External rendering of IRIC research center, UofI
As I've moved up in the academic hierarchy and spent more time at different schools I've noticed that every place has it's culture, which is often wildly different from it's neighbors, and despite this everybody wants to be Harvard. Not that aiming high isn't a good idea, I like a school to have lofty goals for itself and it's students. It's just very clear that not every school can be the number one school in ________ (pick your favorite category(s)). Still, there seems to be a disconnect between what the history, culture and current stature of a school would indicate is an achievable goal and what a group of career administrators recruited from outside the school think aught to happen. Recent developments at University of Idaho are a great example.

I'll get into the details further in, but suffice it to say that this post was prompted by University of Idaho starting construction on a new $50 million dollar Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC), intended to attract top tier research faculty with the vague promise of interdisciplinary research and "advanced equipment and forward-looking research laboratories." This at a time when funding opportunities for those faculty and equipment are at an all time low, and other universities are struggling to pay for these very types of building strategies

A startling lack of clarity on how this new building will be used started at the unveiling of the design, and continues today. The administrators in charge have stated that the lab space will be temporary, and that no one will lose their current lab space if they move into the IRIC. How this will work in practice remains extremely vague, in fact multiple articles in the student Argonaut newspaper have indicated that professors have large concerns about having to split their labs. It raises issues with student cohesion as well as simple use of necessary equipment, not to mention that lab space must necessarily remain underutilized in other buildings if those labs are still granted to the faculty temporarily in IRIC. 
“The procedures for determining who’s going to use the building aren’t there yet … it’s a very serious concern,”“I can’t even imagine what projects might go there, until I know what objective they are trying to meet, how are they going to meet those objectives, how are they going to measure their success,” Foster said. “Until the nuts and bolts planning is in place, I can’t think about it much.” - Professor James Foster (from the Argonaut)
To date the plans are still not in place, indicating that the physical structure was more important than the nuts and bolts of how this futuristic, multi-disciplinary lab will be utilized. While the idea of fostering inter-disciplinary work is a good one, I find it hard to imagine that $50 million worth of facility could be in the process of construction and yet the school has no concrete plans for how to utilize the space. Interestingly, I have yet to hear comparisons to other similar, and successful, examples. I would have expected to hear of these examples on the IRIC website, or from Jack McIver, vice president of research and economic development, and the person who seems to in charge of this adventure. Is this the first time this has been tried?

At the same time, the university has proposed gutting two well respected campus-wide interdisciplinary graduate programs due to lack of money, managing enemic improvements in their plans only after faculty and student pressure. These are the programs that must be in place if they want to convince new faculty that they can attract top-tier graduate students to a remote University. Further, they haven't been very receptive to honoring their own prior commitments for this "advanced equipment" that their faculty have already attained through competitive national grants…yet they expect to fill their shiny new lab space with this type of equipment
New entrance construction at UofI

To add insult to injury, they have decided that almost $1 million dollars should be used to beautify the entrances to the school (a school that sits in a small, sleepy town where finding the university has never been an issue and beautiful entrances are largely a waste of time) rather than spending that money on improving programs or retaining faculty. A million dollars would have gone a long way in maintaining interdisciplinary graduate programs. Color me unimpressed, but I don't see a coherent strategy here. Instead, I see it tying into a larger problem that other mid-tier, land-grant universities are facing. 

Click "read more" for my take on this situation, as seen through my lens of a future academic career.


As a PhD student who would like to pursue a tenure track job I'm starting to pay more and more attention to this dichotomy between reality and the goals of a schools administration. I care about teaching, I had great teachers at Macalester College and I wouldn't be where I am without them. I also care about my research and would like to settle somewhere where I can dig into research in meaningful ways and include students at all levels. I realize that nobody can do both of these things at the highest level, that good teaching schools are not usually first tier research Universities.

Sure, at some level you come down on one side or the other of the teaching vs. research divide. Still, I think there is a balance and it is possible for schools to do both, even if individual faculty come down more on one side than the other. I'm rapidly realizing, though, that there is a large class of schools at which these goals of committing time to excellence in teaching as well as excellence in research is currently not possible, and even actively discouraged by the administrative goals of the University.

