The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

By Steven Brill
July 30, 2013

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 students for every faculty and staff member* faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

Leaving out the staff and just counting faculty, California has 3.7 students for every faculty member; NYU has 6.3 per student; FSU has 17.8; and Harvard has 8.75.

All these staffing ratios suggest pretty light workloads and low productivity, especially given the size of so many of the classes faculty members typically teach.  And, at least in terms of reputation, the ratios don’t seem to correlate to quality, given the Harvard comparison to California or NYU.

So, with President Obama and other political leaders lately making the escalating cost of higher education a big issue, there’s got to be a great story, locally and nationally, in examining what’s behind those numbers. Have university campuses become our cushiest workplaces?

*CORRECTION: This column originally misstated the number of students per faculty and staff member at the University of California.

2. Surveillance 2.0?

Thanks to this report in the trade publication Government Security News, I noticed this procurement announcement last week from the Secret Service:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intends to negotiate on a sole source basis with Canon USA, Inc., One Canon Park, Melville, NY, 11747, for color video camera systems that are solely available to the Government. The cameras being procured are not commercially available and are strictly limited for the Government’s official use. 

With high-resolution surveillance cameras, including those operated by private venue-owners, on so many street corners and deployed inside and outside millions of homes, buildings and stores around the world, what could be so special about these surveillance cameras that only the government can have them?

For a long time I’ve thought that surveillance cameras that could both see and hear — in other words catch and record what people were saying privately in public or semi-public places — would be the ultimate, and ultimately scary, Big Brother tool. Is that what this camera does?

3. $200 million to tear it down?

We all know how expensive building an office tower in a city like New York can be. But $200 million to tear one down? An article (now behind a pay wall) from Thomson Reuters News and Insight about litigation surrounding the takedown of the Deutsche Bank Building — a 41-story office tower near the World Trade Center that was damaged beyond repair in the September 11 attacks — puts the cost of demolishing the building at $200 million.

It took nearly ten years for the building to vanish because of delays caused by multiple lawsuits over who should pay, how the demolition should be carried out, and whether there was corruption in the award of the contracts. There was also a fire in 2007 that killed two demolition workers, which resulted in manslaughter indictments and acquittals of three construction supervisors. And the litigation — involving issues from criminal liability, to environmental impact, to zoning that could almost complete a law school curriculum — is still not completely over.

All in all, great material for a mini-e-book narrating the twists and turns — financial, legal, political and personal — in a fiasco that added insult to injury.

4. Can’t anybody get the A-Rod story?

Can so many sports reporters really be so lame? I’ve suggested this before, but the absence of a definitive story on Alex Rodriguez’s contract with the Yankees and the insurance policy the Yankees bought to cover it has become ridiculous.

It’s now comically obvious that the Yankees are trying to do whatever they can — even telling A-Rod that his leg hurts when he says it doesn’t — to keep him off the field before what looks like his inevitable suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. I almost expect to read tomorrow that someone from front office was caught leaving banana peels on the floor in the corridor of his hotel room.

Maybe we should organize a Kickstarter campaign to fund a reward for the reporter who can get the details of A-Rod’s contract and the insurance policy tied to it. How much money is at stake here? What are the trigger clauses behind the front office’s apparent effort to do everything short of hiring a hit man to keep him from returning to Yankee Stadium? If he has one at-bat or one inning on a major league field does the Yankee’s insurance coverage lapse? Would that mean they have to pay him even if he is suspended?

PHOTO: Students walk on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in Los Angeles, September 18, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson 

 

 

 

15 comments

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I think I can clear up the first point pretty quickly. Universities don’t only teach, they have another important function: Research!

Posted by MagicForest | Report as abusive

On item #1, University of California, the research productivity and output of the UC system FAR outperforms Harvard or NYU. Not even in the same league. Neither Harvard nor NYU are serious scientific research institutions, leading global expeditions. Let us know when NYU gets a Scripps Institute or takes on the role of partnering with the UN to develop methods for managing salinity in irrigated areas around the world. etc. etc.

Your assumption was that the faculty were supposed to all be teachers. That’s erroneous in the UC system. Many are just scientists running labs. The learning comes when you get a job in the lab. Then you are counted as ‘staff’ not student.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It must be liberal bias in the media, because all I’ve ever read or heard about the rising cost of higher education is how state aid isn’t keeping up, never about the rising cost of the products/services themselves. The Center for College Affordability does deal with the problem, though.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

$200 million to demolish a building? Al Qaeda does it for free. We’re losing our edge.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Re story number one: many of these people are primarily employed in a research capacity.

Posted by globalmacro | Report as abusive

The only ratio that really matters is faculty to students. All the added staff is mostly overpaid vice presidents and their staffs. Their principle activity is building empires for themselves. Then they can create enough work to keep other useless bureaucracies busy doing more useless make work. Most of this work is at the behest of equally superfluous government officials with nothing better to do than waste other peoples’ time. How many Vice Presidents does it take to spell “Diversity”? More than you can count.

Posted by xsafford | Report as abusive

Yes, some university have a very cushy faculty to student ratio and the funny thing is that they do not necessarily correlate to rankings and quality. Take the Georgia Institute of Technology: its school of mechanical engineering has approximately 95 faculty members and about 2200 undergraduate and 800 graduate students. That is a ratio of 30 students per faculty. Yet it is ranked consistently 6th or 5th in the nation (US News and World Report). And the faculty is research active. So I hope the author does not make broad generaliations based on a few data points. That would be bad science.

