Columbia Tosses Out Star Faculty Researchers for Failing to Pay 80% of Their Own Way

Reader Timotheus sent this note:

Here is the fallout at Columbia resulting the Obama hatchet taken to NIH research funding. These two eminent professors with decades of serious work have been dumped unceremoniously by Columbia because they could no longer bring in the grant millions for the university business to extract rent from. This is Ivy-league neoliberalism at its worst thanks to the spineless Democrats/Obama White House allowing government science funding to get pummeled while Bush’s tax cuts are preserved.

Inside Higher Education, in Columbia criticized for not renewing long-term professors for failure to pay for salaries with grants, describes the scandal in more detail. I’m not certain how common this is at other schools, but Columbia has faculty members that are listed as full professors but are not tenured. I know of one personally at one of its graduate schools and he had a seven year appointment which could in theory have been renewed but he wasn’t particularly keen about currying favor there and landed a tenured post at another graduate school. The article is not explicit on this matter but I infer the professors in question had a deal along those lines.

But here is the ugly part: They were expected to raise 80% of their salaries in grant funding. In other words, you’d need to get that grant or other grant explicitly to cover your salary along with fully covering all the other project costs. Better informed readers please pipe up in comments. And as we will see, while grants are not allowed to show a profit, some are more generous as to how much university overhead can be loaded into project costs. In other words, if a professor has a $2.2 million grant and he can get that single grant to cover 80% of his $100,000 salary, Columbia is not giving him any credit for the contribution to overhead for the work of any others that are part of his study (and who are increasing the contribution to Columbia’s overhead). So if I understand the arrangement correctly, this is flat out greedy as well as short-sighted (not that the two don’t usually go hand in hand).

Key sections of the Inside Higher Education story:

Faculty and graduate students at Columbia University are protesting the university’s decision not to renew contracts of two noted, non-tenure-track professors of sociomedical sciences for missing their funding obligations. Supporters of Carole Vance and Kim Hopper also say the two medical anthropologists are part of a larger group of non-tenure-track public health faculty who are losing their appointments as Columbia enforces a funding policy that’s unrealistic and detrimental to students.

“The department of Sociomedical Sciences, the [Joseph L. Mailman] School of Public Health, and Columbia University would be diminished by dishonoring of Dr. Vance and her contributions,” reads a petition signed by dozens of professors from the U.S. and abroad, as well as graduate students who have worked with Vance. Another petition has attracted similar attention. Vance is a leading scholar of gender and female sexuality who has been at Columbia for some 30 years.

She received a letter earlier this academic year notifying her that she would not be renewed for 2014-15, for failing to bring in 80 percent of her salary in grants. Hopper, well-known for his work on homelessness, and several other longtime, non-tenure-track faculty members have received similar notices, with little to no warning, they say…

In addition to the petitions, graduate students voiced concerns about the layoffs at an assembly last month. They said the layoffs seemed particularly distasteful in light of a Columbia’s recent announcement that it had completed a $6.1 billion capital campaign, the biggest successful drive in Ivy League history. (Of course, that campaign was for the entire university, and Columbia’s biggest donors didn’t focus on public health.) Graduate students also said Mailman was overly reliant on federal grant money and asked administrators to reconsider how the school is funded.

These two professors are only the tip of the iceberg. Five nontenured faculty members have been given their exit papers already, in the form of a being offered “Zero Salary” notice. Is Columbia not subject to minimum wage laws, or is that a legal department bad joke? Others got warning letters that they’d be out next year if they didn’t shape up.

And worse, Columbia increased the termination risk by pushing these faculty members to focus on the more lucrative National Institutes of Health grants, which made it impossible for them to diversify their funding sources and made them vulnerable. From the article:

Asked about the 80 percent policy for Mailman faculty, a university spokesman said via email: “More than many disciplines, public health relies a great deal on grant funding. But there is no standard school-wide expectation, since different faculty have different areas of expertise and many contribute to the school’s mission in varying ways. Furthermore, different areas of study have different capacities to attract support, including federal, state, and local government grants, private foundation grants, and individual donors”

But comments from a third longtime, non-tenure-track professor of sociomedical sciences who is losing her appointment at the end of the year, and who did not want to be identified by name, challenged aspects of that response.

The professor said Columbia “prefers” National Institutes of Health grants, due to their high, pre-negotiated overhead rates of 63 percent. (Note: An earlier version of this sentence contained a factual error about calculating indirect costs of doing research.) And because the conditions of such grants dictate that a professor must spend 80 percent of his or her working hours on related research, there’s little time to chase down grants from a variety of sources.

Another significant challenge is fitting in quality teaching and mentorship into the remaining 20 percent of one’s time, she said. Like other professors with similar terms of employment, she teaches two courses a year and mentors students.

Nevertheless, the professor said she managed to raise about 80 percent of her salary in grants for many years. But within the last year, she dipped below that, in part because federal grants are now harder to obtain due to budget cuts. Almost immediately, she received a letter of non-reappointment. She said it came as a shock. Although her last contract includes the 80 percent policy as a goal, it was never presented to her as a requirement.

So in other words, not only did Columbia put the professors in a Catch 22 position, it didn’t even communicate honestly about what the ground rules were.

If you are a Columbia alum, I hope you’ll write and call the school and tell them you’ll never give them a dime based on their lack of commitment to educating students and keeping a highly qualified faculty. And I hope you’ll circulate this piece to others in the Columbia community and press them to follow suit.


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  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Columbia is currently building a multi-billion dollar extension of its campus in Harlem, so it’s following its second-tier downtown brother, NYU, as a real estate development firm with a higher education subsidiary.

    This report also shows that it’s devolving into a venture capital firm, as well.

