Princeton what?

Jul 15 2010 Published by under Careerism, Education, Tribe of Science

A post from Mike the Mad Biologist takes a shot at a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education's site. Hackner and Dreifus pursue a thesis that Universities need to return to their roots, or "roots" I should say, and refocus on the education of undergraduate students. The part that got Mike the Mad....well, Mad, was this:

Spin off medical schools, research centers, and institutes. Postgraduate training has a place, as long as it doesn't divert faculties from working with undergraduates or preoccupy presidents, who should be focusing on education--not angling for another center on antiterrorist technologies. For people who want to do research, plenty of other places exist--the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute--all of which do excellent work without university ties. Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school--which often becomes the most costly complex on a campus, commandeering resources, attention, and even mission. In fact, the "school" often becomes a minute part of a medical complex: Johns Hopkins has fewer than 500 medical students, but atop them sits an empire with more than 30,000 employees.

As is my wont, first a distraction. A comment over at MtMB's place identifies an important point of debate.

Slight correction, but an important one. Ready?
Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university.
The core mission of the university is scholarship. The university is a place in which the creation, transmission, criticism, and development of knowledge is the paramount good. Part of that mission is the transmission of knowledge.

There's more in that vein so go read the rest of the comment. I haven't thought much on this in my career, not being in any sort of position where I might be inclined to fight over these issues. It is also something that is so readily apparent to me that I gloss over it. University undergraduate education is inferior as pedagogical instruction, full stop. I believe this heartily and for good reason. I've done undergraduate instruction in several types of institutions from community college to SLAC to Big Honking U. Not a ton of everything, but enough. I also received undergraduate education in a place dedicated mostly to instruction.
Big Honking U's confer other benefits, of course. Including opportunities for research and contact with FamousPeopleInTheirFields. In some cases this may mean a local improvement in the pedagogical experience, but this is not the norm.
Okay, back to Mike the Mad who points to the obvious. Universities are dependent on the external funding teat. External funding is a net plus for the University, you better believe it. And if you want to spin off the research mission to refocus on undergraduate instruction, well, there has to be a cash source.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, you either have to raise tuition (or state taxes for public universities), or hope someone ponies up a huge honking endowment. I realize "huge honking" is a highly technical term, so to put some concrete numbers to this, if a university loses $15 million of indirect costs, it needs to raise $300 million of endowment ($15 million is a five percent annual payout).

That's the practical reality. There is also the intangible quality of reputation. Institutional reputation looks a heck of a lot different to people in the scientific (and no doubt all other academic) fields than it does to people who are focused on undergraduate or lay-person reputation.
Hopefully most students who are looking into graduate education come to this realization quite quickly. If the reputation of a University dictated your undergraduate applications it is nearly certain that a whole different list shaped the graduate school application process. This is because Universities that are not of conventional reputation (see Ivy league) may be be awesome in subfields of -ology or even all of biomedical science. [full disclosure: I applied to a single Ivy league school for grad studies, for reasons that now are unclear to me. Certainly the other ones were all similarly strong in the -ology I was planning for graduate study and this Ivy was not particularly impressive. My dad observed that he thought I did it just to get an admissions bid into an Ivy. Perhaps I did, perhaps I did.] The reputation is built on the science coming out of that University, rather than the undergraduates coming in ("selectivity/exclusivity cred") or going out ("destination cred").
This brings me to the comment in the CHE bit that struck my eye "Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school".
Princeton what? Who are they?
Seriously, they have next to no profile in my fields. Harvard? Yale? Sure, I have colleagues that I know at these places. Multiple investigators, in fact, that contribute at present and in the past to my subfields of major and minor interest. Core papers have come from investigators working at those Universities. I review grants from those institutions. Etc.
Princeton? Without resorting to PubMed or the Googs I can't think of a single investigator or paper from Princeton University that has any impact on my scientific subarea.
So have they "succeeded quite nicely"? Well, if so, only for some values of success.