Going to school at University of Idaho (UofI), but spending time at Washington State University (WSU) just 10 minutes away, has given me lots of perspective on this. What I see at both schools is not encouraging as a future professor. I see decades of state budget cuts being absorbed by both schools, which has paradoxically led to a growth in administration with the intent of more efficiently utilizing scarce resources through strategic planning. Ironically, but as expected, this emphasis on administration instead wastes those funds as they filter through the attendant bureaucracy into myriad pet projects.

Could this money have been spent to support the research UofI wants to attract?
The biggest problem I see, one that no-one seems to acknowledge, is the recruiting of external administration over internal candidates. These career admins sell themselves with lofty goals of increasing the stature of the school, increasing enrollment, and streamlining programs, all in hopes of cashing in on a largely illusory windfall of tuition income and NSF and NIH research funding. All these pipe dreams are quickly acted on as soon as they are hired, all while ignoring the culture, individuality, and larger fiscal and geographic reality of the school.

For mid-tier research universities, your typical state land grant college, states have been cutting back funding for years. This hasn't stopped administrations from hiring presidents, provosts and deans who come in promising big things. This lack of state funds then collides directly with "if you build it they will come" strategies for attracting faculty, all while faculty absorb pay cuts and (if they are very lucky) cost of living increases that never catch up to inflation. Even more worrisome, I see faculty who are told in so many words that their time spent on teaching should be as little as 5% of their time, while schools relax entry requirements to boost tuition income and must resort to two levels of remedial math and science classes to get kids caught up…all of which requires additional instruction prep to make up for the quality of students. At the same time departments are punished for low attendance in core introductory classes based on "enrollment based funding" that cuts department money in accordance with the popularity of their intro courses. It creates a twisted catch-22 for departments that they cannot win.

Lets think for a second about the motivations of an externally hired administrator, whether a dean, provost or president. These people universally have ambition, they wouldn't have become administrators or applied to another university if they weren't planning to climb the ladder. They are most likely not planning to settle in a tiny town in podunk nowhere just for a university job. A mid-tier university with budget issues can't pay much after all. Unless they have connections to the community they see this as a stepping stone to a better job. Therefore, they want results, and they want them quickly. They want to show that they have achieved some metric of student achievement, research funding, or budget balancing that they can tout as a reason to hire them at a more financially stable university.

Given this background I'm monumentally unimpressed with UofI's strategic plan. It was only a couple months ago that I got an email saying that the Water Resources program, a campus wide interdisciplinary program focusing on the hot topic of water in the West, would be merged with the law department. This would have killed the program as only a tiny fraction of the graduate students pursue the dual-degree path in law. At the same time they proposed to move the successful and highly regarded campus wide Environmental Studies department into College of Natural Resources (CNR).

Faculty have openly discussed either leaving these programs, or in some cases leaving the University, based on these moves to a new administration. There are, without a doubt, a few interpersonal issues between the faculty and the future administrators, issues I'm not willing to comment on. Still, moving an interdisciplinary program into an historically "hook and bullet" department is a recipe for a loss of true interdisciplinary work…most Natural Resources folks work under the paradigm of "managing" wildlife and environments, or at least that has been the pattern until recently. A program that prominently features historians and philosophers is not likely to remain so diverse over the long term when the dean's mission is much more narrowly focussed.

In the end it looks like both programs will be relocated to CNR, which is a pale win for Water Resources since it won't be forced into a painful death in College of Law but otherwise is a long-term death knell in my opinion. When a grad student like me starts hearing open talk of high ranking faculty in both programs entertaining leaving the University or retiring rather than go under CNR that is a bad sign. Who, exactly, does the university think will fill these gleaming new labs with interdisciplinary research after they gut the very programs that foster this kind of research? With the money they spent on "improving" the campus entrances they could have supported the current structure of these departments until the IRIC building is completed, at which point they could use these well-regarded programs as a carrot to attract the top-tier faculty they want.