    1. OIFVet

      All big universities are real estate development corporations. I got the University of Chicago as a neighbor, and it is truly a lousy neighbor to have. Just google Urban Renewal.

      1. alex morfesis

        actually, in chicago, rich daley jr allowed the urban renewal lands to time out (40 years) and then changed the original federal intent of funding (he got a special waiver, I was part of a special hud regional planning group at the time, as it played out in the office of the lawyer handling the Gautreaux money), it ruined the neighborhoods and then changed the storyline.

        In Manhattan, columbia funded for years the “columbia tenants union” ostensibly a nader type PIRG that would work with tenants to have “rent strikes” on properties surrounding the campus, and then the owner would be offered the opportunity to “donate” the property. If the owner didn’t, they would work on having a 7a administrator appointed by a judge. The administrator would have no oversight and would run up phony repair bills on the property, taking federal hud money and making it disappear, while at the same time not bothering to try to collect the rents. The tenants would be happy for a while, until one day they go a notice. Seems New Yorks rent control and rent stabilization rules don’t protect tenants against universities. Columbia gets to wipe its #&*@ with the rent restrictions. So once the deed is done, the tenants get the boot, and the university gets to charge market plus rates for student housing…not a bad little option for the white marble palace on amsterdam avenue

  2. MacCruiskeen

    While I haven’t heard of many cases like that, it’s certainly no surprise. Everyone I know in academia has most of their salaries covered by external sources. And it’s not new, the screws just get tightened a little more every year.

    1. washunate

      This is one of the reasons it surprises me that more academics haven’t spoken out about the assault on wages and worker rights over the years. By the time the process is reaching higher ed, most everybody else has already been gutted. A professor making six figures is now in the top 10% of all wage earners in the country.

      1. James Levy

        From what I saw in 19 years in academia, the men and a few women at the top of the professorial pecking order have spent all of their time intimidating their juniors and playing defense, trying to preserve what they have over any other consideration. They’ve let tenure-track lines die, healthcare and retirement conditions get tiered, all in a desperate attempt to maintain their “dignity” and the lifestyle of the people who taught them in the 50s and 60s. And since everything in academia from tenure to grants to sabbaticals to money for conferences and travel and office space is a gift of someone up the food chain, the vast majority of people who want to get along go along.

        1. Nathanael

          You haven’t seen the really old guys, who got their jobs before the 1960s and were taught back in the 40s, many of whom have opposed all of this crap — their problem is that they’ve been outnumbered for a very long time. This shows that the rot set in sometime in the 1950s, FWIW.

          But washunate is right: the fact that the system is chewing up the top 10% is a sign that the cannibalization process has gone very very far.

          It’s also a sign that we’ll see revolution within our lifetimes. The American Revolution and the French Revolution happened due to the support of the top 10%, who were tired of getting screwed over by the top 0.1%. Unlike the lower 90%, the top 10% have time, education, money, and connections to use, so when the majority of them decide to unite with the lower 90% to overthrow the government, it actually gets overthrown.

          I continue to be amazed by the derangement of the 0.1%, who could prevent this outcome pretty cheaply, but are instead mostly hell-bent on crushing everyone even slightly less rich than them.

    2. evodevo

      Nothing new here – I watched the neoliberal, pay-your-own-way mindset take hold at my state university bio dept way back in the early Raygun years. The tenured “old guard” vs. the “free market” newbies actually led to fist fights at the mailbox area in the departmental offices, with the newbies taking over the dept and waging what we used to call “space wars” on the older, more academically oriented faculty members. If you didn’t pull in outside grants RIGHT NOW to pay your way, you lost your research space,or were relegated to the oldest building/smallest labs on campus. The stress levels increased dramatically and interfaculty relations deteriorated to the point of no return within a couple of years. The AAUP actually brought in an outside survey team to figure out what the trouble was (us worker bees even got to testify) By the early ’90’s most of the lectures were being taught by part-time adjuncts (contract workers) and there were fewer and fewer tenured faculty. It became the corporate sociopathic dog-eat-dog situation we see today, where you have to be working on some “sexy” “relevant” research topic, or you’re out. Welcome to the machine.

  3. David

    Speaking of the NIH, its budget was reduced by 7% with that money
    going into Obamacare so getting grants from it got a lot harder.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      Hate to tell you, Vichy Lefties, but Obomba = Bush. That’s about a simple as you can make it.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          If you are familiar with the Vichy government in France, it should be obvious

  4. Mike

    Once again this helps underscore why donating to a university is among the worst places to give money. At last report Columbia has an endowment totaling over $7.5 billion, yet they clearly don’t value faculty and the cost to students way out pace inflation.

    1. big ed

      It has always seemed to me that anyone smart enough to get into and out of one of these colleges ought to know it makes no sense to give money to them. If given a chance to live life over again I would not have wasted four years in New Hampshire.

      1. washunate

        I feel like offering a contrarian opinion here. As an alumnus of your particular school, there are a variety of reasons to stay in touch, and donating money is one of the easiest ways. The point is not that you are making society better; the point is that you are participating in an institution from which you personally benefit. Money scales at every level, from a first job to naming a building.

        That’s where I think a lot of people are confused about higher education. It’s not about investing in the public commons. It is personal consumption. The federal government shouldn’t subsidize private beer production or private religious organizations, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste for people who like beer or church to spend some of their money on beer or church.

        1. Linden

          Drinking beer didn’t get me the job I have today. I needed a college degree and post-college degree to be qualified.

          1. ambrit

            Dear Linden;
            Does “qualified” equal learning what you have to know technically to perform your job, or is there an element of “paper chase” in it?

        2. bmeisen

          Can’t tell if washunate is joking – it would be hard to describe the corruption in US higher ed more succinctly. “It’s about personal consumption”. And then the parallel to beer consumption!

