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The Mailman School of Public Health and Fundraising
March 21, 2014 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Carole Vance and Kim Hopper had been professors at the Mailman School of Public Health for decades — 27 and 26 years, respectively. Vance... has done “pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights”; Hopper “is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness.” They were fired not because of any shortcomings in their research or teaching, but because they hadn’t raised enough money." Here's why it matters.

More from Inside Higher Ed, The Columbia Spectator, and Un-Occupy Mailman.
posted by latkes (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I looked, but had no luck finding a press release or statement from Columbia on the subject.
posted by latkes at 9:04 PM on March 21


[One comment deleted; let's not start the thread with lazy snark?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:40 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


And this is the same Columbia with an $8 billion endowment? I think it's tragic but complicated when smaller schools or places that are mostly state-funded have trouble keeping up with salaries and have to make hard decisions. When a place sitting on that much in invested funds claims it can't support someone who can't pay their salary on grants for the study of homelessness, it feels like there's got to be somebody with horns and a pitchfork involved. I can't even make it work in my head unless there's cackling.
posted by Sequence at 10:11 PM on March 21 [16 favorites]


I absolutely agree with the premise that this kind of dog-eat-dog approach to funding destroys good research and rots academia from within. But I think labeling the firing of these two professors as an act of discrimination ascribes an undue level of nefariousness. This is an issue of simple greed and is reflective of the defunding of education across the US as a whole.
posted by schroedinger at 10:47 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


Defunding education is a political act. Yes it's an act of greed, but greed didn't get its wealth by playing dumb. If Vance and Hopper were researching the inheritability of criminal behavior they'd likely still have jobs, or at least a spot on cable news.
posted by gorbweaver at 11:11 PM on March 21 [6 favorites]


This is insane, given the status of the two scholars, but situations like this are only going to get more common as federal funding for research just dries up, especially for anything remotely controversial and non monetizable. And if wealthy institutions like Columbia aren't going to tolerate any drop in the funding stream before they start sacking people, god knows how it will play out in poorer institutions.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:21 AM on March 22


> "If Vance and Hopper were researching the inheritability of criminal behavior they'd likely still have jobs"

Maybe not if they were researching the inheritability of *white collar* crime...
posted by surenoproblem at 12:58 AM on March 22 [6 favorites]


Make faculty pay a higher priority than new buildings/campus amenities please.

Also make NIH funding a higher priority than new missile systems please.
sequestration [has] led to a reduction in 640 competitive research grants at the NIH, the agency has said. They also forced the closure of scientific laboratories and layoffs of some research personnel at campuses across the country. (Inside Higher Ed)

(from 2014) Overall, the bill would allow NIH to fund 385 more research grants than it did in 2013, according to a statement from appropriators. That should help NIH recover from a drop in 722 competing grants last year compared with 2012 that resulted in a historically low success rate of 16.8%.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:05 AM on March 22 [3 favorites]


And this is the same Columbia with an $8 billion endowment?

Yep. The same Columbia that charges undergrads 60 thousand dollars a year to attend classes:

An itemized estimate of the cost of attending Columbia College for the 2013–2014 academic year of nine months is as follows:

"Tuition $46,846

Mandatory Fees $ 2,292

Average Room and Board Cost $11,978

Books and Personal Expenses $ 3,028

Trave varies

Total $64,144 + Travel"

Columbia does NOT NEED more funding. These schools - like banks - don't need any more of the public's money: they need different priorities on how to spend their immense wealth.
posted by three blind mice at 1:10 AM on March 22 [11 favorites]


“Public health depends on soliciting feedback from all stakeholders.” (References to multiple “stakeholders” always mean: You to whom I am speaking will get screwed.)

Quoted for future reference.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:10 AM on March 22 [7 favorites]


One of the comments to the linked article says that Columbia's endowment isn't as flexible as people are believing and that the vast majority of that money is restricted in how it can be spent. Does anyone know how accurate this is? If it is accurate, how restrictive can it be before an institution just won't take it?
posted by fireoyster at 2:18 AM on March 22 [2 favorites]


Fireoyster, the answer is basically "so restricted that managing the money will cost more than the money itself." Since that never actually happens, the functional answer is no.
posted by Itaxpica at 2:27 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


And quick sidebar, before anything else: you don't spend an endowment. An 8 billion dollar endowment doesn't mean Columbia pays it's expenses from a great big pile of eight billion dollars. It means that Columbia holds 8bn in investments, and pays for the running of the college with the interest from those investments. That interest is generally budgeted to a T and is super inflexible. Spending from the endowment itself is a terrible idea - it's basically mortgaging the future of the institution to pay for the present, and is almost always done as a last-ditch, nightmare-scenario kind of thing. Having to tap your endowment is generally seen as a major failure for a university administration.

They may cover this in the article, which I haven't actually read yet, so apologies if they do.
posted by Itaxpica at 2:32 AM on March 22 [8 favorites]


You don't spend an endowment. Sounds like Goldman Sachs defending its need for government bailouts. The rich get richer and complain there's nothing they can do about it.
posted by three blind mice at 3:10 AM on March 22


This is fascinating: FY 2013 Financial Statements for The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York (PDF).