38 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Manuel Llinas. But then, you are not studying genetic regulation in Plasmodium.
    Also, Bonnie Bassler is there (she gives awesome talks- I think there's a TED talk of her, something like that anyway, floating around them thar internets)

  • whimple says:

    External funding is a net plus for the University, you better believe it.
    According to a very high up mucki-muck here whose business it is to know these things, research done at our medical school has net costs that exceed revenues by 10%. He says he's still committed to keeping research at this institution, but from a straight profit/loss perspective, we'd do better to drop research.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    oh, and more importantly I can't remember ever seeing a Princeton domain in the SiteMeter records for this blog 😛

  • DrugMonkey says:

    research done at our medical school has net costs that exceed revenues by 10%.
    Incompetence. how many DWOFs* do you have not pulling their share?
    *less active senior faculty who have tenure protection and astronomical salaries, not to mention much good will that keeps the administration from chopping them mercilessly like they do the soft-money, nontenured folk.

  • Eric Lund says:

    Princeton may not have a medical school, but they have a contract to run a government lab called the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. (Clarification: that's "plasma" as in the fourth state of matter, not "plasma" as in blood.) You can look at the contract documents if you're into that sort of thing.
    @2: If your university can document that its current overhead rates do not adequately cover the costs of research, your office of sponsored research can request higher rates the next time your rate agreement is up for renewal. My university recently did so, with the result that our overhead rates will be gradually increasing over the next few years, starting with the fiscal year that just began this month. Otherwise, either your OSR people are incompetent (as DM says) or they are choosing to subsidize some aspect of research. If the latter, it may be in hopes of getting major profits from the resulting intellectual property (remember, most IP agreements state that what you discover with research funds channeled via the university belongs to the university).

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    There is a fact-based question here that's been hard to sort out every time I've looked into it (partly because money is quite fungible):
    Is undergraduate tuition subsidizing research and graduate programs, or vice versa? It sure looks as though MtMB is starting from the "undergraduates subsidize research" position. I know, for instance, that John Lynch accepted that the undergraduate programs at Arizona State supported research programs. He argued that this is justifiable based on the vastly superior undergraduate education that ASU offers thanks to trickle-down effects.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I'd say Elizabeth Gould is kind of a big deal.

  • NoAstronomer says:

    1. Princeton has no medical school (Eric's comment notwithstanding)
    2. "DrugMonkey is an NIH-funded biomedical research scientist."
    "... I can't think of a single investigator or paper from Princeton University that has any impact on my scientific subarea."
    follow automatically?

  • becca says:

    "I'd say Elizabeth Gould is kind of a big deal. "
    *googles Elizabeth Gould*
    ahahahaha. That's ok. DM can't be expected to remember female scientists that are the first to prove adult neurogenesis. Particularly ones that don't read the blog. AHAHAHAHAHAHA.
    *hands DM a napkin for the egg*

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Hey, becca, be nice. Adult neurogenesis isn't DM's field. Actually, from what I can gather, the "no med school, nothing in my field" is a pretty safe tautology.
    Now, if we were talking about the University of Kentucky, I'm sure he'd be familiar with the work of Boyd Haley.

  • anon says:

    Eric Wieschaus, nobel laureate. I'm sure he has a few decent papers out there..

  • DrugMonkey says:

    *hands DM a napkin for the egg*
    Why? I am entirely unembarrassed about the poor state of my recollection of where people are located. This underlines my point. It is not front and center in my mind that Princeton is a research powerhouse in my area.

  • Eric Lund says:

    Is undergraduate tuition subsidizing research and graduate programs, or vice versa?
    I can't speak for ASU, but in most universities undergraduate tuition does not significantly subsidize research. (There may be programs to involve undergraduates in research.) On the contrary, undergraduate tuition typically does not cover the cost of educating the undergraduates, especially when you consider scholarships and financial aid. I'm sure some of the undergraduate tuition pays for the cost of TAs who are typically first and second year grad students, but that is a legitimate educational expense. By the end of the second year, Ph.D. students in science and engineering are generally expected to become part of a research group and be supported by one or more of their advisor's grants--at most universities these grants pay for tuition (of students who are largely done with taking classes), so it is actually the research in these departments that subsidizes the graduate program.