          1. washunate

            But that’s the point. When people donate money to schools, they’re getting something for it. To say that people are being irrational to do this is to ignore what higher education really is.

            Giving money to schools makes no less sense than giving money to any other organization. The question is whether that organization provides something of value to the purchaser.

  5. Dan B

    Specific to schools of public health, all of them are dependent upon “soft money”, which means grants (most of which are from government sources). The % of faculty funding from grants varies from school to school, but it is the norm at these schools to find 50-80% of faculty salaries coming from “soft money.” An old graduate school pal has risen to a VP at a major university and when we discussed soft money funding she told me that 100% of her school of public health faculty salaries is soft. Another colleague told his administrative head that he did not want to seek renewal of the grant he had -where he was recognized as an expert and probably would have been refunded. Instead, he wanted to address ecological issues affecting public health, such as energy, climate, etc. He was told his salary would be cut by the 60% his grant covered and he would be given lousy teaching assignments if he did not reapply for the “sure thing” grant. (this was done because he had tenure and could not be outright dismissed.) He left for a job in another country. Another colleague told me, -parenthetically, I’m no longer at a school of public health- “now no one is hired unless they can bring a grant with them -essentially you have to bring your salary with you.” From 2000-1010 the number of schools of public health rose from 28 to about 40. They are all competing for a shrinking pot of research funding. My colleagues and I saw this coming 8 years ago -but that’s another story. If one would have read public health literature a few years ago this expansion -which I saw as a bubble because of what peak oil would do to the economy- was celebrated as a golden era.

    1. dan B

      a footnote: three years ago I spoke to graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. A small portion of my talk, which focused on how reaching the limits to growth would devastate health systems, noted that the current system of soft money funding for faculty was unsustainable. These students thought my entire presentation was over-the-top; only one of them had heard of Thomas Kuhn, on paradigm shifts brought on by crisis; and only one other of them agreed with my analysis. The next day the head of the student association wrote me a long email asserting how incredibly wrong was my assessment of the future of public health. I’m not writing just to say I told you so, but to illustrate that this dismissal of researchers is an illustration of forced economic contraction. The fact that the university is still raising money and does not care about education is the neoliberal “protect the core, cannibalize the periphery” strategy in action.

      1. Lambert Strether

        “protect the core, cannibalize the periphery”

        And at least in the US, the “core” seems to have shrunk to the part of the country in sight of the Acela, plus SF, LA, Seattle and (I suppose) Chicago.

        1. sufferin succotash

          That core is much too large. I’d put it at downtown DC, the inside of the Acela (who wants to look at that dreary Northeastern corridor industrial wasteland? Ewww!), and midtown Manhattan.
          The Axis of Weasels.

          1. ambrit

            If I may. I’d be a bit more cynical and define the “core” as the source of all power in our Neo-Liberal Paradise: Money.

          2. Nathanael

            Look at the state of the subway system and streets in midtown Manhattan, and you’ll realize that the core is much smaller than that.

            The “core” that they’re protecting is the 0.1%, the rentier elite, the CEO class, whatever you want to call it. It’s a *very* small aristocracy. Historically, very small aristocracies who refuse to provide for the 99% get whacked.

    2. JTFaraday

      That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. I wonder if that is true of Public Policy Schools (more generally) as well. I noticed “social entreprenership” cropping up in public policy schools at least 10 years ago. If public policy schools are grant funded to the extent you’ve indicated Public Health is, then that would make sense.:

      It seems like all our public policy is universally enabling of neoliberal corporatism, while the public(s) said policy and organizations are said to serve become more and more of an after effect justifying the model. ie., the real purpose seems to be to reinvent the wheel of public services delivery on a basis more friendly to the private charity and non-profit sector.

      In other words, a form of privatization. The non-profit sector is certainly chock full of well connected self dealing “flexians.” And if the government ever starts spending on grants again, in order to serve the “public purpose”– ka-ching!!

      Absolutely everything is a self serving scam. Bullsh*tters rule.

      1. JTFaraday

        For those who missed the “flexian” discussion:

        “A new professional class of movers and shakers—people who serve overlapping roles in government, business, and media with smiling finesse—is controlling the flow of power and money in America.”

        It seems to me that when Wedell was defining the flexian class, she missed higher education, (inclusive of some of its faculty). Although, I don’t see how she could have, considering she works at one.

    1. Mark

      That was my first thought, I presently have a child attending a liberal arts school, as an undergrad the cost is exorbitant. the thing is he never sees a professor, all they get is the hourly paid adjuncts (not much above minimum wage) who have no office and no office hours, if the senior faculty are all out chasing grant money to cover salary where does that cheque I send every month go?

      1. McMike

        Well, one reasonable thesis is that somewhere up the chain there is a Wall Street bank with its blood funnel open wide.

        1. James Levy

          The big drains have been the increase in administration and administration salaries, the star system among the faculty and the fact that since the 1970s top faculty haven’t settled in at one place but play the field, and the “county clubification” of university campuses. When I went to visit my friend at Yale back when we were Freshman in 1983 she lived in Vanderbilt Hall, which was a huge drafty stone pile with bare floors and walls and she and her roomy slept in bunk beds. No self-respecting university today would tolerate conditions like that, and upper-middle and upper class parents wouldn’t abide it. Now every university has to have state-of-the-art health, recreation, living, dining, and computer facilities, and their upkeep is monstrously expensive. And they need an army to service them. This is where a significant amount of your tuition money is going.

          1. McMike

            I am sure that is all true. It is true of everything we do: more expensive, more complicated, more bigger more better etc.

            However, I also recall that during Summer’s tenure at Harvard the Foundation pissed away like a bazillion dollars on swaps or jackalope farms or something.

