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Under Attack March 23, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in DOE, university, University of Washington.

I’ve been trying not to make a comment on the budget situation in the USA. Or on the current discussion about teacher pay and benefits. Or about the state of science funding in this budget atmosphere. Or the drive to eliminate the Department of Education. Or the revival of the teach the controversy push. Others have made the case much more eloquently than I could have. This is more of a personal take on some of this: I’ve never felt under attack quite the way I do right now.

There seems to be a concerted attack on science funding in the US at the federal level. The feds fund most research that is too long term for a company to fund – which is becoming more and more as the stock market forces companies to think more and more short term. A healthy research program in a country needs to contain a balance for the sake of the long-term health of the economy. And a healthy economy is the only way to make jobs. The large cuts that are reputed to befall the Office of Science, which funds most of the national labs, will force lab closures. Facilities where we do science – gone! 1000’s of people layed off. Heck, if you are trying to cut out 60 billion you can take a guess as to how many jobs that is worth. At $100,000 per person per year – so really nice jobs! – that is another .6 million added to the unemployment roles. Right. That’s going to turn out well!

Second is this constant discussion about teacher pay. I’ve seen comments on newspaper articles with statements like “we are just paying them to babysit our kids.” Seriously?? Maybe we should just eliminate the schools and have the kids all at home. No formalized education system. Now, that has never been done before! And so obviously it must be better! Oh… wait. I guess it has been done before. I think it was called the middle ages… Arrgh! Yes, our K-12 system needs some real work. But beating the crap out of teachers in newspapers is not the way to get good people into the classroom! And the idea that teachers are overpaid paid? Seriously? [I’m not trying to channel Grey’s Anatomy here] I find that hard to believe. Perhaps they are getting better retirement plans for what they are paid – but I suspect that is because when the unions couldn’t negotiate a pay raise – so they went for an increase in the pension. I wonder if you paid teachers a more fair wage, but kept their pension plans the same size, if the rate would be more in line with normal?

On a more local note, one of our state legislators was heard to say “Higher education is a luxury we no longer can afford.” I don’t even know where to start with that. Washington is like every other state, it has some rich people and some poor people. UW is a state school – the state provides subsidies for the in-state students to make it more affordable. A robust state and federal scholarship program back fill for people really in need. The idea is if you are good and you want to get a higher level education, the federal government, the state government, and the university will do its best to make sure that finances do not get in your way. This has been a bedrock of all higher education in the USA for many years now. Do we go back to a class based system? What are people thinking, really? I get they are trying to cut the budget, but think for a few minutes about the implications of what you are saying!

And to those who say education is radically more expensive than it has been in the past – at the UW that is definitely true that the cost an instate student pays has gone up a lot over the last 10-15 years. Definitely more than inflation(by a bit). But if you look at the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant. Wait. For. It… That is right! State support has dropped dramatically. So the university has to cut expenses and find other sources of income – i.e. raise tuition. Blaming the university for this is misplaced. Last year in the state of Washington after the state legislature cut the UW funding by 26% the university raised tuition by 14% over two years. Legislatures were known to stand up at town halls, etc., and express their displeasure at UW for doing that in hard economic times. I’m happy with them being displeased – I was displeased – but at least be honest and say that the state cut 26% of the university’s funding. It isn’t like that was a capricious raise!

Next is another is the push to increase the teaching load. I currently teach one class a quarter – so three a year (I get paid for only the 9 months that I’m teaching – I have to find my own funding for the rest of the year). That one class is about 3 hours in the class room in front of students. Pretty cushy, eh!? I taught graduate particle physics this year. This is my third year so I’d like to think that I know it by now (not) – but all told during the week it would take about 20 hours of my time. The first time I taught it – when I had to teach myself some field theory – it was taking more like 50 hours a week. When I teach the easier undergraduate courses I tend to have 100’s of students – so it also works out to be about 20 hours a week. Some weeks a lot less, some a lot more. So, it would seem I have at least enough time to take on another course! Except there is one big problem here – my job isn’t just to teach undergraduates. My job is to also teach graduate students, mentor post-docs, and do research. UW is the #1 public institution in the USA when it comes to bringing in $$ from grants. You add another class, then you will effectively change the nature of the University of Washington – make it a teaching institution rather than a research institution. The ramifications of something like that are huge – rankings, desirability, research & undergrads, etc. Do people to say things like this understand how all this is connected?