This brings us to the "If you build it they will come" mentality behind the IRIC building itself. Richard Harris of NPR reported on September 10th:
"American universities have seriously overbuilt their laboratory space. That is especially true for biomedical research. The National Science Foundation says there is 50 percent more lab space than a decade ago. The problem is there's been a sharp drop in funding to carry out research in those labs."
So top-tier research universities are just now realizing that they have overbuilt for research that now can't be funded…and now UofI wants to jump in on the party just as everyone else is going home? This doesn't make sense, and it has a direct effect on tuition, as Richard Harris explains:
"No question this pain is felt far and wide. But the University of Virginia's biomedical labs grew at twice the national average while NIH funding for the universities is actually lower than it was a decade ago. Worse, the state of Virginia now provides just 10 percent of funding for the university. So administrators have made up some of that shortfall by raising tuition."
This quote could easily apply to either UofI or WSU. The state no longer supports colleges, funding is lower across all fields except possibly defense. UofI and similar universities are more than ever dependent on attracting students to pay the bills, which has it's own pitfalls.

Finally, these labs in the new IRIC need to be filled with "advanced equipment," as stated in the strategic plan. But how will this be done?

“Anybody I work with in my department would depend on those details. And they’re not cheap, right? I mean setting up a biology research laboratory … $150,000, $200,000,” Forney said at the open forum. “What happens when my time is up to all that equipment? Because essentially you have to duplicate my lab.” - Professor Larry Forney (from the Argonaut)

On top of this glaring weakness in funding the university has either fought, or made life incredibly difficult, for at least one faculty member I know who recently received a prestigious Major Instrumentation Grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). These grants are almost always structured as 'matching' grants, where NSF expects the hosting university to match the grant allotment to ensure that the university is invested in the new (and cutting edge) equipment that is being funded. Failing to live up to this grant match is a guarantee of making NSF think twice about ever funding another grant to the university, yet UofI has fought for several years to wiggle out from their grant commitment for early $1 million in matching funds, going as far as to make the matching funds an internal "loan" to the faculty member. How does this fit into the strategic plan? Does the administration think that potential faculty hires won't learn of this?

Remember, top-tier faculty have top-tier choices. CNR has already lost their top candidates in two faculty searches to other schools. To attract quality researchers you must convince them that the school is their ally. Is UofI doing that? By cutting into the interdisciplinary programs that support the research that they expect to fill the IRIC are they cutting off the nose to spite the face? The IRIC website proclaims:
"The IRIC will stand as evidence of the university’s commitment to cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and will serve to improve the experience of everyone on campus. "
I hope that the building won't stand alone in place of the evidence of support of interdisciplinary research that well regarded graduate programs provide for new faculty hires. I also hope that the pie-in-the-sky ideas of "temporary" lab space have been thought out beyond what has been communicated, or this will be a monumental waste of money.

This all brings me back to the main point. Schools like UofI and WSU (a school with even more problems I won't go into here) are not top-tier research universities and both geography and state politics have conspired to make it unlikely that they will reach this level anytime soon. But, by falling for the temptation of hiring external administrators they have both fallen into a trap of selfishly motivated, short-term, "strategic plans." The result is incomprehensible decision making given the limited funds available, a reliance on increased enrollment rather than cost cutting on administration, and a belief that reaching "top-tier" research status will solve the financial problems.

Make no mistake, I understand that state budget cutting has put a serious crimp in schools budgets. I also understand that a political desire to make sure everyone can get a college education (whether they are prepared or not) makes it difficult not to increase enrollment and decrease entry standards. But, from the vantage point of a future faculty member this is not a recipe for a fruitful career. The reason is that all of this eventually comes down on the heads of faculty. They are denied raises based on lack of funds, expected to teach at a high level but told to devote almost no time to actually doing it, and must raise research funds constantly while grant funds dry up nationally just to keep up with the expectations of tenure and promotion…leading to becoming poorly paid grant writers, not researchers.

UofI recently lost it's longtime president and put in place an interim president with decades of experience at the university. He seemed to understand the university and what was possible. He didn't appear to want the university to become the next Michigan or University of Texas, he realized the role of a mid-tier school…to provide a solid education and to provide excellent research at a volume similar to it's size. But, the university decided it needed to hire an external person for president. So far the strategic plan doesn't seem to match the reality of the funding situation or the geography of University of Idaho in my eyes, but I'll reserve judgement on the president until he's had a couple years to settle in.