            I firmly believe it is safe to assume that there is no pot of money ON EARTH without some parasitic bank attached to it and sucking it dry. Social Security the sole exception (although benefits are now taxed) and it drives them batsh*t to be locked out.

            1. participant-observer-observed

              Just compare the thriving, glorious Harvard Square of 20 years ago of independent shop-keepers and culture to the glorified boring and bland strip-mall of today shared between the banks and name-brand franchise stores.

              In 1993 a student could rent an affordable room in walking distance of the Kennedy School, and now would be lucky to find something 40 minutes away in Arlington, unless you are a plutocrat’s kid from a foreign country who lives on campus for the “harvard square” life experience!

          2. TimR

            Yes, even in Podunk land-grant state schools here in the South, when you visit their campuses, they all have brand-new state of the art “fitness centers” that are incredibly lavish.

          3. Paul Boisvert

            James Levy has it right, as many studies have shown. Which is of course utterly unsurprising, as higher education inevitably reproduces the (late capitalist) tendencies of the society it inhabits (and in turn helps reproduce.) Inequity and stratification of wealth via a class system describe the capitalist U.S. political economy, and hence describe academia too. Adjuncts and average, debt-enslaved students facing a job-scarce future, are the peons; the non-tenured or non-entrepreneurial or non-unionized full-time faculty are the (shrinking) middle class precariat; and the lucky few at the top (including superstar faculty, most administrators, and those students who are already wealthy or will graduate into the economic top 10%–and hence not be crushed by debt) are the rich who enjoy the luxuries of the gilded campuses and remuneration levels.

            As a unionized, tenured community college professor, I work hard for what I consider good, fair pay–I make $88K in my 36th year of full-time college teaching, all at the community college or the low end of the 4-year college level. I’m right at the median of my college’s pay scale, which is based on credentials and seniority–the top salary is around $135K, but few can achieve that, or spend much time at that level, as it occurs if at all only near the end of their long careers.

            But I certainly unfairly benefit (by random luck) from our own academic class system (though with a 50-hour a week teaching and committee work load, including prep and grading–but with no research requirements), at the expense of adjuncts, though not students. The latter pay much less tuition here than at 4-year schools, and hence have no luxuries. But we are supported by district property taxes (as well as state taxes, though those are steadily diminishing.)

            Our adjuncts are also unionized (different bargaining unit from me), but make far less proportionally than I do for the same amount of work, and of course without benefits in most cases (though the ACA recently forced the college to create some “super-adjuncts” who do get health care, though not the proportional pay they should). But that just goes to show that isolated unionization (most adjuncts and even full-timers aren’t unionized nationwide) has only marginal, relative effects on wage inequity in the face of overarching institutional/societal/structural inequality. Our adjuncts are the best paid community college adjuncts in our state, but are still nowhere near equitable levels based on proportional teaching load, compared to full-timers like me.

            Could all higher education be reasonably priced, publicly supported, non-luxurious, and with rational and equitable student costs and faculty and administrative pay (based on time and effort for teaching and research)? Of course–just as all society could be organized that way, if we chose to eliminate capitalism, the concomitant cause of both societal and academic inequity and stratification. But, crucially, not until that choice has been made… :)

      2. timotheus

        Another factor is the huge cuts in state support to their university systems. This has been going on for years and most directly affects the public schools (obviously), but it also makes it easier for the pricey privates to jack up costs even further as the low-cost alternatives are wiped out.

    2. Ulysses

      This is indeed insane, although it should be pointed out that tenure-track faculty in many disciplines, like philosophy, classics, or comparative literature aren’t expected to cover their salaries with grants. They are, however, under a lot of pressure to constantly publish work that is well-regarded in the field.
      The exploitation of adjuncts is atrocious, although a few schools like Cornell still have well-paid, full-time faculty doing most of the teaching.

    3. Nathanael

      Much of the tuition money goes to construct large, impressive-looking, unnecessary buildings. Pyramids, I call them.

  6. OMF

    And so, through the patronage of funding, Neo-liberalism has accomplish what communism and capitalism could not: The gelding of academia and academic freedom in the Western university system. We can look forward to an ideologically purer future.

    1. Dirk77

      Yes. It’s getting to the point where destruction is the only way to make it in the USA these days. If you replace “collectivism” with “neoliberalism” everywhere in Atlas Shugged, it becomes a pretty prophetic work, don’t you think?

  7. McMike

    Hence, the only things that get studied are what a small group of corporate and government funders want to get studied.

    And as corollary, anyone publishing findings that go against the desires of corporate and government funders will find themselves on the street by the next cycle.

    1. 1 Kings

      This dovetails nicely with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy(no surprise), and this shill Jason Bordoff(ex Nat Sec Council-energy & climate). On Monday on the ‘On Point’ show this ‘professor’ was continually giving the “we have to export nat gas to everywhere ’cause everyone else is doing it” line. He was one slippery dude, never once even hinting that we should/or even could keep that gas here.(Assume he learned his sophist skills at a major university via the public dime).

      1. Dan B

        The university world is still a complex place. A consultant named Steve Kopits recently spoke to the energy folks at Columbia and essentially told them the shale gas and tight oil plays are way overhyped. And he told them the USA will never be energy independent; in fact, the big oil companies are in deepening financial trouble. See this analysis of his presentation by Gail-the-actuary:

        1. McMike

          Indeed true.

          Alas, comment boards, not so complex.

          This Kopit fellow though, safe to assume there are industry spooks right now looking for ways to undermine him.

          1. jonboinAR

            He comments regularly at EconBrowser, James Hamilton’s and Menzie Chin’s site, when they discuss energy, if anyone is interested.

