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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Are implications enough? UWM's Innovation Park

Research Universities, UWM, County Grounds

Those of us who had traditional liberal educations carry a curse. Whenever we see certain lofty vague phrases, red flags pop, bells ring. We begin to look harder to see what kind of clothes the Emperor is wearing.

Take the gravely intoned, "He set UWM on an entrepreneurial path rife with implications for the economic health of the region. . .(and) in a strong position to improve the quality of life in the Milwaukee region, boost economic growth, and create new jobs, in the finest traditions of The Wisconsin Idea."

Those eulogy-like words are the Journal Sentinel editorial board's for the departing chancellor Carlos Santiago and the idea-and-building-generating momentum he began for UWM.

Nearly everything written about the UWM expansion, which includes the engineering campus on the County Grounds, is inflamed with such unquestioning glowing statements.

Don't get me wrong: the engineering graduate school, the School of Freshwater Sciences, and especially the School of Public Health are worthy and exciting causes. And research is a Good Thing.

But those who raise the question "how will we pay for this?" deserve a more careful hearing.

At a time when we're facing a crisis in the basic education of our population and a cry for better educated workers, the cost of higher education is soaring. And the hard truth is that research seldom actually improves the quality of undergraduate education, no matter how many claim it does. It could (and that's another story), but it doesn't in the present system.

According to Prince, Felder, and Brent in the Journal of Engineering  Education, research productivity confers no benefit to teaching. What's more, quoting What Matters for College, "attending a college whose faculty is heavily research-oriented increases student dissatisfaction and impacts negatively on most measures of cognitive and affective development. Attending a college that is strongly oriented toward student development shows the opposite pattern of effects."

You'd think research might be a revenue center, not a cost center. Bringing in the big bucks should cover the cost of the research generators and then some. And it does--some of it.

But emeritus physics professor Charles Schwartz looked at the accounting practices of the University of California (which are like the practices of other universities) and found that most faculty research is actually subsidized by student tuition. Schwartz said that in 2007, with sharp declines in state educational support of higher education, tuition in California actually covered 100% of the cost of educating a student. Since that time, tuition costs have continued to climb, and students are subsidizing other cost centers.

The bottom line in hard economic times still has to be educating the students. That can't suffer for future plans that are rife with vague implications and possibilities.

If students still studied history, a topic that's vanishing from many campuses, they might learn how the spiral of rising higher educational cost began. In the 50s, increased federal funding aimed to drive the vision of catching up to the Russians. "Sputnik assault" funding started colleges on a "building-and-hiring binge" that was further fueled by Great Society spending in the 60s and 70s. The cost of education has been rising much faster than inflation ever since then.

Both Madison and Milwaukee have been undergoing similar building binges. I don't know about hiring binges, but most of the fancy research professors don't teach much. They get the big bucks, while students are increasingly taught by adjunct faculty who may not even make a living wage.

The expectation that research universities will drive an economic renaissance needs a little research. And students and parents might want a closer look at where their money is going and what they are actually getting for it.

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