  • qaz says:

    Um... Princeton has a number of very big name players in neuroscience, particularly cognitive neuroscience.

  • Gerty-Z says:

    Just because Princeton doesn't have a medical school doesn't mean that there is not NIH-funded biomedical research going on. Princeton has quite a few good basic scientists over that way.

  • Namnezia says:

    That's so silly - Princeton has a huge amount of research, particularly in Physics. And as far as DM's field, they have a huge Neuroscience group with some pretty big names in it. Maybe not in drug addiction per se, but definitely the field is well represented.

  • Namnezia says:

    Also... think about it, they even had fucking Einstein working there!

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    On the contrary, undergraduate tuition typically does not cover the cost of educating the undergraduates, especially when you consider scholarships and financial aid.

    That's where the fungibility of money is so important -- it all depends on how you account for various line items. If you're trying to establish a high overhead rate for research, you shift a lot of expenses into the research budget. If you're trying to convince the Legislature to pony up more money for the University, you shift everything over to undergraduate education.
    One reason I cite Arizona (besides John Lynch) is that I know what Arizona's legislative discussions of university funding cover -- and it's almost all undergraduate education, partly because of Arizona's Constitutional requirement to offer postsecondary education "as nearly free as possible." No such requirement exists for research, and remarkably the per-undergraduate amounts provided to the three state universities are nearly the same for each despite widely different research budgets; scholarships and other aid are separate line items.
    This is, politically, necessary because the taxpayers are a lot more willing to pony up for education than for all of that other stuff.
    The thing that the average tax (or tuition) payer doesn't understand is how a combined tuition+subsidy cost of more than $600 per credit hour times twenty to three hundred students isn't enough to cover a grad student, a classroom, and overhead thus requiring additional subsidy. As long as the books are so mixed up, that question will always be subject to creative accounting with the answer depending on what answer you want.

  • Pascale says:

    Research, even at the biggest medical centers and biomedical research institutes, is a loss-leader. Centers perform research because it is important and it enhances their reputation, but when you look at its costs (start-up and recruitment packages, bridge funding, educational costs for grad students, accountants and grants administration, etc) break-even is the best most institutions can do, even if they have negotiated obscene indirect rates from the NIH. Unis with other primary funding sources that do not come with generous indirects (such as Princeton without a med school)are more likely to have to fill that gap via endowments.
    When you look at the finances of academic medical centers, clinical revenue is about the only thing that can generate excess of revenue over costs - and insurance companies try to make sure that doesn't happen.
    We built an academic system in the post-war glory years where excess clinical revenue could support the educational and research enterprise. As clinical revenue has tightened, we have less wiggle room to support these other missions.
    Research is important, and I'm an MD - I won't ever have a role in undergraduate education - but extramural funding does not cover the costs of the research enterprise, just as tuition does not cover the costs of the educational enterprise at most colleges and universities.

  • Alex says:

    Slight correction, but an important one. Ready? Education is not, and should not be, the core mission of the university. The core mission of the university is scholarship.
    Um, most of the scholarship (at least in STEM disciplines) involves graduate students doing thesis work. That is most DEFINITELY education. Unless you're suggesting that we weren't educated in grad school. For that matter, research can be an important part of undergraduate education (at least for some students) as well.
    I'm a big fan of undergraduate education, and a big believer in expecting good classroom teaching from faculty even at research universities (as long as teaching is part of their job, they should do it well), but using "education" as a synonym for "undergraduate classroom teaching" bothers me a lot. Unless one views a professor primarily as a grant-getter who supervises people churning out data, and education as a merely incidental by-product of that activity. That may be how some Deans view it, but that sort of view will not be conducive to a good training environment. A student in the lab should be seen as a student/trainee first and foremost, and a data-generating device second.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Based on these comments, every major part of the University is a loss leader. What is left? Parking fees?