            1. 1 Kings

              All the gas they have extracted has been stored for future reference. It might be ‘overplayed’, or they might be looking to Frack that fairly large landmass known as ASIA. And the Ukraine is a good start.
              Now, where is my RISK board?…

  8. Larry

    The practice of science faculty funding their salaries through research grants is not new at all. It is particularly prominent at medical schools, where most if not all researchers are paid out of their grants The bargain is usually they have no obligation to teach courses nor perform university service. That is a technical one though, as most will teach and serve to obtain their promotion up the academic ranks. Faculty at traditional schools often have different deals. They can earn their keep by teaching undergraduates and serving on the numerous administrative committees on campus. Though that arrangement has changed a bit over time and varies from university to university. My own Ph.D. adviser is at Rhode Island Hospital (so he’s faculty with Brown Medical School) and has been funded successfully for 25 years. He’s run into difficulty renewing his grant these days and his last two years go like this. RIH funds his salary fully for one year while he tries to get a grant. After that year he goes to 25% salary funded by RIH. In year three, he is terminated. So the situation at Columbia is not surprising. What constantly surprises me is that so many graduate students seem completely unaware of how academia operates. Administrators worth is tied to the amount of research funding their school of X brings in. Thus they view people only being valuable if they are bringing in dollars.

  9. Crazy Horse

    Just sending a message to anyone aspiring to a college degree. Forget it and do something socially useful like growing marijuana.

    Education in an Orwellian state is simply a means of social control that has morphed into another bankster profit center.

  10. Eastside

    A couple points to consider:
    1. These professors probably don’t teach any class at all, so for their positions they should be bringing in 200% or more of their salary in grants. In the ‘hard’ sciences, the number is much higher.
    2. I don’t have the reference handy, but the NIH has historically funded on reputation over new ideas.
    3. Those of us in the commercial space have to generate over 200% of our salary, or we’re gone immediately.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please reread the story, they do teach and are very well liked by students.

      Like other professors with similar terms of employment, she teaches two courses a year and mentors students.

      And did you miss Columbia just raised $6.1 billion? And charges tuition?

      I see you hate education. It’s not supposed to be about revenue generation. You have really lost the plot.

      1. Adam S.

        I’m more and more of the opinion that colleges are not in the “business of education.” They’re just in the “business of money.”

        There was a story on Illinois public radio about UIC faculty striking in order to increase wages and tenure positions of adjunct and other faculty. It described the striking faculty’s demands that UIC not only pursue those fields that are lucrative for the university.

        At many schools, Rhoades said, professors are resisting “administrative desires to narrow the range of fields in which education is provided, to concentrate resources on a few areas that [management] thinks are going to pay off — either in terms of bringing in research moneys [or] cutting off areas that are not seen to be so valuable in the marketplace for the student.”

        Then, a UIC administrator uttered possibly the dumbest thing about education I’ve ever heard.

        “Universities can’t be everything to everybody,” Poliakoff said. “If they try to do that — especially if you have faculty collective-bargaining agreements attempting to protect programs even when they’re not financially viable — then the school is really headed for financial disaster.”

        “It is the business of an institution to ensure that it is cost-effective,” Poliakoff said.

        I was driving at the time, and nearly came unglued. I screamed to myself in my car, “Education is not a business!” Yes, education has been about being cost-effective, but largely that was because there weren’t large budgets in the first place. And that the state was the one providing the majority of the budget. If schools were seen to be building NFL-style stadiums, the state would go ballistic.
        I’ve seen this attitude repeated in more and more places, and not just in higher education. Something seems seriously whacked with the US education system.

        1. James Levy

          It’s what happens when you fill the boards with non-educators from the for-profit sector–they have no clue what not-for-profit means! Nobody anywhere would argue that the Board of Exxon should be dominated by English and History Professors, but they think that Universities should be overseen by Exxon and Goldman Sachs executives. It’s utterly stupid but completely accepted and unassailable.

    2. pebird

      If all of us had to generate over 100% of our income, who would have sufficient income to buy what was being sold? Perhaps if 99% generated over 100%, then only 1% could generate less but spend more, sucking up that excess of 100% income generated.

      But those 99% would have to work forever … wait I think you stumbled onto something here.

  11. Roquentin

    Universities are becoming more of a racket by the day. Not only is tuition going through the roof, less and less of the money is actually going to professors. The number of classes taught by adjuncts is obscene. My sister is finishing up a PhD in biochemistry and this story (even though she doesn’t study anywhere near NYC) aligns very closely with the accounts she gave of the funding for the cancer research she’s involved in.

    It mostly boils down to this: The universities know very well that they are the gatekeepers for most of the higher paying professions in the US. The whole forward motion of the past few decades has been to bleed as much money out of students (several years worth of future earnings if they are lucky enough to even get a job) and parents as possible. I can only hope that in the not so distant future college degrees will no longer be taken as seriously, or that we could find some way to circumvent this entire process.

    1. Klassy

      Cancer fundraising for academic medical centers is a racket. It’s all about producing research that can be licensed.

  12. QuarterBack

    When Columbia and other research organizations write their press releases bragging about their contributions to society and the body of knowledge, they don’t seem to mention their portion is only paying 20%, and the PIs themselves are bringing in the rest on their own – OR they are out on the street.

  13. Lambert Strether

    With regard to Reader Timotheus’s note: The Democrats are not “spineless.” They are affirmatively seeking outcomes exactly like this.

    Do not accept narratives of Democratic weakness!

    1. McMike

      Bingo. With the full power and resources of the US government behind them, I am willing to assume they are getting exactly what they want.

      1. JohnH

        Yeah, because the Democratic party is the one that had the idea to starve the beast and cut NIH funding. Right.

