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on October 15, 2009

Support for University education

What is required is a comprehensive review of our research and instructional needs.

Robert Birgeneau and Frank Yeary, Chancellor and Vice Chancellor respectively of the University of California at Berkeley recently authored an essay entitled "Rescuing Our Public Universities"which appeared in The New York Times on October 13. As a doctoral graduate from a Land Grant University I can personally endorse the suggestion that the federal government allocate additional funding to these institutions, reinforcing the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act.

The livestock industry, especially poultry production, has benefited materially from research conducted at state universities. Virtually all of our technical and production management obtained their basic degrees and subsequent education at Land Grant universities located in their native states. At a time of economic stringency, the federal government should step forward and support universities and specifically programs which will feed our population and contribute to the well-being of both agricultural and urban communities.

Students from even middle class families now have difficulty in meeting expenses and most graduate with high debt burdens. Many U.S. students are disinclined to undertake graduate study based on the financial restraints which exist.

Graduate education and research is severely hampered by a shortage of funds. The need to acquire competitive grants has distorted the scope of research activities with a disproportionate share of a diminishing pool of funding assigned to narrow areas which invariably exclude less esoteric but practical fields of study. The private sector has reduced extramural funding as more in-house research is conducted. Basic and applied research has shifted from the U.S. to nations where there are fewer limitations, a more hospitable regulatory environment and with lower cost structures.

The productivity of our young research scientists is severely hampered by the need to constantly write grant applications and pursue funding initially for their own salaries and then for graduate stipends as their programs develop. Although competition favors the more innovative and productive workers, many scientists, some "late bloomers" with potential, drop out of academia depriving the nation of their creativity.

University overhead is a driving force in the quest for funding. At least 25% and frequently a higher proportion of “research” money is in fact diverted to administration. A review of the structure of many of the Land Grant universities and other educational institutions reveals multi-tiered organizations. This gives rise to the adage "those that can't, teach and those that can't teach, administer." Recently Holden Thorpe, the newly appointed Chancellor of the University of North Carolina created a firestorm by appointing an outside consulting firm with experience in business management to review the organization structure of his university.

This extremely unpopular step resulted in the recognition that there were far too many administrators on the payroll with inflated salaries relative to teaching and research appointees. As an ex-professor who worked "in the trenches" for twenty years I recognize the frustrations of young colleagues and the limitations which are imposed on them. Their ability to conduct research, to teach and to become involved in service is constrained by the rigors of constantly submitting grant applications with diminishing probabilities of funding due to intense competition.

Although many of the problems and limitation associated with the Land Grant system could be alleviated with increased funding, simply throwing money at the situation or Congress providing earmarks, is no solution. What is required is a comprehensive review of our research and instructional needs, establishing priorities, and allocating resources to achieve optimal return. As with our health-care challenge, elimination of waste in the form of overhead and non-productive activities should be incorporated in the appraisal of support for education.                


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