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Editor's note: Commentary provides university faculty and staff an opportunity to express their opinions in The Miami University Report. Contributions should be no longer than 500-600 words in length and should be directed to Bill Houk (physics), Published commentaries also will be posted online at

“Slidin' Down the Slant”
as overheard by James Brock, economics

“So doc,” he says, jumping me as I'm gettin' ready for that monthlong conference in Aruba on inside tips for outside funding from the National Science Foundation, “I suppose you're still fried about the continuing assault on undergraduate teaching here at Miami.”

“Negatory,” I barks, climbing out of my gull-wing Lamborghini. “Any fool can see that things couldn't be better.”

“I'm not sure your personal status is a good gauge of the health of the undergraduate enterprise,” he says.

“Look,” I growls, “you've taken econ, you know that cash is king. Mama Miami triples tuition, cash register sings ka-ching! Outside research funding shoots up, cash register rings ka-ching! The U builds luxy condos, writes more parking tickets, hits up alums all teary-eyed about how things used to be - ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!”

“But the administration's plan for profs to score outside grant money and funding - doesn't that push undergraduate education toward the back of the bus? Profs get grants and the first thing they do is buy down their teaching time.”

“Good to great,” I shoots back, explaining how I'm hustlin' over to Roudebush so's grant-writing gurus can tell me what to study that'll make funding sources drool.

“Gee, doc, doesn't that conflict with the university's ideal of freedom of inquiry? Doesn't it smack of centralized Soviet control over scholarly inquiry?”

“Nope,” I assures him. “Profs can freely undertake whatever scholarship they choose, so long as it's financially lucrative. Besides, the administration's gonna appoint a flock of top-notch, high-paid profs to take us higher.”

“But how many of those profs will actually teach undergraduate courses? Won't they be so involved in externally funded research and graduate programs that they'll have no time or interest in teaching us undergrads? Isn't that why they're being appointed? It may be the next tier, but on what ladder?”

“Get in the twenty-first century,” I chortles. “They'll be totally dedicated to the U's undergraduate mission - probably even teach an honors seminar every three years, enroll four or five of our best students, buy 'em a Bunson burner and give 'em an office hour.”

“But in the meantime we continue to be herded into ever bigger, ever more anonymous mega-sections of courses, where we need binoculars to see the prof and are fed Mickey-Mouse multiple-choice tests. Do you really think that's high-quality undergraduate education? Do you really think that constitutes meaningful student-teacher interaction?”

“It's the magic of the market,” I replies. “It provides what today's sophisticated undergrad wants: anonymity, disengagement, detachment, passivity, no questions asked - just fill 'er up doc so I can check outta here. You demand, we supply.”

“You really think that's what families will pay 18 grand a year in tuition for?”

“Look,” I huffs, “the president's explained how we tripled tuition in order to make Miami more affordable. That's an iron law of economics: Higher price equals greater affordability. News bureau says so. What more do you want?”

“I'd like someone in Roudebush to show me exactly how all this outside research funding will actually protect - much less enhance - the quality of undergraduate education here. You know, connect the dots. All these initiatives are endowed with an intricate bureaucratic apparatus - directors, assistants, budgets, publicists, goals, vision statements. Each is highly organized to pursue its own narrow goal. But where are the eyes in Roudebush to look at the big picture? Where is the voice to ask if the totality of these initiatives helps or hurts the quality of undergraduate education? Who's minding the undergraduate store?”

“First in '09!” I shouts. “That's your big picture. That's your brave new world. Now I really must be off. As Fermat's Second-to-the-Last Theorem proves, if I'm at this spot in the universe flappin' with you, I'm not at another spot hustlin' hard cold cash!”

Date Published: 10/14/2004
Volume: 24   Number: 11


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