This last election brought in a lot of new people (at least at the federal level). I remember being elected to a few positions having to do with HEP. I had all sorts of ideas – but I discovered that when I arrived that all the decisions that had been made were all made for a reason! They weren’t arbitrary. You can’t go wrecking around like a bull in a china shop – you have to carefully consider what you are doing and the ramifications. I get the feeling many of these new folks just don’t care. Really just don’t care. Even worse, they don’t know history – which means they are doomed to repeat it. Many of the ideas on the table around America have been tried before – if not here, then other places. I would love them to take a careful look. There is plenty of room for new things to achieve some of the same goals – why not try them rather than closing your eyes and just letting the knife fall where it may? In physics we call this a “prescale” – we just randomly through out data because we have too much. Here we are randomly throwing out programs because we have too little. In both cases this is an implicit admission of defeat: we aren’t smart enough to make a strategic cut.

Ok. Enough. Thank goodness there is a counter balance in most cases to these drives to change things so radically. It won’t be pleasant, but the system is too large and what comes out of it too valuable to actually destroy it in a few short years, despite best efforts of some. Now that I’ve vented, back to working on my classes and my research!

Update: Fixed “under paid” –> “over paid”. Of all the typo’s! Smile



1. Gordon Wayne Watts - March 23, 2011

“”at the UW that is definitely true that the cost an instate student pays has gone up a lot over the last 10-15 years. Definitely more than inflation(by a bit).””

Yes, and that is typical of all universities (altho there MAY be a few exceptions? But I know of none)

I’ve linked my op-ed on that subject in the clickable on my name… you (or anyone) have permission to outright copy it & report — just give attributes to the writer (me) via name & URL.

“”But if you look at the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant.””

I don’t understand, Dr. Watts: How can their contribution remain the same when the tuition has gone up… I mean:

If both tuition increases (and is has: MUCH more than inflation, just as you say, so it’s a “true” increase) and the government contribution (grants, loans, etc) has increased also (and it has), then how can you say that the university contribution has remained the same:

No, under the 1st Law of thermodynamics, in this closed system TOTAL finances remain the same, so if the outside contributions (tuition, grants, loans) increase, then the inside ones (university contributions via manipulation of wages & expenditures) must decrease.

What gives?

PS: Here are links to both mirrors:




A couple of Caveats:

I’m a ‘different’ Gordon Watts then the blog owner here –and my website is non-profit: I’m not trying to sell anything.

PS: I’m a scientist too… sort of. (If you cont my Bachelor’s double major with honours.)

2nd PS: Could you print out & review my article linked above & below — and get back with me on it? You are also very smart, and your input is appreciated.

Specifically, what seek are answers: Why have education standards dropped even as tuition (and government assistance: grants, loans subsidies) increased??



2. GxP Perspectives - March 24, 2011

Living in Tacoma, near UW Tacoma, I get very upset at statements like “Higher education is a luxury we no longer can afford.” The reality is it’s a necessity we can’t afford to ignore.

A bit of a vent but that’s OK. We need to vent more at this BS. Good luck with your research.


3. Nick - March 24, 2011

“And the idea that teachers are under paid? Seriously? […] I find that hard to believe.”

Do you mean over-paid here? Is that a typo? Perhaps America is just different – over in the UK, teachers don’t get paid very much at all, and asserting that they are over paid would be ridiculous.

4. Jeremy - March 24, 2011

Hey Gordon.

