Tuition well spent

Now I can look at the educational process from the two sides of the aisle: as a faculty member and as a parent. My son Mark became a new freshman in the department of Civil Engineering (congratulations, Mark!). I pay full tuition: just issued a check for the first semester for $9,750, from which the Civil Engineering faculty salary is paid. I am sure this money is well spent.

Last Friday, my Department Chair asked me to lead an orientation meeting with graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs), who teach labs and discussion sections in our department. As we all know, in 2014/15 the state of Wisconsin decided to decrease significantly the funding of the university system. As a result, the so-called “new budget model” was developed in UWM, according to which the College of Engineering has to support other parts of the university by significant sums. The College of Engineering is one of few parts of the university which makes money, so we are happy to help our colleagues from less successful (or worse-managed) parts of the campus. I was told by my former department chair that the enrollment in the Mechanical Engineering (and the tuition revenue) has increased by about 50% during the last ten years, while the resource allocation stays the same. We have the same number of faculty, same number of TAs, and less supporting staff who are supposed to help with the labs. As a result, some classes grew larger than by 50%, more sections are taught by less prepared instructors, such as part-time ad hoc adjuncts or graduate students.

A goal of the Friday meeting, as conveyed to me by the Chair, was that I announce to the TAs that due to the budget cuts under the new budget model, in 2017/18 they will teach 50% more for the same salary. Those “33% appointment TAs” who taught two sections in 2016/17 will now have to teach three sections for the same salary, while those “50% TAs” who taught three sections will now get 1/3 less salary for the same work. The standard workload of a TA is 50% or 33% part-time, because they are graduate students who are also supposed to study themselves. To sweeten the pill, there as a separate small additional temporary budget for them for “grading” in the fall semester. Our TAs are mostly international students, so they are unlikely to protest.

This was the idea of the Governor of Wisconsin, that UW System faculty and staff could teach more expressed in January 2015. It took two and a half years for it to go down the chain of command: from the Board Of Regents to the Chancellor, then to the Dean, then the Department Chair, and finally I am delivering it to our TAs: “you should teach 50% more for the same compensation.”

How would you interpret the message, if your boss tells you that starting today you will receive 1/3 less salary for the same work? Perhaps that means that the quality of your work does not matter, and also that the employer is not interested in you, you are not welcome here. Given recent political developments in our country, for example, the January “entry ban” for Iranian doctoral students and postdocs (drafted, according to the press, by now fired Steven Bannon) and many similar events, the suspicion regarding the “you are not welcome” message would only grow. I have several Trumpist friends, and, when I ask them, they would answer that they indeed think that it would be good if all these scientists move to Europe or Canada, so we could allocate less resources to education and science. Some of these my Trumpist friends are US citizens, while others live in foreign countries (like Russia, Israel, or the UK), which leaves me wondering, whether they are really interested in the prosperity of America when they suggest decreasing the quality of teaching and scientific research.

In addition, our department has about 15 faculty members, and some of them have external grants (from federal agencies or industry). Grants are typically transferable, and those faculty who feel unwelcome leave and take with them their millions including the grant portion used for the administrative purposes (the so-called overhead). In recent years, six of our colleagues in the department with large external grants have left for other universities (outside Wisconsin). Their new universities have extended to them lucrative job offers, in addition to providing more adequate infrastructure to conduct their research projects. These colleagues took their grant and overhead money with them, therefore decreasing our budget from which the ad hoc instructors are hired.

Some people ask, why it was possible in the past to have very low taxes in the US (there was almost no income tax until 1916), very few professors and universities, and it was sufficient? Why we cannot return to that scheme which worked well in the 19th century? Indeed, say, 150 years ago in 1867, there were very few professors in southeastern Wisconsin, however, the railroads were built (the Milwaukee-Waukesha railroad was built in the 1850s) and other technology inventions occurred. Harley-Davidson was founded in Milwaukee in 1903, the Allen-Bradley Company (now Rockwell Automation) emerged in Milwaukee in 1909 with no major Engineering School around. Milwaukee used to be a German-speaking city while southeastern Wisconsin was populated mostly by immigrants from Central Europe and Scandinavia.

I could certainly lecture on how modern engineering is different from that in the 19th century and why it requires a lot of mathematics and science. But instead let me remind another thing: the life expectancy in the 19th century was only 40 years in England or in the US. People died from many diseases which are now curable. Furthermore, the life was much less comfortable. People worked (doing mostly hard physical work) on average much more than today. People did not have the abundance of all kinds of food, clothes, or home appliances readily available to them in a store for cheap. Even a relatively short local trip, such as from Milwaukee to Chicago, was a long journey (perhaps taking two days before the railroad was built, like a trip to Australia today). No electricity, no refrigerators, smaller more crowded homes, no birth control, no anesthesia (until 1845), so you would suffer a lot of pain if you broke your bone, need to have your tooth removed, or have childbirth complications. A 40-years old man was considered a really OLD man, and a 30-years old woman was considered a “Balzac’s age woman” (“La Femme de trente ans”) meaning an old lady. Do you really want to live in the 19th century? I do not think so. It is much better to live in a modern society. All the difference came form science, education and engineering.

Today Wisconsin has the GDP ($309b) and population (5.8m) similar to that of a small European country. Compare: Switzerland ($659b, 8.4m), Sweden ($511b, 10m), Belgium ($466b, 11.2m), Austria ($386b, 8.7m), Norway ($370b, 5.2m), Israel ($318b, 8.7m), Denmark ($306b, 5.7m), Portugal ($204b, 10.3m), New Zealand ($182b, 4.8m), Hungary ($125, 9.7m), Slovenia ($44, 2.0m). All these countries, in order to maintain their competitiveness and the standards of life, have MANY research universities and, in addition, many scientific institutes or national labs. I just returned from my sabbatical in Israel, which is smaller than Wisconsin, but has eight state research universities and many colleges, a world-class research institute (Weizmann Institute of Science) and several smaller institutes and labs.

In contrast, in Wisconsin we have only two state research universities: UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, with the latter struggling for survival, and zero scientific institutes or national labs. The neighboring state of Michigan has three world class research universities (UMich, Mich State, and Wayne State). I have no doubts that this disproportion will be corrected with time, and the UWM will grow. However, we need to pay more attention to the issue. Especially those of us who are parents and want our tuition money be well spent as an investment into the future prosperity of our kids and of our state.