The waste we overlook in higher education While college becomes unaffordable

February 12, 1991|By Morris Freedman

ESCALATING costs are endangering our colleges and universities. Lauro F. Cavazos, former secretary of education, declared bluntly before his resignation that "future increases [may make] college unattainable." But few have focused on reducing widespread campus waste as one way of keeping hTC American higher education open to all qualified.

Too many campuses have come to see their main function as attractively packaging their image. They find it easier, if more expensive, to advertise substance than build it in or maintain it. They play with nomenclature to dazzle clientele. They change "home economics" to "human ecology," "physical education" to "kinesiology," "college" to "university." They pay celebrities lavishly to add their names to faculty rosters. They launch massive athletic and academic programs to bring publicity. None of these contributes to classroom, laboratory or library value; most detract from quality.

Even mainstream institutions spurn classical devices of productive competitiveness, like keeping costs down and character high. Instead, they prefer to eschew academic rivalry. Like some federal agencies, they count on a favorable public sentiment to justify expenditures without full accountability.

For example, a common rationale for raising fees is the high cost of elaborate research. Yet, as Robert Parks, an official of the American Physical Society and a professor at the University of Maryland, has pointed out, some of the nation's most important findings come out of laboratories operating on shoestrings.

On campuses in flux, like the University of Maryland College Park, institutional memory functions on the edge of amnesia. Transient, pre-occupied administrators keep repeating the same projects. They budget new buildings while available classrooms stand empty; they revive courses long ago discredited and abandoned. One building, scheduled for complete renovation, had all its windows replaced, twice, neither time as part of the master plan. In another building, workmen created sparkling new basement classrooms -- under basketball courts in constant use.

Academically dubious projects spring up everywhere. State schools in Illinois, Texas and South Carolina, struggling to meet basic needs, founded publication houses to compete with international ones. The Universities of Texas and Colorado support libraries stocked with rarities few students or faculty will ever use. Oberlin College, famed for its undergraduate liberal arts and music programs, named itself a "research college" to cash in on available federal funds for advanced research in science.

"Colleges and universities need not -- and must not -- try to do everything," Cavazos said. "Instead, each institution must determine its mission and make the necessary trade-offs." A number of campuses have indeed achieved striking economies by combining resources, maximizing available talent, eliminating duplication. A consortium of universities on the East Coast joined the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., to offer seminars based on its collections and available to all students. The University of New Mexico upgraded academic quality with local assets, establishing world-class programs in anthropology, cosmic ray research, creative writing, the study of Indian treaties, the law and economics of water supply.

Lately, increasing turnover of faculty and administrators has been creating new waste, eroding productive teaching and research as it diminishes the store of accessible and relevant experience. Professorial and managerial novitiates do not always understand the ethics of the profession so that deception, plagiarism, fraud and other forms of wasteful malfeasance and nonfeasance multiply. Readily preventable abuses of tenure and other hallowed practices needlessly add to teaching overhead.

Too many academic citizens regard budgeting as a threat to excellence. They resist any retrenchment, however reasonable. But maintaining standards cannily and responsibly practicing thrift are accepted goals in business, creative activity, research and consumer affairs. Of course, we must not despoil higher education in the interest of bean-counting. But we must also not explain away waste as inevitable or inconsequential and thus jeopardize college and university survival.

Morris Freedman teaches at the University of Maryland College Park.

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