I would like to point out that Master’s students tuition went up by way more than 7% for two years in a row. Our tuition went up by a little more than 50%, then 7%, then 7% again, so I’m paying 172% of when I started. They’re able to do this because apparently getting rid of a program and replacing it with an identical program does not count as raising tuition according to state law (also doing this as a surprise without telling people tuition will increase and “you will only see administrative changes” is totally okay too). I am also now ineligible for tuition waivers, TAing, etc., and they aren’t particularly friendly about dealing with financial aid, etc, for me, either.

It’s also not hard to be unhappy with the university when you walk through campus and see dozens of construction projects that are undoubtedly quite expensive going on at once, and see that they have been going on for at least ten years.

I realize they don’t come from the “same” money and have been planned for a while, and are needed, etc., but it doesn’t speak well to planning and flexibility to see this going on. I mean, I know many large corporations have been in the financial news for putting off building new headquarters, satellite buildings, renovations, etc, so it just doesn’t scream financial sensibility to me to see this going on here.

Although the ideas of having teachers teach more and increasing class sizes are terrible. As an undergrad I had plenty of large classes, and I can tell you they are universally bad, I don’t think I had a single large class where I learned anything valuable from lectures. And having classes that are too rushed to be prepared is terrible, too.

5. Gordon Watts - March 24, 2011

Nick – yikes! Thanks, what a type-o. I’ve fixed the original post, thanks. I also got an email from a friend on this. Embarassing!

6. Gordon Watts - March 24, 2011

Jeremy – you are totally correct about your tuition. I was concentrating on undergrad tutition here. The economics of masters and grad student tuitions are not something I completely understand, so I don’t know exactly what forces drive them other than “help, $$ is shrinking!”

You are not the only person that gets pissed at the building. I’m a member of the faculty senate this year and I’ve heard more than one faculty member stand up and complain to the provost and the president. The strongest complaints are connected with $$ for our sports stadium. While the finances may be seperate, boy does it set up a bad story – and it has been mentioned down in Olympic. Very high prez salary has been mentioned too… Ironic as the amount of $$ is tiny compared to the problem – so it makes no difference really – but none the less it is very hard to talk around the perception down in Olympia where things are more preception driven than data driven sometimes.

Here is an irony. Two good friends of mine are architects. They tell me right now, if you have the cash, is exactly the right time to build – it is by far the cheapest because everyone is free and looking for those types of jobs! 🙂

The class size issue is something I don’t know how to deal with. Take the undergrad survey courses. For us, intro physics. We have to deal with about 2000 students per quarter. There is *no way* you could afford to hire enough profs to teach those in clsses of 20 or 30 students. Ok, so now, how does student learning track with having a class of 20 people, 50 people, 100 people, 300 people?? Once you get to a certian size does it plateau or does it fall off? There is research out there that shows that knowledge acquisition is very loosely correlated with perceived quality of a prof (i.e. student evaluations).

7. Gordon Wayne Watts - March 27, 2011

I agree with regard to the ‘class size’ comments you make here:

In my state (Florida), there was a ‘class size amendment’ for high schools, and I opposed it because my experience in college (FSU) was good -even in spite of super large classes (in lecture halls).

You are obviously more conservative that I had estimated -since you agree with me here (liberals wanted small class sizes in my state -in spite of the fact it will probably be too expensive).

Also, while I agree the government should play a role in helping fund larger projects like you describe, the conservative in me reminds myself that the free market is what made Wal-Mart and McDonald’s good -and the *interference* in the free market is what has driven up tuition –since the colleges know they can charge more when the student can go super deep in debt via a Gov’t subsidized student loan.

One question, if you don’t mind, though: Since you acknowledge in your post the tuition has increased definitely more than inflation, how can it be that the amount of $$ the university pays to educate a single student that has remained almost constant?

I ask this because in a closed system, the total finances remain the same, and if input is greater (skyrocketing tuition), then, unless they are paying exorbitant salaries to professors, staff, & administrators, the amount paid per student would necessarily have to increase.

So, what gives here? –Thx.

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