Posted by Bert2 | Report as abusive

who gave this guy a soapbox? Yale, I guess – which happens to have 2.9 students per faculty. but why would this be a meaningful metric? faculty do things other than teach – in fact career advancement is almost entirely focused on research/publication. or how about a doctor in a university hospital who has a faculty appointment? slow news day.

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

What an idiot. “All these staffing ratios suggest pretty light workloads and low productivity, especially given the size of so many of the classes faculty members typically teach.”

Yeah? Really? Ever tried being a professor? Ever tried finding out what kind of a workload they actually have? Ever tried giving a fair grade to 120 papers for six different classes within one week, every week for twenty weeks? Ever tried teaching six different classes while coming up with six different lesson plans? All the while attending faculty meetings and dealing with the universities’ paperwork AND keeping track of all the students’ progress on an individual level?

No?

Why not? Surely it’s such a light workload it would be easy to make more productive. [sarcasm]I mean, critical analysis and reading alone is such a brainless activity, SURELY it can be handed over to some automated program.[/sarcasm]

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive

Brill, not that I’m taking the defensive for academia but it amazes me you don’t acknowledge that many faculty don’t teach at all. Or very little. I don’t know the percentages but many professors are hired simply to carry on research, especially at institutions that focus on that more than teaching, for example universities vs. colleges. That alone may skew your ratios and perceptions. Google ‘research university.’
Agree about cameras and demolition costs. As far as the Yankees go, I don’t live in NYC.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive

Maybe those cameras detonate when they are tampered with.

Posted by MBmb | Report as abusive

You say you’re “looking for a story behind the numbers…”

(oh no! The horror! Instructors having student ratios of under 10! The “low-productivity” horror! By the way student-faculty ratios never accurately depict what real class sizes are. For example my undergrad alma mater has roughly a 17:1 student-faculty ratio, in reality class sizes, that were not massive 100-200 student surveys, had 20-30 students, certainly you should know this as a high-falutin’ journalism professor at Yale correct? Or is it writing a column titled “stories I’d like to see” which of course doesn’t involve any story writing of your own, the real “cushiest workplace” in America?)

… yet you’re ignoring a factor of data that has already been reported on extensively (which again as a vaunted professor of journalism *at Yale* you should probably already be aware of), and that is the explosive rise of adjunct, or otherwise contingent, faculty at universities across the country.

These adjuncts (who are normally quite qualified to be tenured professors) get paid somewhere between $2,000-$3,000 *per class* and no benefits (unless they’re at a generous institution), and normally are teaching multiple classes at several institutions to barely make ends meet (i/e a an annual income of $25,000-$30,000 if they’re lucky; the luckiest adjuncts can pull in a staggering $40,000 for the year, maybe without having to teach between multiple institutions). Now I know corporate schills break down with the vapours at any word that the typical American worker is anything but destitute, exhausted, and desperate, but I can assure you that adjuncts (which are becoming the majority of university “faculty” are working anything but “cushy jobs.”

Maybe take a stroll through your vaunted Yale campus and ask around?

Pinning rising college costs on faculty, and again as a journalist I thought you would know better, is a red herring. Universities have been gutting instructor pay and benefits (for those who are not lucky to land a tenure-track job they were promised their whole graduate career), yet tuition and fees keep rising. Maybe look moreso at the “staff.” The administrative class at universities, who typically have little, to zero, interaction with the student population (and may not even directly serve the student population in their job), rake in salaries at typically higher levels except for maybe the most senior professors (of whom I know, anecdotally, to rarely make more than $100,000 hardly the most offensive figure given presidents have been known to make $1 *MILLION* a year!), launch extravagant building projects that are paid for by the students, and add services that are also of dubious necessity (like food-service locations that try to present themselves as five-star restaurants to keep the rich students from taking their money outside campus).

Look I just wrote your story “behind the numbers” for you! And I’m just a schulb replying in the comments! It must be grand having a cushy job to make other people write the stories for you?

Posted by F.G | Report as abusive

Regarding your comment that, “All these staffing ratios suggest pretty light workloads and low productivity,” is an extremely naive comment and highlights the lack of deeper thought invested in this op-ed. The bulk of academic efforts at the higher institutions are in the form of research, meeting large publication requirements, and attempts to obtain grant funding. Researchers at these “cushiest workplaces” are the bastions of independent thought that prompt the creation and revision of public policy and ideas that promote invention and corporate growth. Additionally, the salary structure of the vast majority of the faculty at higher institutions are very low, especially given the advanced educational background required of the faculty to obtain these positions. As with most large businesses, the executive faculty at large academic institutions receive a salary disproportionate to the rest of the faculty, making it hard to accurately uniformly criticize all academics. Overall, poorly researched, poorly analyzed, poorly reported piece.

Posted by mikemc | Report as abusive

I believe Carnegie Mellon University receives about 80% of its funding from the federal government in one way or another, then there are the endowments.

As of 2011 there were 12058 students (grad and undergrad) with 5221 faculty and staff. 2.3 to one ratio.

Tuition goes up every other year, at least. Why, and why are we so costly when our budget is set by money for federal research?

Why is Penn State the costliest Public university?

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Professor hires 8 students to work in her lab. Those students are now counted as ‘staff’ (because they are on the payroll) and they are also counted as ‘students’ (because they are also enrolled).

So in this case, the writer’s phony metric shows a ratio of 9 faculty/staff for every 8 students. It double-counts certain people. We know there are only 9 people in the room, not 17.

This, all because the research institution took the CRAZY step of hiring its students to give them hands-on experience. I say, take these ratios with a grain of salt. In cases where the teaching is research-intensive, the posted ratios do not reflect head-counts on the ground.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive