Thoughts on the constituent meetings of 22 September 2015
Jonathan Poritz; opinions his, not (necessarily) the chapter's; contact: jonathan@poritz.net

I am teaching our Math 156, Introduction to Statistics, this semester, as I have many times here and similar courses elsewhere. In trying to keep on top of good teaching practice in my courses, I regularly read scholarship about the teaching and learning of those subjects. There is a common refrain in concerns about statistical teaching effectiveness that students learn powerful techniques but fail to make the connections between what they learn and the statistics they see all around them, from the textbooks in their other classes to the lab reports they write in physical science classes, to poll results they see in the media.

To help the students make this connection, for the last several years of teaching Math 156 I have been making my students write short weekly reports (typically .5-1.5 pages) about some statistic they find on their own — on the web, in a book, etc. — analyzing and critiquing the methods used, the clarity and completeness of analysis, technical flaws like reliance on voluntary sample data or even just failing to label graphs completely. (I call these assignments "Applied Statistical Exegeses" — that way, at least they will graduate from college knowing what the word "exegesis" means.) The students get a lot out of this and I am very happy with the effect it has on their understanding of the usefulness of statistical methods.

One thing we all notice in the class very quickly, though, is that often the statistics reported in the media may sound at first glance as if they are very scientific, but when examined they are not even wrong (phrase due to physicist Wolfgang Pauli, I think) in that they just don't even try to do real data collection and analysis. Or they conflate two effects that just don't even pass the smell test by being so disproportionate. Or other plain charlatanry.

 

I would like to do a similar analysis of the slides at the constituent meetings of 22 September 2015.

I don't have the slides in front of me (they have not yet been released publicly, although President Di Mare promises they will be on Budget Central) but I think I remember some features fairly well.

First of all, let's think about the two slides which discussed the net effect on this campus of athletics and of Royall. As I recall, these were very brief slides, which basically said the inflows corresponding to those efforts were: tuition, room, and board for students attracted by athletics or Royall's marketing. The costs to the university were Royall's fee, on one slide, and athletic scholarships and coaches' salaries, on the other.

Let's look at both parts of that computation. First of all, I trust that the amount charged in tuition, room, and board can be fairly simply extracted from our billing records. (...Although, come to think of it, given the fact that the last major financial crisis on this campus was rumored to have been in part caused by a fairly significant spreadsheet error, I don't know if this is maybe an optimistic assessment.)

But identifying the correct students, or even counting the number of such students, is actually a non-trivial task. That is because we want to compare these students who came because of athletics or Royall to those who would have come without those attractions. This is not an obvious thing! President Di Mare was asked this question regarding Royall in particular, and she said there might have been "three or four students" of the 107 she attributed to Royall who might have come without Royall. But without any explanation of why that is a reasonable estimate of the alternate scenario, it is just wishful thinking. E.g., my students are reading about many medical studies where there is some improvement in a patient's health after treatment... but there would have been some improvement anyway, in many situations, if you did nothing. In STEM, you justify your statements, you don't just laugh off all questioning of the conclusion you wish were true.

Actually, not just in STEM, in any area where critical thinking is valued.

Things are even worse if we look at the other side of the ledger: costs. If tuition is counted as a positive, then the cost of providing education must be counted as a negative. Salaries of faculty. Salaries of groundskeepers. Electricity in the buildings. Toner in the printers of the departments which give students handouts. Approximately one seven-hundredth of the cost of all first year advisors and staff. A fraction of the salaries of everyone in the Administration building. Etc., etc., etc.

If room and board are to be counted as a positive, then also the cost of operating the dorms and of providing well-cooked meals must be counted as a negative. And all the other concomitant expenses.

Notice that we are not a for-profit institution, so presumably we do not intend to run any of those parts of the university at a gain or loss — meaning that tuition should pretty much balance the cost of providing an education, the room and board should pretty much exactly cover the costs of providing those services, etc.

So if we completely remove those parts from both sides of the computation, I'm seeing that athletics runs basically entirely at a negative, in that it costs us the salaries of the coaches (and many other costs for buildings and grounds and special events) and scholarships to attract the athletes, and brings us basically zero net income (since tuition-(educational costs) = room-(dorm costs) = board-(food prep costs) = 0, approximately).

Royall is even worse.

But wait, you say, the tuition vs. cost of providing instruction is a net positive, in fact without the larger student numbers we were hoping to get this year, each providing a boost of their tuition minus costs per capita, we are $2million in the red. What is that about? Well, one hears in the popular press a lot about tenured professors' salaries. In reality, that is less and less a significant factor: a large part of the education we (and this is happening around the country) offer is provided by adjuncts and lecturers (e.g., we have apparently given up on having any physical sciences on this campus in the future, since we think it is possible to run a modern university where chemistry, engineering, and etc., are supported by only one tenured physicist... it boggles the mind). But face it, the largest unproductive (or at least of debatable productivity, especially by Provost Kreminski's famous spreadsheet which compares student tuition dollars directly brought in by an employee's classes — if they teach any classes! — to the cost of their salary) ongoing expense is middle and upper administration and student services.