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Based on these comments, every major part of the University is a loss leader. What is left? Parking fees?

    Sports. That's why coaches draw multimillion-dollar salaries: without them, postsecondary education in the United States would disappear.
    Or so the local university administrations assure me.

  • whimple says:

    I don't have hard data to support this, but my guess is that Universities are supported primarily by 1) clinical practice, 2) tuition and fees and 3) donations and bequests from alumni that were former undergraduates and medical students (not necessarily in that order). I'm thinking the bean counters in charge here will either fold research altogether, or get rid of tenure in departments with an extramural funding component (make everyone be soft money) so they can cherry pick among researchers to balance the books. Most schools lose money on athletics programs.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Most schools lose money on athletics programs.

    As always, the accountants rule. If you chalk up all donations to the credit of the athletic program, then it's a winner. Then you can attribute those same donations to something else next week -- such as the proton accelerator that the Administration had the foresight to get for the medical school, or ...

  • Cashmoney says:

    You folks are not convincing. I'm sticking with 'parking fees'.

  • Alex says:

    D.C. Sessions is right. You can chalk a cost up to whatever you want to if a facility is shared. One week you say that the building is used for grant-generating research AND tuition-generating classes AND fame-generating research that leads to donations, if you want to say that it's an excellent investment. The next week, when you want to say that they need more money, you argue that the tuition for the classes is not enough to support all of the important things going on in the building. The week after that, you point to some subset of the classrooms in the building and argue that they are being used really efficiently so stop pointing fingers. The week after that, you point to the user facility in there and all of the recharges for equipment use and argue that it's a money-maker. The week after that, you say that the grant that bought the machine isn't enough to support all of the activities associated with it, so you need more money. And so forth.
    If we go with what universities actually expend money on, assume that they know what they're doing (yeah, yeah, I know), and try to deduce where they make money (no matter how the accountants credit it all), then universities make money on (in no particular order):
    1) Research (try getting tenure without it, I dare you!)
    2) Parking fees (those parking enforcers are fanatical)
    3) Alumni donations (when's the last time you saw a University President doing anything other than schmoozing donors?)
    4) Athletics (how many professors make more money than the football coach, huh?)
    Given how little emphasis goes into teaching for tenure decisions (even at undergraduate institutions, you'd be surprised....), we can conclude that tuition is not a money-maker.
    I don't know anything about med schools, so I can't comment on clinical revenue.

  • Julie says:

    Now I feel the need to defend my alma mater... For what it's worth, Princeton is ranked the best place to do life science research by The Scientist:
    But it's true that they're very focused on basic research.
    And, I would say that the science education I got there was pretty great. I learned to write. I took a 15-student seminar taught by Elizabeth Gould. I did my undergrad thesis research in Bonnie Bassler's lab, in which I was expected to do actual research, unlike the undergrads at the Big Honking U's I've worked at since.

  • Jen says:

    In my subarea, Eric Wieschaus (Nobel Laureate and Princeton faculty) is pretty darn important. Bonnie Bassler was the unanimous choice as invited speaker for my graduate student-organized symposium.

  • bayman says:

    Budgetary issues aside, the days of faculty-teaching-undergrads are just done. Money is just part of the story, the concept is completely irrelevant in 21st century America. Universities need to adapt and move their business plans forward into the information revolution just like in hollywood and the recording biz. Clinging to outdated models - lecturing for money and selling textbooks - is not helping anyone.

  • david says:

    I agree with bayman here. These issues are stale. They were known and in fact covered thoroughly in Victorian times, not that you lot would know, or have the education to know, or have cared to look into it further than your unexpected medical holster shots.
    I see here a spat as if within your own species.
    The anecdotal bases and reasoning of D. C. Sessions and Alex are convincing. What they have not said, as they have been polite, is that we have in this spat here another example of unwarranted medical arrogance not knowing its limitations.