2013 revenues were $3.7B, and expenses were $3.4B. Interest from the endowment is roughly 12% of their revenue, about a 6% return. Tuition and fees are $1.1B, minus $315M in financial aid.

It looks like there is plenty of money there, in any case. It's a huge business.
posted by maxwelton at 3:28 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


Actually "the rich [getting] richer" are university administrators, but especially the administrators who make their mint off public money. Ain't clear if the administrators, bankers, etc. who get rich off the endowment directly care so much.

Important history lesson :

After WWII, the federal government was extremely impressed by the atomic bomb, cryptography, etc. and needed to compete with communism, so they sought to expand the universities by offering grants. There were complications with too much direct funding for education, like convincing fiscal conservatives, etc., but no trouble with paying for research.

We therefore sought to adopt a less socialist policy officially but make capitalism look better by "cooking the books" to fund education. We allowed, and even encouraged, universities to tack massive overhead fees onto the grants they applied for.

It worked of course, university administrators were drawn to hire researchers who brought in federal money, built extremely strong American universities. Yet, that dishonest funding policy built dishonest bureaucracies to collect and consume the money. And those administrative bureaucracies have continued expanding over the last couple decades of flat government funding by increasing tuitions.

Imho, we should chop off university administration above the department level, initially routing all tuition payments directly into accounts controlled by academic departments, who then buy serviced from centralized non-academic departments like IT, payroll, legal, etc., but forcing those non-academic departments to compete with in-house solutions, and later building MOOAs to downsize non-academic departments. A faculty senate could regulate the relationship between the different departments, academic or otherwise. Actual academics would not raise tuition or fire productive researchers nearly so quickly.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:15 AM on March 22 [13 favorites]


More than anything, this demonstrates the importance of tenure.

Also, tuition is almost irrelevant, as public health is largely funded by federal grant money, and budgets aren't share amongst or between departments.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:26 AM on March 22 [3 favorites]


Also, Many professors live in subsidized faculty housing. I wonder if these two do. If so that means they're probably going to get kicked out of their homes. Again, tenure is important.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:28 AM on March 22


After WWII, the federal government was extremely impressed by the atomic bomb, cryptography, etc. and needed to compete with communism, so they sought to expand the universities by offering grants. There were complications with too much direct funding for education, like convincing fiscal conservatives, etc., but no trouble with paying for research.

We therefore sought to adopt a less socialist policy officially but make capitalism look better by "cooking the books" to fund education. We allowed, and even encouraged, universities to tack massive overhead fees onto the grants they applied for.


This is kind of what happened to healthcare, too! Relatedly, anytime a politician (including US presidents) considered a single payer system, it was deemed too socialist and the lowest common denominator (least politically-charged) for "improving the health of Americans" was to funnel money into medical research (at academic hospitals).
posted by vitabellosi at 4:46 AM on March 22 [3 favorites]


One of the articles mentioned that one of the profs teaches two classes a year, so I'd think that means they spend most of their time researching. In light of that, CU's decision not to renew their contracts doesn't sound terribly unreasonable to me. They're basically professional researchers that teach a class or two on the side.

re endowment: they have 8 billion of investments and 6bill in restrictions, so their unrestricted investments are at least 2bill.
posted by jpe at 5:42 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


One of the articles mentioned that one of the profs teaches two classes a year, so I'd think that means they spend most of their time researching. In light of that, CU's decision not to renew their contracts doesn't sound terribly unreasonable to me. They're basically professional researchers that teach a class or two on the side.

This (1-1) is a perfectly normal work load for faculty at a top US research university.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:01 AM on March 22 [14 favorites]


One of the articles mentioned that one of the profs teaches two classes a year, so I'd think that means they spend most of their time researching.

The Inside Higher Ed explains the break-out: the attractive NIH grants require an 80 percent commitment to research, which (assuming a 60 hour week) leaves 12 hours for admin, teaching, and mentoring. One class per semester is possible with that schedule, but as they note it doesn't leave a lot of time for searching and applying for the next grant.

And if wealthy institutions like Columbia aren't going to tolerate any drop in the funding stream before they start sacking people, god knows how it will play out in poorer institutions

Wealthy institutions (including the flagship state universities) are where most of the federal research dollars go, so it's going to be more of a theoretical problem at smaller, poorer schools. There needs to be more federal research dollars, but the current system is, if not broken, at least so imperfect that it should be massively reworked.

It's worth noting that the pull-quote in the FPP elides the fact that they are non-tenured researchers -- this is not the same as canning a bunch of tenured professors for one year of poor grant performance. Mostly this looks like a poorly handled situation on Columbia's part, where the veneer of "independent scholarship and teaching are our highest priorities" slipped, allowing a direct view into the hard financial calculations of running a modern university. These research positions are only viable if they bring in enough grant funding, but there are much better ways for the university to have handled the situation (starting with employment contracts with clear expectations). There's a financial cost to a public black eye like this as well, and that alone should have opened up other options for how to handle it.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on March 22


They're basically professional researchers that teach a class or two on the side.