So I guess we might be operating at a slight net positive per student on educational costs, but the income from that is used to cover costs in largely non-educational parts of the campus. And without large enrollment numbers, we cannot afford those other costs, which, however, we are largely stuck with due to long-term commitments, which is why athletics and Royall are a net gain for the university — they are what allows this model of running a university to continue. Or so one might argue.

But that explanation and calculation certainly has little to do with the one that was on the slide.

Note also that athletics in particular has a lot of special, additional ancillary costs so the calculation about each additional student bringing in a small amount of "profit" which can be used to cover administrative and student services costs is different — and less advantageous — for those student athletes.

 

Thinking then of athletics and Royall in this way, we are left with the absolutely huge, obvious question which was not even addressed on those slides: what if we had spent that money in other ways? In other words, what was the opportunity cost of this approach?

One department chair spoke passionately at the constituent meeting about the power of scholarship monies to increase enrollment in their department. Suppose we simply spent the money we gave to Royall on scholarships across campus — might that have had an even bigger effect on our enrollment than Royall's 107? Or any of hundreds of other ideas constituents might have offered for how to spend more than half a million dollars a year on increasing enrollment.

Opportunity costs are the single overriding issue which really should be the center of discussions about athletics and Royall, not the slides which make a case for their respective programs which is a best very questionable and at worst rather insulting to a well-educated audience that is thinking critically.

 

Another thing my stat students are learning to notice is proportionality of figures. Something which was, I'm sure, in the forefront of everyone's minds at the constituent sessions: how is it that a year and half ago, we were about $3m in the red and there had to be dozens of people RIFed, teaching loads increased (in a way that violated the procedures of the faculty handbook), crisis meetings left and right, SWAT teams staged off campus in case of unruly demonstrations, etc.? Today, we should be seeing 2/3 of the damage we saw last time and yet instead the big message of the constituent meetings on 22 September 2015 was: nothing much will change. How are those two situations different or the same?

Note that I'm not asking for a crisis, I just want to understand what happened last time, what is happening this time, and what we should be prepared for in the future, depending upon various future scenarios (for enrollment, in particular).

 

One last point. My students are also exquisitely aware that what they are here for is to get an education. The odd thing is that the education, the "academic side of the house," as it is sometimes called by administrators, got almost no attention at the constituent meetings.

Well, that's not entirely true, since President Di Mare talked at some length about the monies she is disbursing to academic initiatives out of the funds raised at the President's Gala. While everyone who can take advantage of this support to improve some educational project is very grateful, I'm sure, we have to notice that the total of all of those individual amounts was small compared to almost every number on every other slide. So it doesn't really make sense to discuss with the same breath the reasons for $528k per year on Royall and the $6k for "some piece of equipment used for cutting open mice's heads" in the Biology department.
The Royall survey of students who chose not to come to CSU-P, which still has not been released to the campus community, supposedly says that it was first for location, and second for campus atmosphere. Discussions then immediately moved to improving the atmosphere by renovating the OUC and similar ideas. Personally, I wonder if maybe having smaller classes, available sections of the classes students want, more programs, more information about student research and other scholarly opportunities on our web site, and other manifestations of an entirely academic atmosphere might be a better draw of students to a university.
And, by the way, it is easy to get much more information and exciting descriptions of the amazing academics we have on our campus onto our web site: remove the stifling controls and delays in getting stuff on the site, and instead let every faculty member edit the pages whenever and however they want. This is not a recipe for a disaster — look at Wikipedia, for heaven's sake, which anyone on the planet can edit!
Instead we have spent $45k of the Foundation's money on a "content management system" ... yet another system for control and delay.

 

Clearly the problem of providing a quality education at a public university in these times of declining state support is one that bedevils every one of us. President Di Mare sent an article to the faculty senate a year and a half ago which talked about "peak higher ed" (supposedly a situation not unlike "peak oil"), which offered a pessimistic view of enrollments going down whatever we do, because of broad structural changes in the US (here is that article). That's one possibility. I find the analysis in this video of a lecture by Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown more convincing -- but not at all more optimistic.

Whatever you believe is the root cause of our larger predicament at the moment, it must be better for the campus community to have an open and honest discussion of the true costs and benefits of various projects, and a willingness to consider alternate ways of spending those hundreds of thousands of dollars. Powerpoint slides that even my undergraduate statistics students would easily critique do not contribute to that openness and honesty.


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