Maryland’s Budgetary Tricks Degrade Higher Education

–Richard E. Vatz

(Below is a letter I had published in today’s Baltimore Sun with some additional points added and a few emendations.)

In a recent article in The Baltimore Sun [“Universities are slowly tiptoeing into taming costs with efficiency,” December 19, 2010] the argument is made that universities, by increasing class size, reducing professors and lectures, adding teaching by teaching assistants and increasing computer grading, can maintain educational standards while saving money in these tough economic times.

This thesis is so oversimplified as to be simply false, or, at best, true in a few limited cases.

I cannot speak authoritatively to whether this higher education solution is ever possible in chemistry courses and some other natural sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences it is always educationally destructive.

Degrading the quality of professors and instructor-class interaction (such as in online courses) will always sacrifice higher education learning and sacrifice it significantly. Moreover, using “pass rate” as evidence of course success is an invalid measure of course integrity for many reasons, including the fact that such rates can easily be manipulated. Subtler indices of classroom success, such as how much material students “absorb,” are impossible to measure and inadequate as well.

There is nothing comparable to a reasonably small class with full-time professors’ leading substantive, crackling give-and-take in some variation of the Socratic method.

Many faculty do not realize that there is a traditional tension, currently exacerbated by the bad economy, between university administrators and faculty regarding the goals of saving money versus maintaining educational standards.

Education-destructive classroom shortcuts are compounded by elements of course tampering as well. Towson University, to save an alleged $80,000, approximately .25% (one-quarter of one percent) of the university budget, has yielded control of student teaching evaluations to administrators, making a previously generally valid system now woefully invalid. It will herein be conducted online, with a longer instrument, inducing respondent fatigue, and the questionnaire includes irrelevant and invalid questions. There are also disincentives for not filling out the questionaire, which means that the respondent pool includes disaffected or otherwise non-engaged students (and who knows who else — there is little security in the system either), all of whom will be evaluating courses outside of the classroom environment.

Columnist Jay Hancock says that “Professors and university administrators like to think their product is more important than a car.” That misses the point: creating and fine-tuning a car is not analogous to creating and fine-tuning a reasoning mind.

If you remove and/or handcuff the principals in education, the outcomes will be compromised, even if you use legerdemain to make the outcomes seem unaffected.


Professor Vatz is the longest-serving member of Towson University’s Senate

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