry', there's also this: http://www.kbtx.com/home/headlines/5546651.html

    i have no horse in the race - just concerned that we get yet another crony capitalist president.

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