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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Future of Engineering Education Machine in Almost Here - Part II

In Part I, I criticized current framing of disputes about the future of public higher education.  Now it's time for a positive proposal.  I will show you that private and public schools cannot be easily compared and should not be included in the same rankings.  As you will see, these unrealistic rankings compare equivalents of a leisurely weekend runner jogging at 5 miles per hour (private schools) with a hurried man barreling down a freeway sixteen times faster at 90 miles per hour.  It is impossible to apply the same criteria to the behavior and priorities of both.

In my mind, current university rankings by the U.S. News and World Report should be soundly repudiated by public universities acting as a group, and a case should be made to split the ranking lists of private and public universities.  I am assuming here that we will continue to insist on numerical measures of academic success, however incomplete and distorted these measures are.  That's because I realize that we are insignificant parts of the ever more powerful Machine.  Let's start from a scene from a Roman Polansky movie.

Imagine a lavish ball in an old castle.  The walls of a spacious, richly ornamented ballroom are lined with tall mirrors and a chamber orchestra is playing in the corner.  On the floor, dozens of pairs of bejeweled beautiful ladies in long dresses and elegant men in dark suits are dancing with great skill.  It's a breathtaking view!  Then you look at the mirrors and all you can see is the empty ballroom.  What you observed was an illusion, a beautiful but empty image.  You just watched the Annual Vampires' Ball in Count Dracula's castle.
The ever-insecure public academia is examining herself with trepidation:  "In my cheap dress, will I look as pretty as those private school dames?"  The simple answer is: "No, public academia is different than private schools,  clothed or naked. We serve different societal needs, and we should stop comparing ourselves to our very rich but distant second cousins." Cumulatively, the top 15 public universities charge a little less than one quarter of  the tuition and fees charged by the 15 top private universities, and enroll roughly four times more students. By this metric, the cohort of 15 top U.S. public universities is 16 times (sic!) more efficient than the comparable cohort of private universities. Therefore, it is only right that anyone who feels like it harasses and admonishes public schools, while the private school slobs are living serene fulfilling lives. Source: E.C. Escher, "Hand with Reflecting Sphere," 1935.
Which brings me to academic rankings pursued by public universities with troubling desperation.  As I wrote in Part I of this series, private universities need not worry: By definition, they are on top of all rankings. Think of this, if private schools were not highest-ranked, who would spend up to $100K  per year on private education if 25% of that sum would buy equally good public education?

The small but luxurious private universities are gate keepers, who for the right price dispense lifetime membership cards to the American nomenklatura.  Therefore, no one at the US News and World Report would dare to question the glittering supremacy of the Ivy League schools, never mind that as a cohort they are 4.4x3.7=16 times less efficient than the comparable public universities (see Figures 1 - 4 and 5 - 6). After all, the United States of America has invented the beautiful and tempting, but otherwise empty images.  And this invention has served some of us very well.

Rushing at 90 miles per hour, the stressed-out public educators are remiss in educating public about academia's priorities and difficulties.  Here is what the original U.S. propagandist (in 1928, the term "propaganda" did not have the contemporary pejorative connotation), Edward Bernays, wrote on this subject:
EDUCATION is not securing its proper share of public interest. ... The public is not cognizant of the real value of education, and does not realize that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy. ... There are a number of reasons for this condition. First of all, there is the fact that the educator has been trained to stimulate to thought the individual students in his classroom, but has not been trained as an educator at large of the public. In a democracy an educator should, in addition to his academic duties, bear a definite and wholesome relation to the general public. This public does not come within the immediate scope of his academic duties. But in a sense he depends upon it for his living, for the moral support, and the general cultural tone upon which his work must be based. In the field of education, we find what we have found in politics and other fields—that the evolution of the practitioner of the profession has not kept pace with the social evolution around him, and is out of gear with the instruments for the dissemination of ideas which modern society has developed. If this be true, then the training of the educators in this respect should begin in the normal schools, with the addition to their curricula of whatever is necessary to broaden their viewpoint. The public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea....
I note in passing that private universities have developed a formidable propaganda apparatus since WWI, and continue with great skill to use think tanks and other propaganda outlets to promote their positive public image.  After all, they have ample resources and staff to drive their perennial PR offensive.  Public universities are poor propagandists, because - hmm - they are much poorer and - setting aside the corrupt "college athletics" - they are not as slick as private universities in lying and covering up:
Then as the 2012-2013 school year commenced, Joseph Asch, Dartmouth '79, wrote an open letter the incoming class of 2016 on the Dartblog titled, "Freshman, There Will be Lies." In his letter Mr. Asch warns, among other declarations, that students should begin their time at Dartmouth with the understanding that the administration will lie, underscoring his point by asserting, "Not small lies, or white lies, or inadvertent ones, but straight-out lies that help the administration gain the goals that it seeks at your expense." He reverses all that the students once thought true about an elite academic institution by telling the class that although they expect this "noble institution" to serve the students, in fact the administration "has goals to achieve, and work in an environment where lying has been part of the modus operandi for many years."
In summary, public and private universities are fundamentally different and should not be lumped together in an artificial way that boosts the Ivy League schools relative to the poorer, busier, and less glamorous public university cousins.   In Part III, I will get deeper into these gaping differences and public misperceptions.

