On Universities, Wealth, and Research Funding

Jul 26 2007 Published by under Academia, Self, The Business of Astronomy

A couple of years ago, I went to a meeting for junior faculty at Vanderbilt about the tenure process. The ostensible goal of the meeting was to help us feel more comfortable by letting us better understand the process. The practical upshot for me, at least, was to ratchet up the tenure stress another notch or two, as well as add to the growing sense of despair I had about the whole thing.

Today, Chad points to an article in Inside Higher Ed about the size of university endowments. You know, those universities that have been increasing student tuitions at rates much faster than the rate of inflation. Just last week, Steinn pointed to another Inside Higher Ed article about how Harvard is in a bind trying to figure out how to spend the excess endowment funds that have built up.

As somebody (a well-regarded teaching somebody, mind you, and a somebody who has won prizes for research both internal and external) who is leaving academia because he was told that his tenure chances were less than 1% due to trouble getting government grant support from a capricious and extremely oversubscribed National Science Foundation, I certainly have thoughts about this. However, I can't share them directly, because using that kind of language on this blog might well get me in a load of trouble.

Let me just share this, however.

At this meeting for junior faculty, the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs said in response to a question about grant support, "In evaluating tenure at Vanderbilt, we don't care about grant support. All we care is that you are excellent researchers. However, in the hard sciences, that requires continuous funding." (He went on to clarify that just one grant wasn't good enough for "continuous funding," to make sure that those of us who were unfunded but hoping to squeak in a grant before tenure felt like even bigger pieces of shit.)

The Dean of the College of Arts and Science shortly thereafter said "Every research grant dollar you bring in costs us more than a dollar." He didn't justify in detail that statement, but it means something to the effect that the overhead costs associated with handling research money, plus, perhaps, the overhead costs of the infrastructure for the research itself, add up to more than the overhead that is charged to the grant.

A good cowed little junior faculty member not wanting to make waves and stick out like a sore thumb, I didn't ask the extremely obvious question that should have been asked. "Then why demand we get grants at all? Why not fund the research directly, if that would cost less?"

Of course, the Dean was lying. "Lying" may be too strong a word, but I don't think so. Doubtless he could back up what he said with a creative interpretation of the accounting of the University-- for instance, if the University were doing zero research, it would cost them less to maintain labs than it does right now. To me, this statement is probably taking the (true) statement that "the real cost of educating one student is higher than the tuition paid" and turning into the awfully dissembling statement that "every tuition dollar we bring in costs us more than a dollar."

Similarly, both of the astronomers who interviewed last year and are coming to Vanderbilt this coming year reported to me that an assistant Dean told them that "it's a myth that grant funding is necessary for tenure." As somebody who was told that tenure chances were nil simply because of grant funding, the fact that our administration was directly lying to candidates applying for the job made me rather angry. However, they can back it up by the associate provost's statement above: they don't care about grant funding, they just care about the things that grant funding is, in their view, needed for. Har har har. This is dissembling of the worst sort.

In any event, with regards to my own situation, a quick peek at Wikipedia suggests that Vanderbilt is in the top 25 US Universities with respect to endowment. I haven't checked the sources, so the usual warnings about information from WIkipedia (which, despite what its detractors say, is no less reliable than traditional encyclopedias) apply— but I do know that the approximately $3 billion number for Vanderbilt's endowmnet is about right.

To all of which, I can only say, foo.

At lunch the other day, I was talking with two other astronomers about the trials and travails of applying for both grant money and telescope time. One of the other had been on NSF panels, and I've been on the NOAO (National Optical Astronomical Observatory) panels. We shared multiple frustrating stories about proposals that get high ratings but no money or time; grants that get directly contradictory reviews in subsequent years (or, in my case, in the same year); the stochastic nature of it all resulting from the fact that everything is oversubscribed; and the resultant frustrations.

