Future college


Debates about the proper mix of classroom and research time for professors are best left to university administrators and faculty unions. But trends that affect the quality and structure of higher education are everyone’s concern.

University of Toledo officials recently projected a $30 million shortfall in next school year’s budget. To fill part of the gap, they plan to reduce the number of adjunct faculty, who cost the university $6 million to $8 million a year.

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If adjunct instructors are let go, some full-time professors would have to teach more classes, although not more than their contract allows. The size of some classes also would increase.

Classes with low enrollment would be eliminated, which could hit some graduate programs hard. Small tutorials could become a thing of the past because, UT officials say, they are not money-makers. The rest of the shortfall would be reduced over time by replacing high-priced, tenured professors who leave or retire with younger, lower-cost lecturers.

Several trends are at work here. One is the movement to get rid of tenure, or at least to reduce the number of tenure-track positions at universities.

Administrators don’t like tenure because it makes professors harder to get rid of. It also limits the ability of administrators to allocate resources where they believe money is most needed. These days, that tends to mean where the return on investment is greatest.

The liberal arts and humanities generally lose that competition. The fruit of their research, while it may explain or improve the human condition, is not as easily monetized as new widgets.

The other trend worth watching is the declining emphasis on brick-and-mortar classrooms. Online courses cost less. Developments in intuitive, interactive, computer-based discussion sessions, grading, and tutoring raise the possibility that professors could teach many more students. At UT, a professor could teach one online course with 160 students to fulfill his or her classroom requirement.

The only thing more cost-effective would be to eliminate the teacher. As more videotaped lectures by the most brilliant, creative, and inspiring professors in every field become available, live classroom sessions by professors could become less necessary.

Pushing these trends are rising costs and falling state aid to higher education, and not just at UT. Bowling Green State University announced last week that it would eliminate 100 full-time teaching positions in the fall. The university’s provost said the change would not impair “the quality of a BGSU education or a student’s ability to graduate on time.”

The presidents of Ohio’s public colleges and universities have made unprecedented efforts to control costs and to reduce wasteful competition for declining state funds. Gov. John Kasich should reward their efforts when he releases his two-year budget proposal next month.

UT President Lloyd Jacobs recently warned that fiscal “2014 will be a difficult year.” He said the university had been transferring capital funds to the operating budget for several years, delaying tough budget decisions.

But that budget year has arrived, and the bottom line at Ohio’s public colleges and universities is increasingly written not in Latin on sheepskins, but in accounting ledgers. Ohioans must decide whether that’s the future they want.