        1. McmIke

          Why does it matter who’s idea it was? It’s pretty clear by now that the Dems are accomplices. Their track record speaks for itself.

        2. different clue

          Technically . . . it was the Republicans’ assigned task to voice the idea in public.
          It was the Ds and Obama’s secretly (self?) assigned task to use public R voicing as cover under which to conspire to MAKE the tax cuts and the sequester-reductions the new ceiling. So it matters whose idea it was to achieve the mission. It was the Ds idea. It was Obama’s idea.

          At some point do we decide that the Vichy Democrat Party could not exist without it Vichy Democrat voters? Including all the racial-loyalist voters who voted for Obama making the bushcuts permanent and who voted for Obama’s conspiracy against Social Security and Medicare because he is “black like them”?

          Are there any non-Vichy Democrats? Are the ones who appear non-Vichy really such or are they just pretending in order to keep baiting the trap for better-than-Vichy voters? Should any Ds be voted for ever? Or should the Dparty be comprehensively exterminated from existence and wiped off the face of the earth in hopes that something real might take the vacated space?

    2. different clue

      I was about to say this but reading down I see you and others beat me to it. So I will just register my agreement that Obama and the Ds were not spineless in letting it happen. Obama and the Ds were proactively involved in making it happen on purpose, starting with engineering the “fiscal” “cliff” to begin with in order to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and in order to cut useful social-investment sides of spending. Making the tax cuts permanent was Obama’s particular goal and part of what he expects to be rewarded for after he leaves office. As do many other D officeholders no doubt.

  14. Lambert Strether

    Ah, “the overhead rates.” Ya know, if Columbia gutted its admninistration, it wouldn’t need to raise nearly as much money. Just a thought. Think of this as a form of “right sizing.”

  15. washunate

    Why should the government farm out research at all? If it’s worth investing public resources, it should go to public employees. The entire system, from tax deductible contributions to student loans guarantees to research grants, should be scrapped.

    Of course, taking the administrative vig is the whole point of higher ed today…

    1. JohnH

      What percentage of the Universities in the US are public institutions? Why not simply fund the schools at a sane level like pretty much every other first world country and directly pay salaries and graduate stipends. Of course, that wouldn’t let the upper management at the Universities emulate the masters of the universe, or private industry suck off the benefits of publicly funded research quite so directly.

      1. bob

        “What percentage of the Universities in the US are public institutions?”
        100% None of them pay property tax, even the supposed “private” schools. Those private schools are also very adept at getting the polity on the public grant train, as this post points out.

        “Make your numbers!”

  16. middle seaman

    Tenured professors in the sciences are expected to get funding for “research” and to support their graduate students. Many universities have non tenured profs who are paid directly from research funding these profs acquire. The lack of such funding for these profs is typically a death sentence. It all has to be seen through the perspective of running universities as businesses that currently dominates US academia.

    As a tenured prof close to 70, I decided that pretending that I can be as productive scientifically as I was 30 years ago is a lie and a silly one at that. The dean wasn’t happy about my decision to devote my time to education and froze my salary. He and other science deans are obsessed with getting money. He is probably evaluated on the funding we get for him. It isn’t science; it’s business.

    Columbia probably is obsessed as well.

  17. Kamal

    To say that any research institution ’employs’ faculty is misleading in the current climate. Research faculty are expected to operate like an independent small business: secure capital, pay for using infrastructure and pay fees for associating with the institution. Columbia is not alone. It’s the same story at almost every research institution. I’m at one of them….Yikes!

  18. redleg

    Back in grad school, the Div 1 school where I taught/studied had alternate funding available for research via the athletic department. Give the athletes good enough marks and get research funding through the boosters – and one professor that I was TA for used this funding stream. Not all of the sports did this (one sport that didn’t was a national champ whose athletes were in class doing work, proving that not cheating can work too), but this particular professor never had to apply for grants (while I was there) and was looked down upon by the rest of the department.
    So perhaps Columbia just needs a larger, more corrupt athletic program. (/sarc)

  19. Dr N

    I am a research non-tenure track faculty member. I can tell you that obtaining external (grant) funding is not the most important thing, it is the only thing, to paraphrase some football guy. Scholarship is only important insofar as it helps to get funding. Funding is much more difficult to obtain now partly because of cuts to agencies such as the NIH, but also because of cuts in state appropriations (I work at a state university), which means the shortfall has to come from somewhere. Hence, much more competition for external funding.

    Students often think of professors as being of the same class. But there is a well-established hierarchy with different expectations and remuneration. At the top are the tenured full professors who lead relatively comfortable low-stress lives, especially if they got there long ago when expectations were much lower. At the bottom are the adjuncts (luckily not me) who lead lives of misery and quiet desperation. Some of them have better publication records than the old full professors in their departments, but the doors are closed.

  20. inhibi

    Hilarious how lopsided our society has become. Our kids watch TV and go online 6 hours a day, they see and read how awesome it is to be wealthy: you can have sex with anyone anytime, drive whatever you want, get out of ANY kind of trouble with a paycheck, etc etc all the same BS that money = happiness. And now we have a fully extraction based society.

    This is simply what happens when this type of society starts to dominate the educational complex.

    Oh and I’d like to point out that the football coach at Northwestern makes more than a million dollars a year, which is more than twice the salary of the president of the university. And more than 15x the amount made by the top researches in our material science program, supposedly one of the best in the country.

    I think one of the biggest lies is that ‘we as a species are curious and always looking to make the future a better place’. Its more like we as a species are egotistical fucks that would, without a second thought, leave someone homeless and destitute if we could get a xmas bonus. It doesnt matter that these professors served their school admirably for 30 years. It doesnt matter that Columbia’s endowment could (and should) cover the cost of ever student and teacher. These things simply do not matter anymore.