I'm just happy to be getting out of all of it. Academia is sick in a lot of ways; we know that. Universities and the way they manage their money are sick. The way that astronomy is currently managing its resources is sick. I'm moving on to somewhere that I'm excited to work. As I signed on the dotted line with Linden, I realized that for the first time since I was turned down for a faculty position at both Gettysburg and Pomona after interviewing there two years ago, I actually have a feeling of hope, rather than despair, for my future.

9 responses so far

  • Melissa G says:

    Here's to a bright future! :clink:

  • PhysioProf says:

    "As somebody who was told that tenure chances were nil simply because of grant funding[.]"
    How many publications have come from your lab since you have been at Vanderbilt?

  • chimpanzee says:

    "The difference between a tenured-professor & a terrorist..is that you can negotiate with a terrorist"
    -- inside joke in Academia
    [ told to me by an ex-professor of mine, retired U. of Michigen EE dept head ]
    We were talking about Academia & it problems (not setup to do interdisciplinary research). He told me how his interdisciplinary NSF proposal was turned down because:
    - Dept A said "give it to Dept B"
    - Dept B said "give it to Dept A"
    You see the conundrum. He told me he was going to try again. He is a Harvard alumni, & was pro-active in getting professors unionized. He would be a useful contact (along with Dr. Alan Hale), to instigate some change via collective-action.
    There was a show about Bioinformatics, & 2 Stanford researchers were stunned at their paper (involving computer science) being turned down by the "conventional biology peer review". His quote was "I think I need to lie down"..he was so frustrated/flabbergasted.
    I spoke with the head of the Fraunhofer Inst at a conference, about infrastructure change in Academia to accomadate interdisciplinary-science. He told me bluntly "Forget it, they won't change". I still have a video of his talk, where he has a funny German cartoon illustrating this.
    The Planetary Society has a website:
    http://www.planetary.org
    which has a *direct* outreach program to the Public (incl Donation Model for funding). Second Life should try something like this, to bypass the *indirect* flawed govt-based Funding Model (public taxes).

  • Rob Knop says:

    Yeah, interdisciplinary things are interesting. Universities give them a lot of lip service, and often give them a lot of venture or seed funds, but then they are often without a home and find themselves rejected by all. Part of that is the way University resources are allocated; although I couldn't tell you why, it does tend to make all departments xenophobic about all other departments, thinking that the other departments are getting more than their fair share of the resources.

  • JSinger says:

    ...the (true) statement that "the real cost of educating one student is higher than the tuition paid"...
    At private research universities, I'd say that's only true in the sense that the cost of every professional activity is put under the heading of "educating" undergrads. The activities that the students would themselves recognize as benefiting them cost much less than tuition.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    It is time to face the music - universities today are being managed and considered by granting agencies as business ventures and corporations. The bottom line is the most important statement about a university's success and administrators and boards of trustees consider it before anything else.
    NSF funding is a relatively small potato compared to NIH funding. Thus, an NSF grants won't really make much of a difference when tenure is considered, however, especially in medical school where administrations have now passed new rules according to which a research faculty member must funds at list 50% of his/her salary extramurally, it is the one item that more than any other prevents one from getting his/her tenure.
    In short, I agree that it is sick that science today, its direction, how it's done and what is or is not being investigated, is determined by bureaucrats who know didlley shit about science.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Thus, an NSF grants won't really make much of a difference when tenure is considered,
    If you're in a biomedical field. If you're an astronomer, the NIH is irrelevant. Depending on what kind of astronomer you are, there may be some NASA pots to apply to. About all I had were the space telescopes, and unless one had a very large project, they didn't provide tenurable quantities of money. Other than that, the only game in town was the NSF.
    -Rob

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Rob,
    My point was that due to the relatively small amount of money that an NSF grant provides, university administrators have no problem claiming that grants are not important in the determination of tenure where astronomy is concerned.

  • Rob Knop says:

    university administrators have no problem claiming that grants are not important in the determination of tenure where astronomy is concerned.
    Well, that isn't what they said. They said that in general. At this meeting, I was the only physicist or astronomer. Many of the people present were from bio type fields. But, also, their actions don't match what they said. They said that, but I was told that because of my grant funding record, I was not going to get tenure.
    -Rob