  • DSKS says:

    "I don't have hard data to support this, but my guess is that Universities are supported primarily by 1) clinical practice, 2) tuition and fees and 3) donations and bequests from alumni that were former undergraduates and medical students (not necessarily in that order)."
    That sounds about right. There's a drive towards drawing some revenue from licensing intellectual property and whatnot (with at least one university having recently struck a deal with Big Pharma to get access to its compound catalog), and there's usually revenue from rented real estate (our U built a new "basketball" stadium that was really intended to as a new midsize gig venue for the city), but I'm not sure whether this this sort of entrepreneurial behaviour amounts to more than income supplement inre the bottom line.

  • josh says:

    Princeton has a lot of cognitive neuroscientists? I'll take your word for it. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I couldn't think of anyone at Princeton. I went to the website and still didn't recognize their names. So I'm assuming they work on a subdiscipline different from mine.
    And the NIH funds lots and lots of research that does not take place at medical schools. Similarly, my entire career I've been supported by the Department of Defense, but I have yet to make a weapon or anything useful as a weapon. It turns out they're interested in basic research, too.

  • Anonymous says:

    Princeton seems to be a refuge for failed neuroscientists. For example, this assistant professor was trained in excellent laboratories as a grad student and post-doc, and then got a tenure-track assistant professor position at UCSD in 2003. Her lab never published a single research manuscript during her time at UCSD, nor did she ever secure NIH funding. Now she's an assistant professor at Princeton.
    What kind of fucking standards for faculty hiring are those?
    And what blows my mind is that her lab Web site makes it sound like this is a real legitimate lab, and she actually does have a few post-docs, even after the abject failure of spending 6 years burning through start-up and other resources failing miserably to produce any science at all.
    These are the kind of people that piss MsPhD off, and Princeton is hiring them.

  • whimple says:

    Crazy slam on Lisa Boulanger.
    Your invective is more effective when you actually include the name of your target so search engines pick it up.

  • zoubl says:

    @33 - I don't know this person, but she could be married to someone else who was hired at Princeton. Or, to be optimistic, she has some cool story that isn't yet on paper. I wouldn't judge the situation without knowing the full story. That she doesn't have NIH funding is meaningless in this climate, with less than 20% success rates, and becoming asst prof at a time when NIH support for junior faculty plummeted.

  • qaz says:

    Anonymous #33 - Did you even look on her publications page? She's got papers from 2004 through 2009. I don't know this person at all, nor is she in my field, but I really don't understand the vehemence. She seems to have valid publications from her labs.
    It would seem that in this day and age, when people are getting thrashed by the system right and left, that it would be a good thing when someone gets a second chance (if that's even what happened - there are lots of plausible stories here) and succeeds, then we should celebrate that. This devil-take-the-hindmost is only going to make things worse. The business of science may not be a F*cking Carebears Party, but it really isn't Lord of the Flies either.
    PS. What's all the vehemence against Princeton? Just because they haven't concentrated on your favorite bunny-hopping subarea, they don't do neuroscience? We're scientists, let's look at some data. A simple RePorter search picks up seven pages of funding. True, I don't see a lot of NIDA funding, but there's quite a bit of NIMH funding, as well as NIA and NINDS funding.

  • Alumna says:

    “spending 6 years burning through start-up and other resources failing miserably to produce any science at all”.
    The “standards” on the role/job of an assistant professor at an academic institution appear to be in line with “to produce science that is reflected in number of publications and numbers of research grants” as the only norm and “best value” at top-notch universities.
    I think that Princeton is setting herself apart in hiring a neuroscientist who happen to have advanced her field of interest with novel ideas AND is having a major teaching role. Her classes are about “ From molecules to systems to behavior”.
    I don’t have the honor to have met Dr Boulanger but I think that if she is designing, organizing and teaching undergraduates and graduates to think about going from molecules to systems to behavior, she is doing what the Princeton’s prestige deserves. She might no be filling the National Library with 20-30 publications/year or might not be contributing to exorbitant administrator salaries by bringing multiple NIH grants. But she is doing what this country needs: preparing creative and critical scientific leaders. I hope so. Kudos to Princeton !!!

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