Tennessee Tech University (TTU)
Strategic Risk Assessment
- Research Environment
- National Environment:
Approximately 125 universities are included in the U.S. News and World Report 2015 ranking of Graduate Engineering Programs. Most highly ranked programs are associated with state flagship or private institutions with huge endowments. In Tennessee, Vanderbilt is 34th and the University of Tennessee – Knoxville is 64th.
- Regional Environment:
TTU is a Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) institution and therefore funded as a regional four year institution with some funding support for three research centers. The TTU graduate program in engineering is among more than 100 regional programs in the U.S. News and World Report that are unranked.
- Local Environment:
As a TBR institution, TTU is charged as a resource for regional development. However, the region doesn’t have a well developed industrial base to support research and struggles with economic develop issues (Additional comments on this topic in Section D).
- Basic Research Revenue Streams:
Primary funding sources for basic research are partnerships with high tech industries, competitive federal initiatives similar to NSF and NIH, state and federal earmarked initiatives, and successfully marketing intellectual property. Competing for basic research revenue streams is challenging for regional institutions.
TTU Funding sources include state funding for centers of excellence from the comparison several flow through grants, leveraged undergraduate programs, and some basic research grants (historically, includes earmarked federal funding).
- Vertical Integration of Research Capability:
For sustainability, focus area research activities require a critical mass of highly specialized faculty. A university must minimize the effects of perturbations caused by departures of research faculty over time. Recruiting research faculty at a regional university is comparable to drafting professional athletes by small market sports franchises. After a faculty member establishes a successful research initiative, they receive lucrative offers to join more prestigious research programs at other universities.
- Graduate Students:
A vertical integration strategy for research also requires a critical mass of qualified graduate students in research focused Ph.D. programs. It is difficult to sustain multiple graduate degree program options and attract students to unranked graduate programs. That problem is exacerbated by the decrease in demand for Ph.D. degrees in STEM disciplines. Many Ph.D. graduates at highly ranked research programs are now accepting post-doctoral positions. As a result,limited job opportunities for STEM graduates devalue a Ph.D. from a regional program.
- Leveraged Undergraduate Engineering Programs
A limited source of investors to invest in basic research at TTU has resulted in an increased emphasis on leveraging undergraduate degree programs for capital formation. Common flagship university strategies for leveraging undergraduate programs include reducing the variety of electives and number of core course sections offered. Economies of scale enable resources to be allocated to research activities. Another leverage strategy is to use enrollment growth in an academic area as a revenue stream for another area.
Leveraging places a burden on engineering programs with a diverse student population but causes minimal disruption at flagship institutions with a homogeneous population of students who have excellent academic credentials. The College of Engineering at TTU signature has been producing basic and midlevel management engineers for regional companies from a lower socio-economic class students. However, there are numerous examples where graduates, with faculty mentoring, excelled and became leaders in society.
2012 TTU College of Engineering freshmen ACT scores indicate a broad range of scores. Currently, many in the cohort are marginally prepared to purse an engineering degree. As shown in the histogram, approximately 40 % of students can be considered at-risk and do not meet minimum unconditional admission requirements (ACT > 24) for UTK College of Engineering.
TTU is also aggressively recruiting international students who pay full tuition. International students (120) accounted for 20% of 2012 increase in enrollment in the College of Engineering. If international students are included, the percentage that does not meet UTK admission standards would likely exceed 50%.
In the last couple of years, TTU College of Engineering core course class sizes have at least doubled. The number of D’s, W’s, and F’s in core computer science and engineering courses affirm that there are a large number of at-risk students engaging in at-risk behavior (working part-time) in an at-risk learning environment (large classes). Revenue streams derived from international student enrollment and leveraging undergraduate programs has created an economic bubble that could affect financial stability of the university. For example, a successful Tennessee Promise Initiative could suddenly and materially affect that revenue stream.
- Research Leadership
Several TTU leadership positions have recently been staffed by administrators from flagship universities because of the assumption that research strategies for state flagship institutions are transferrable to a regional university. Developing a major university organizational structure at TTU has increased administration costs over 75% during the last 3 years. During that period TTU research activations have fallen by approximately five million dollars (30%). Approximately 3.5 million of the current 12 million dollars of research are budgeted from TBR funding. During that period the number of TTU awarded Ph.D.’s and graduate students has remained essentially constant.
- Conflicting Strategies:
As indicated in Section A.1.c, TTU is charged with being a resource for developing the region. Regional needs include developing infrastructure in rural areas; recruiting new companies; supporting and expanding current businesses and industries; improving education standards for a diverse economy; and developing a regional “brand identity” to leverage regional economic development activities. However, there doesn’t seem to be a well-defined strategy for university engagement in regional development.
TTU is ideally suited to partner and contribute to regional development. Resources for a horizontal integration research strategy include an interdisciplinary critical mass of appropriate degree programs, faculty, and students from various colleges that focus on applying domain knowledge in new and existing technology to structural improvements in selected economic development based industries. This approach is similar to the Morrill Land-Grant Acts during the 1800’s that created agriculture colleges across the United States. At that time agriculture was the primary engine for economic development.
