Restructuring Higher Ed for Greater Produktivität

Pre-COVID, the UVa Kaffeestunde met every week. German speakers of all levels hung out to sprechen deutsch.

by James A. Bacon

Last month the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved a recommendation to eliminate the M.A. and PhD programs in the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures. While UVa students retained a healthy appetite for learning to read and speak in German, only a few showed an interest in plumbing the depths of German literature.

The scaling back of the German department, which offered advanced courses in such authors as Freud and Kafka last semester, was part of a larger restructuring of UVa’s graduate foreign-language program. The board also voted to eliminate the M.A. program in Italian and the B.A. in Comparative Literature.

Whether the rollbacks result in a reduction in the number of courses, staff or expenses is as yet unknown. The University is “still assessing” the impact of the cutbacks, says spokesman Brian Coy. “Because the University makes a practice of fully supporting doctoral students, we expect the termination of the PhD in German to result in some small savings, however other changes within the department have not been made.”

The story of how these cuts came to be provides a glimpse into the inner workings of Virginia’s public system of higher education, which in the past two decades has seen tuition, fees and other expenses outrun the rate of inflation and wage growth, creating an acute affordability crisis. Universities have expanded into trendy new fields — nanotechnology and data analytics at UVa — but some have been slow to offset the added expense by trimming older programs with declining numbers of students. Although restructuring does occur, as it has at UVa’s German department, it can take many years to reap measurable savings.

UVa’s German Department is not a huge cost center. The departmental website lists 15 instructors and faculty-track professors, plus three administrative staff. Salary and wage compensation budgeted for 2020-21 amount to $1,518,000, according to Coy. That compares to the $1.5 billion total payroll in the university’s academic and healthcare divisions. (Note: employee benefits, office and classroom space, information technology, and other overhead costs are absorbed centrally by the College of Arts & Sciences.)

But German is only one of 65 degree programs offered by the College of Arts & Sciences, and the College is only one 12 schools at UVa (not including the college in Wise). The cost factors at work in the German Department are seen in other departments across the institution.

Every five years the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) conducts productivity reviews of every academic degree program offered by Virginia’s public colleges and universities. SCHEV looks at the number of degrees granted, says Joseph D. DeFilippo, director of academic affairs and planning. In what he calls a “viability scrub,” the reviews focus on programs where the number of degrees conferred is small and shows no sign of improving.

“I meet with the provosts or their representatives about ten times per year,” DeFilippo said. “Any program they want to keep, they’re going to have to defend.” In the 2019 review of University of Virginia programs, SCHEV honed in on 24 degrees. In most cases, UVa defended them as either central to its mission and supportive of a general education, or said that it hopes to bolster enrollment.

SCHEV is not hard nosed. “We want to see a program turn itself around,” says DeFilippo. “We don’t have a specific formula. If institutions are closing other programs, we’re more willing to listen to their arguments, as opposed to when they defend everything.”

Generally speaking, undergraduate language programs are easier to defend on the grounds that they support general education even if students don’t major in them. Justifying graduate programs is harder. SCHEV regards graduate programs as a form of vocational education — for many graduate students, the only realistic career prospect is in higher education. And if departments in that discipline are contracting nationally, the prospects for employment are greatly reduced. If the university can show that grad students are landing tenure-track jobs, however, SCHEV will cut it slack.

Sadly for the German Department, says DeFilippo, “Interest in German is way down compared to Spanish and Asian languages. The doctoral program has been teetering on the edge of viability for years.”

This table compares the SCHEV standard for the desirable number of majors and graduates in “Productivity Group 3A” degree programs to the actual number in UVa’s German languages department, averaged over five years ending with 2018-19.

Bottom line: The number of students enrolled as majors at all levels — B.A., M.A., and PhD — fall woefully short of the standard.

Where are the savings? UVa did not dispute the necessity of closing the M.A. and PhD programs. Indeed, as a result of its own internal reviews, the university stopped accepting new graduate students in 2013-14. But the administration defended the necessity of maintaining the B.A. degree on the grounds that teaching German is central to the University’s mission. First, it offered a practical argument:

The Bachelor of Arts in German is a high-quality niche program that contributes to mission of offering a broad suite of options for undergraduates interested in graduating with a high level of language proficiency combined with a specialized historical and cultural knowledge of a geographic region. … In line with 21st century global interconnectedness, the program encourages an international perspective and openness to cultural differences.

Also, UVa noted, as part of its general education requirements, the College of Arts & Sciences requires students to complete 14 credit hours (giving credit to advance placements) in a foreign language.

Then it offered a legal argument:

The Code of Virginia outlines the branches of learning that shall be taught at the University, including “the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Anglo-Saxon languages.

SCHEV found those arguments acceptable and did not recommend eliminating the undergraduate program. SCHEV made its formal recommendations in July 2019, and the UVa Board of Visitors adopted them in December.