    We need a reset button, but unfortunately it seems we have to wait until things are so desperate the rich start getting murdered.

  21. impermanence

    When the hub of the wheel is rotten [the economic system], the spokes [institutions] decay, as well.

    Higher education in this country is a massive scam and has been for decades. Degrees should be conferred by an independent organization, not by the schools. This would eliminate a great deal of the problem.

    The university experience is an absurdly expensive exercise in the manufacture of debt-ridden intellectual morons, and little else.

  22. huxley

    Higher education, like everything else in America, has been converted into a racket. The country does not actually have an economy. It’s mostly just a collection of scams.

  23. Dan Kervick

    She received a letter earlier this academic year notifying her that she would not be renewed for 2014-15, for failing to bring in 80 percent of her salary in grants. Hopper, well-known for his work on homelessness, and several other longtime, non-tenure-track faculty members have received similar notices, with little to no warning, they say…

    What’s the problem? Can’t she just get a grant from the National Foundation of Homeless People with Extra Money to Throw Around?

  24. Chambon Fisher

    A few thoughts about this. As others have noted, almost all R1 institutions have some units in which faculty support their lines through funded research. This is most common in health sciences of various sorts. It is almost unheard of in humanities and arts, as well as most social sciences, fields in which there is far less federal funding available. One reader asked where tuition goes if not to faculty salaries. The answer is that it does go to faculty salaries. The key is that in fields like public health, there would not be faculty, and these schools would not exist, if not for federal grants. In other words, many schools and colleges would be much smaller if their only funding were from tuition. The real issue here is that states have been disinvesting in higher education on a massive scale, so that the past partnership between states and tuition-paying parents of students has been abandoned.
    But I did want to note that Columbia had another option it has apparently chosen not to exercise. At the public research institution in which I serve as an administrator, we have converted the lines of some formerly Research Professors to tuition-backed Professors, where those individuals have been making important institutional contributions. Columbia can do this if it wishes.

  25. curlydan

    My wife works at the University of Kansas Medical School, and she’s told me that professors are basically expected to fund 100% of their salary through grants. Basically, no grants, then no job. So I wasn’t surprised at all to see the NIH researcher cutbacks in direct proportion to the grant funding. It should be a very high correlation based on these two examples.

    These days it’s not only publish or perish, but it’s self fund or perish. It seems like a depressing field. Not only does someone have to deal with producing original research, but the researcher must get grants, manage large teams, and always have the fear of the grant expiring (and then feeling guilty for letting the people on their “team” go). Yuck. It’s as though only the administrators sit in the ivory tower now. The researchers/faculty are the foremen, and those who work for the foremen are the plow hands. “Everybody go serfing, serfing U.S.A”

    1. James Levy

      The sad irony there is that there is no guarantee that the best thinkers and researchers are the best grant proposal writers, or even can formulate what they are imagining doing in a manner that will go down smoothly with the granting sources. This was once the job of a James Watson or an Arno Penzias: to see who’s doing interesting work or thinking along original lines and giving them a job and letting them get on with it. The guy who developed fractal geometry was hired by an scientific administrator at the Department of Energy largely on the basis of a really intriguing paper he wrote with no thought that what he was up to would produce anything useful in the short term. And speaking of Watson, can anyone imagine Watson and Crick getting funded today? Or Szilard? Or Heisenberg?

      1. big ed

        Szilard had the right idea. He lived in rented rooms and kept two suitcases packed and standing next to the door. What do you suppose he would do today?

        1. Elise

          I didn’t know that, but that is essentially how I live myself. A SRO hostel, shared bathroom with 30 other people on the floor and in room cooking. I have a Ph.D. and do independent research and collaborate loosely with a couple of professors at the local university. We’ve got two papers on arxiv and a couple more in preparation. Unfortunately, I’m no Szilard. It’s not a life I would recommend, however.

  26. Ronald Pires

    The financialization of the imprimatur of our elite universities will end up destroying what it has taken hundreds of years to create. Damn the capitalists. They must have it all.

  27. allcoppedout

    University accounts are very difficult to make sense of. There was an academic novel on this years back called ‘Overhead’. Even as a mere footsoldier doing unimportant work like teaching 18 year old parrots, you only need to teach 9 full-time students for 9 hours a week to beat break even on a £50K payroll cost. In the last full economic costing scheme I was forced to use (the acronym is FEC, so imagine me in a room of characters from Father Ted) in 2005 we were supposed to charge £95K (bursary £20K) a year for a research student. I would have been slightly less costly as a senior lecturer (£85K costed on salary of £35K), Apparently I went round saying FEC a lot. The scheme was barking and really only a spreadsheet at decent schoolgirl level.

    The real scandal is universities can’t do anything on reasonable levels of mark-up. The reason is these “centres of excellence” have almost totally failed to move with the times and simply adapted to government whim over decades. Outcomes are as inexplicable as being able to teach MA HRM to a dozen Libyans who can’t speak English (or any other language we staff could muster between us) but did pay £15K each for the year

    I’m afraid a few professors getting the push for not raising 80% of salary is pretty feeble stuff and in many cases it is inexcusable they were allowed to ponce about as researchers in the first place. There have been so many crony appointments it is to work out who the real researchers are. In my experience nearly all the real work was being done by people on 2 year rolling contracts who appeared in my office to ask me to state they were full-time permanent on mortgage forms. Back in the day they may have been on these rolling contracts for 40 years. Even research application forms would show faculty like me as the lead researcher and not the people actually doing the work.