In the current university environment, new initiatives have replaced abandoned and de-emphasized initiatives. The graph of engineering degrees awarded by TTU reflects inconsistencies between enrollment in academic programs and anticipated demand for graduates from those degree programs.
(from the blog of Troy Smith)
Swimming Against the Tide in Higher Ed
In case you haven’t noticed, there have been a lot of changes in higher education in this century, especially since the economic downturn in 2008. In a lot of cases this involved trends already in place well before then, but which have been amplified in recent years –and, as is often the case, have been connected to the political landscape.
As states have significantly decreased the funding they give to public universities –while costs have continued to rise –those universities have been looking for money elsewhere. Much of this comes in rising tuition –and studies have shown that the biggest increase in cost that those students are paying for is the ballooning cost of administration (certainly not faculty, as there has been a growing trend of relying on adjuncts with low wages and no benefits.)
All of this has made academia more vulnerable to the trend of neoliberal corporatization and outsourcing (much like public schools have been experiencing in this country.) Which brings us to the political component (and after all, can you talk about money without talking about politics, and vice versa?) The 2010 midterm elections saw a national wave of conservative Republicans dominating state legislatures across the U.S., often aligned with governors of the same political bent –and that particular bent is one that bends away from traditional support of public institutions and bend toward privatization, to the benefit of businesses and, in the case of academia, the detriment of the mission of higher education.
This can best be demonstrated by taking a look at what Scott Walker has tried to do, with quite a bit of success, in Wisconsin, by attacking public unions and the concept of tenure. He infamously tried to rewrite the university’s mission statement, eliminating all that silly stuff about searching for truth, engaging the public, and improving the human condition, and instead sum the whole thing up by saying “meet the state’s workforce needs.” As if a university is the same thing as a technical training school, and not a place to engage with ideas.
This bodes ill in general, because the same things are happening around the country. State governments are initiating changes that will benefit entrepreneurs, under the guise of saving money, while weakening principles like academic freedom and shared governance. The same sorts of things are happening on the individual campus level, with it becoming more and more common for administrators to implement rapid change from the top down rather than go through the traditional processes of consulting with faculty about education. As I recently heard one administrator say, when you’re trying to get something done too much dialogue slows down the process.
And that is the crux of the matter. The old way of doing things: go through the necessary procedures of faculty discussing the issues –having first been informed of said issues –and then making a recommendation, which is either seriously considered by administration or, on many campuses, is part of the administrative process. The new way of doing things: administration making changes, with nominal or no faculty input (and sometimes nominal or no faculty knowledge), and then announcing said change.
Proponents of this new paradigm say it is essential in our new, modern circumstances. Universities have to be quick on their feet, immediately responding to new opportunities, especially if those opportunities bring in funding. And dialogue just slows things down, and results in the risk of missing lucrative opportunities. Is there a link in the chain of faculty involvement that might prove weak in regard to the opportunity being seized? Then bypass that link. Maybe the whole chain. We have to be mobile, agile, and adaptable.
Know what that sounds like? A successful business model. A model in which profits are produced for the shareholders, which is the primary (and practically the only) purpose of the venture. The problem is, higher ed –although requiring funding to survive –is not a business venture, or it shouldn’t be. It is about human capital, not economic capital. It is an intellectual investment in the future of our country –not to produce docile workers with proper credentials, but to produce dynamic and innovative thinkers, and informed and engaged citizens, who have been taught to challenge the status quo in order to improve it. And this requires academic freedom for their professors to guide them in those pursuits. And academic freedom requires shared governance to ensure that the true purpose of the university –interaction between faculty and students that stimulates intellectual growth –does not take second place to economic concerns or to making the process easier (or more maneuverable.) Democracy itself, after all, is neither facile nor agile. It is unwieldy by design and by necessity. The lack of it might make the trains run on time, but that is not the real goal.
Proponents of this new model would say this trend is irreversible and it would be foolish (and naïve) to try to resist it. “It’s gone, and it’s not coming back.” “We can’t beat ’em, we have to join ’em.” So essentially: here is the program, jump on it. Or for you fellow Star Trek fans: You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
Here’s my problem with that. As a historian, I know that there have been countless changes made -and trends reversed -by large numbers of people uniting in opposition. Things no one would have thought possible. The end of slavery and segregation. The female franchise. Heck, the eight-hour workday. All those things and many more -including the protection of academic freedom a little over a century ago -required pushing back against a wave that seemed irresistible. If you resist and you’re the only person that does -yeah, that’s not going to work out so well for you. But if a lot of people do, together, no trend is inevitable. In fact, this very “trend” they keep talking about was carefully engineered and given long-range execution due to careful, deliberate planning of conservative groups beginning in the 1970s.
This is not to say that universities don’t need funding and enrollment. But the very national situation that necessitates putting more emphasis on those things than we used to can be reversed –but we have to work together and try, on all levels. When someone tells you, “A change is occurring, it will limit your power, resistance is futile,” it is a sure sign you need to organize some resistance. And start thinking about the ways this allegedly irresistible trend stands to benefit the people telling you not to oppose it. Maybe it makes their lives easier. Is that what we are here for?