P.S. (02/21/2014) If you think that the private and public non-profit schools are less than perfect, you should also look at the for-profit universities.  The pursuit of short-term profits and generally unethical behavior have created greedy monsters that steal money from the taxpayer and the poor. And Congress seems to be unable to control these monsters, which are feeding on mostly government-backed loans to ruin poor uneducated people.

Figure 1.  Click on the image to see it in full resolution. Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses. Another question comes to mind:  Is this cartel of private schools colluding in setting their tuition levels?
Figure 2.  Tuition and fees charged by the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57. Add another $25-40,000 per year for living expenses.
Figure 3.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked private universities. All of these universities are at the top of national rankings, i.e., Princeton is #1, according to the U.S. News and World Report.
Figure 4.  Undergraduate enrollment in the top-ranked public universities. U.C. Berkeley, the top public university in the U.S., is ranked as #20 by the U.S. News and World Report. The University of Connecticut is ranked #57.
Figure 5.  Cumulative undergraduate enrollment in the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report. The cumulative enrollment ratio is 4.4:1 in favor of the public universities.
Figure 6.  Cumulative tuition and fees charged by the 15 top-ranked private (#1-15) and 15 top-ranked public (#20-57) universities. Source : the U.S. News and World Report.  Cumulatively the private universities charge 3.7 times more than the corresponding cohort of public universities.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Future Engineering Education Machine is Almost Here - Part I

I presume that you already know what engineering and science education should morph into in the near future. After all, the distinguished professors of management and psychology are telling you how research should be divorced from teaching and how good teachers and good researchers should be put into two different academic drawers. 

Today, the consensus is to split teaching from research in all disciplines of public academia, thus lowering cost and increasing efficiency.  I find this consensus to be misinformed and potentially harmful to many of the students who will not go to Harvard or Yale to replenish the ranks of our oh-so-smart and so-thoughtful elites.

A complete divorce of research and teaching, vigorously pushed by non-scientists (psychologists, economists, political scientists, business majors, and the like), is akin to a religious belief in absolute right and wrong that simply do not obtain in science.  Dr. Isaak Asimov commented on this belief, which is rooted in scientific ignorance, in a beautiful essay: "The Relativity of Wrong"  (The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, 14(1), 35-44).  English Lit majors beware when you pontificate about science and engineering!

Where we are in the U.S. today is in no small measure an outcome of our elites' superior Ivy League education and their thorough understanding of the universe.  Take, for example, President George W. Bush, a Yale and Harvard graduate. His VP, Dick Chaney, was another failed Yale student and draft dodger, while his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was a political scientist from Princeton.  Yet another prescient guru in this team was the Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, with a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and MBA from Harvard, just like President Bush.  Paulson's most quotable parting words were: "Who could know that the financial markets would collapse?"

In eight memorable years, those geniuses -  not one with an advanced degree in anything I would consider to be rigorous education - raked up 30% of all U.S. national debt and did more damage to the U.S. than all of our enemies combined over the last century.  Their collective actions are quite an achievement for any Ivy School-educated team. Now, were their academic teachers researchers or lecturers?  Or does it matter?

Of course, to my knowledge, no one suggests that anyone should divorce teaching from research in the Ivy League colleges.  They're fine, as are private high schools.  After all, how could anything be wrong if these schools charge $40-50K per year in tuition, their student-to-faculty ratio is less than 10:1, and they graduate  - and intermarry - most of our presidents, top federal government appointees, CEOs, and other legacy children?

Presently, we are only talking about how to best damage public education at all levels.  And here there is no shortage of deep insights about streamlining the future lives of the gifted children of lesser others.

In summary, public discussion about the future of education has framed the subject in a way that lets private schools off the hook, despite their monumental failures in delivering quality education and instilling social responsibility into their highly-paying customers.  In Part II, I'll explain my thinking about education costs, teaching, and research in academia.