    Frankly, most university central admin is so incompetent the people involved have no idea who does the real work or brings the money in. Many “professors” are merely part of the central cadre milking teaching fees. A full teaching burden is 18 hours a week over 30 weeks of the year. Some academics work very hard, but many do not. There are plenty who cheat, pretending copied work is research. The same work is double and triple counted against various funding sources.. I found it more or less impossible to find colleagues wanting to do much more than rest on sinecure. A professor who isn’t rain-making should drop back to teaching, but even this, in today’s scheme, makes them more expensive than the new PhD with no experience and still naive enough to be opening teaching versions of textbooks thinking these other than part of a neo-liberal publishing scam. I’m not going to cry over the odd ‘poor prof’. The system need disestablishing and reinventing with proper career salaries in a fairly tight band. The profs with few exceptions are as bad as other overpaid leaders.

  28. EmilianoZ

    Academics are the real producers here. Yet they let themselves get fleeced by administrators. Academics should band together and create a no-frills university with minimal administration offering affordable education to the public.

    1. James Levy

      No snark, it’s a good idea, but absolutely impossible. You’d need classrooms, offices, access to a good library, and money to pay the profs and minimal staff and insure them and their families. This is assuming that you could get students of any quality to go to an all-commuter school with no dorms, no teams, and no other facilities. My guess is for 100 good profs and 20 staff plus rented facilities, your talking $25 million start-up cost. And where are any of us going to find $25 million except from the same sources that have so thoroughly screwed up the system already? Your only shot is an Iona or a Lindesfarne after the crack-up.

      1. allcoppedout

        There are, more of less, ‘all computer’ universities like the Open University and Empire State College. I can now teach without seeing students in classes or in person. This is good for my health as students now carry an international germ pool.

        I agree James, but we need deeper thinking to get radical practice, not to say a whole wad of honesty academe now lacks. I don’t want to see all computer education and if we ‘invented’ something like the OU or ESC lots of problems remain. Any radical plan would have to build in resistance against trying to do much the same cheaper.

        Much as it gets more and more difficult to justify rents from Windows and Office, the rent from the intellectual capital of universities is now in the way of mass, largely free availability in electronic libraries. We’d need much deeper discussion to get at what we really want from higher education, and what we don’t want like the debt mountain.

      2. Nathanael

        Oh, it’s totally possible, because not *all* of the billionaires are jerk-asses. Just ask George Soros, who’s funded this sort of thing across the whole of eastern Europe.

  29. PopeRatzo

    Nothing new. I figured out early on that grants = job security at my institution. Whoring for grant money turned out to be something I was good at, but it took an inordinate amount of my time. I spent more than one vacation writing proposals.

    I have to admit, I’m glad I got out of higher education in 2007. I’d seen it go from an honorable profession to nothing but corporate excess. I remember the week I decided to retire. They were encouraging faculty to attend a day-long “team building workshop” and I realized that there really wasn’t much left for me. Team building, indeed.

  30. allcoppedout

    I don’t actually favour Emiliano’s no frills version as what we should seek to do. I do think it is important to get out a costing spreadsheet to show what we could deliver existing HE for and where existing costs bleed this dry. I don’t need a bank with hight street presence and actually prefer to do 99% on line.

    My guess, after years teaching and researching, is that we could have all our post-16 to 25s in work and getting shares of the communal-dormitory-sporting and educational trip within existing budgets. Money in the hands of youth would be better than left with the 1%.

    But we also need tor review the role of education in jobs and a lot more, including the role of jobs and finance in wealth distribution. Our model that education is ‘neutral’ is as daft as considering capital such.

  31. Praedor

    Not unique to ivy league schools. Because of shortsided idiotic science cuts, solid scientists at Purdue who were expecting grant renewals or awards from NIH and other sources instead are folding up their labs, laying off techs and postdocs, even euthanizing entire collections of priceless research animals because they can no longer afford caring for them. Best for the top US scientists to move to China and give the finger to neoliberal hellhole USA.

    1. participant-observer-observed

      Indeed, best hope to pay the student loans after dissertation will likely be outside the USA. There should be another student loan forgiveness option opened, for such graduating PhDs to make payments into a fund for undergrad financial aid!

      But, if someone could find the $3-5 million to endow an tenured academic chair for themselves, which institution would be a better ROI: public, private, ivy, or seven sister?

  32. Former Adjunct

    It sounds like they were treated like adjuncts. Welcome to the club, terminated Ivy League Professors!

    American colleges and universities have institutionalized exploitation, slavery, and low-wage labor. Just look at the way these institutions treat adjuncts, student teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, and now full-time quasi-professors (you’re not really a “real” professor unless you have tenure).

    Refer to the following link.

  33. David

    Looks like this is the way economics professors go stupid.
    The Right Wing is always willing to “buy” the answers
    they want and their favored academics certainly deliver
    to the determent of the society.
    When we the people allow the private sector to control information
    all humanity suffers along with the future.

  34. pat b

    It’s pretty straightforward, you can be tenured or you can be soft dollar funded.

    say you get $100K as a salary, in 5 years they expect you to bring in 400K in
    grants as a floor or one 250K grant and one 150K grant.

    now say you get a 100K Grant a big University like Columbia will take 60% as overhead
    towards computers, libraries, admin, etc…

    so that 40K grant now you work on it for the summer, buy some computers, take a conference trip, now it’s 30K. your salary is $50/Hour, add in benefits, that’s 30%

    so it’s 65/hour so you have some 400 hours to work on the grant/year

    that’s 2.5 months over the summer.

    the good part say you get a 5 million dollar 5 year grant, now you can boost your salary
    and get a bunch of grad students and run a little institute.

    but if you bring in say 3 million, you usually stick up and demand tenure.

  35. Nathanael

    Columbia should be going on the AAUP’s censure list any minute now. The union says these professors have tenure regardless of what the university thinks.

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