The restructuring process takes place in slow motion, over many years, and it could take years more for meaningful savings to materialize. Most faculty members are protected by tenure. As a consequence, cost savings occur as a result of attrition — faculty leaving the program. In hot fields such as biotech or nanotechnology, there is considerable competition for academic talent. Universities raid one another’s star faculty. In the field of German language and literature, a slowly declining field, such poaching is rare.

Cost per student. Measuring degree programs by the number of degrees conferred is one obvious measure of academic productivity, but only one. Other potential measures, such as cost per student and faculty productivity, could be evaluated but are not part of any formal SCHEV process.

Let’s look first at the average cost per student. Budgeted salary this academic year is $1,518,000 for the German languages department. The department offered 29 classes and enrolled 427 students in its fall 2020 program. That averages out to not quite $1,777 per student. (This figure assumes that the German department course load is evenly divided between the fall and spring semester.)

On the revenue side, in-state undergraduate tuition for the College of Arts & Sciences, spread over 30 credit hours per year, averages $1,419 for a three-credit class this academic year. The comparable charge for out-of-state students is $4,804. Seventy percent of the College of Arts & Sciences enrollment is in-state, 30% out-of-state. Thus, the blended tuition is about $2,466 per 3-credit class.

In summary, based on salary costs only, the average cost per student taking a German class is $1,777. The blended tuition charges (not deducting for financial aid) is $2,466. The department seemingly generates a surplus of $689 per student.

Unfortunately, this analysis is incomplete. It is impossible to know on the basis of these figures alone if the German program is pulling its weight. To make a judgment, we’d have to know the numbers for employee benefits, office expenses, building & facilities overhead, IT overhead, and university administrative overhead. Even travel expenses (reduced this year thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic) are managed centrally. If overhead exceeds $689 per student, it can be said that the German language program is losing money.

Faculty productivity. Now let’s drill down to the next level and examine faculty productivity.

The difficulty in achieving cost savings is compounded by a weird inversion of productivity in academia. The most highly compensated faculty members teach the least. While they may be productive in terms of writing and publications — and UVa’s German faculty members are accomplished in that regard — they are the least productive when gauged by teaching metrics. The lowest-paid, least-credentialed faculty members, typically classified as ” instructors,” bear the heaviest course loads.

Faculty productivity is a key driver of the cost of higher education. Over the past two or three decades, studies have found, faculty productivity has declined nationally. In an institution that valued teaching over publish-or-perish writing and research — those who are most knowledgeable in the subject — one would hope that senior faculty would teach the most classes. But the trend has been quite the opposite. Nationally, full professors have been trending to fewer courses, and the teaching load is shifting to junior faculty, instructors and grad students. Whether the broader trend applies to language departments, however, is an open question.

Forty-four percent of the UVa students who took German courses in the fall enrolled in 10 classes dedicated to elementary and intermediate German. Those courses were taught by the lowest-paid faculty members, most of whom were classified as “instructors” not on the faculty track. Typically, when working full time, these instructors shouldered three classes each.

Drawing upon a database of University of Virginia employee salaries obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, we can derive an estimate of the faculty-related cost of delivering different levels of German classes: The pro-rated faculty cost of teaching a single elementary German class was about $12,000. That cost pro-rated over an average class size of 16 students was about $750 per student.

Compare that to the class, “Medieval Stories of Love & Adventure,” given by a full professor who taught only two classes last fall. The class had an average enrollment size, but the professor who taught it had only a two-course workload. Thus, the pro-rated faculty cost for that class was $65,000. Spread over the 17 students who enrolled, the pro-rated faculty cost per student was about $3,800 — about five times as high as for the elementary German class.

Other factors affecting faculty productivity are the practice of granting of sabbaticals and administrative leave. Two German Department professors taught no classes at all last semester.

The degree to which faculty productivity has declined at the University of Virginia is not known. I have yet to see a faculty productivity study anywhere for UVa or any other public university for that matter. The data is not available for outsider stakeholders in the public university system to know for sure.

Degree programs and institutional dynamism. DeFilippo has observed a marked difference between the willingness of different universities to shed degree programs. “The institutions that create a lot of programs,” he says, “are more likely to eliminate programs.” In his observation George Mason University and Virginia Tech are the most dynamic. At the other extreme is the College of William & Mary, which has stuck with a traditional course offering.

The key insight is this: The ability to create new degree programs is tied in part to the willingness to cast off old programs. Call it creative destruction within the university environment. Scaling back degree programs with declining class enrollments frees resources to invest in fields where demand is growing. The alternative to restructuring is raising revenue either by dunning the taxpayers for public support or jacking up tuition.

Are Virginia’s public universities restructuring aggressively enough? The level of inquiry needs to dig deeper than SCHEV is statutorily assigned to do. To be sure, “degrees granted” is a useful metric. But we need to know more. Which departments are cash-flow positive, and which are cash-flow negative? How productively are faculty members employed from a teaching point of view? For a program like UVa’s German language department, which no longer has graduate students, what is the value added of keeping highly compensated professors who excel in the publish-or-perish game but have light teaching loads?

Taxpayers, students, parents and elected officials should demand a better accounting. The metrics and data I have cited here should be made readily available to all.