So they're just like every other professor at Columbia.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:31 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


Dip Flash,

In addition, Columbia could have saved a chunk of change for the 20 plus years these two were working by offering them tenure. I'm sure they would have taken a 20% pay cut for near guaranteed employment
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:33 AM on March 22


I wonder how much of the issue is that schools of public health have less alumni support, because nobody gets rich off of working in public health. Law schools and business schools have wealthy alums who endow professorships and whatnot. There just aren't that many millionaire and billionaire epidemiologists. There may be less corporate money for public health than there is for the research that goes on at medical schools. (At least, I hope there is. I don't want public health research overly tainted with drug company money, personally.) So that makes them really dependent on NIH for funding, and that makes them vulnerable.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:40 AM on March 22 [3 favorites]


It's worth noting that the pull-quote in the FPP elides the fact that they are non-tenured researchers -- this is not the same as canning a bunch of tenured professors for one year of poor grant performance.
Isn't that sort of the point, though? These are the kind of researchers and teachers who should be tenured faculty. They're doing cutting-edge research, they're teaching and mentoring the next generation of scholars, and they shouldn't be vulnerable to being fired just because NIH slashes its grant budget due to some Republicans' loopy politicking. The field of public health is going to suffer because of this: less cutting-edge research will be done, and emerging scholars will lose out on opportunities to be taught and mentored. We tend to talk about the erosion of tenure as a labor rights issue, and that's an important perspective. But it is also a massive blow to current and future scholarship, as this episode makes clear.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:51 AM on March 22 [11 favorites]


And if wealthy institutions like Columbia aren't going to tolerate any drop in the funding stream before they start sacking people, god knows how it will play out in poorer institutions
About 100 University of Southern Maine students protested outside the office of the provost Friday as a dozen faculty members got layoff notices, chanting “Cut from the top” and holding signs that read “Cuts only lead to more cuts.”

USM said the cuts to the faculty will be followed in the coming weeks by layoffs of 10 to 20 staff members. That will come in addition to 14 previous staff layoffs, the university said.... USM faces a $14 million budget shortfall for the year starting July 1, part of a $36 million shortfall throughout the University of Maine System caused by flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes.

Assistant theater professor Meghan Brodie, who got cheers and repeated chants of “Meghan, Meghan” from students who lined the hallways outside the provost’s office, said she was laid off Friday and sees it as part of an effort to close the theater department.

These research positions are only viable if they bring in enough grant funding, but there are much better ways for the university to have handled the situation (starting with employment contracts with clear expectations).

this is almost certainly not true. it's like any big corporation, the execs hand down some performance metrics from on high which allows mid level managers to justify firing the people they want to fire. academics pretend it's about "neoliberal ideology" but it's really about the ideology of power within big business i.e. they are participating in the nitty-gritty of monopoly capitalism like Don Quixote fighting windmills in La Mancha.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:55 AM on March 22


academics pretend it's about "neoliberal ideology" but it's really about

No, slashing grant money because its stealing from taxpayers and running a university like a business is neoliberal ideology at work.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:16 AM on March 22 [5 favorites]


Maybe they can get jobs at GW's school of public health, which just renamed itself after the main donor behind an $80 million gift: Michael Milken. Yes, the junk bond guy. (The other donor was Sumner Redstone.)
posted by rtha at 7:19 AM on March 22


It's hard not to think that they knew what they were doing, and what the pressures and risks were, when they accepted positions at a public health school, which have always been grant-driven.

I'd be more incensed about this, but I expect that either next year or the year after you'll see both of them doing pretty much the same research and teaching they're doing now, but at an anthro department somewhere where they're not facing the same grant pressure.

The same Columbia that charges undergrads 60 thousand dollars a year to attend classes:

Except it doesn't. The posted tuition for a school like Columbia just doesn't tell you very much about what students actually pay. You should think of that sticker price as Columbia's way of saying "Even if your father is the King of Siam, we would be too embarrassed to charge you more than this."

We're boringly middle class, and according to their net price calculator what we'd actually pay to send one of our nonexistent children there is $15873. This boils down to room+board, books, personal expenses, and a net tuition fee of $867.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:48 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


maxwelton: "Tuition and fees are $1.1B, minus $315M in financial aid."

So ROU_Xenophobe, they charge on average 70% of their sticker price to students, or $42k. Not exactly chump change.

I doubt that the aid is evenly distributed like the above calculation assumes, and I'd guess* that there is a relatively small proportion of students receiving most of the aid dollars and paying next to no tuition (like your notional offspring), and many from the upper middle class and above who are paying near full price.

* Based on my experiences as a student at an Ivy League school, including a stint doing data entry in the financial aid office.
posted by dendrochronologizer at 9:21 AM on March 22


For anyone wanting to investigate their own numbers, the Columbia net price calculator is here.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:21 AM on March 22


So ROU_Xenophobe, they charge on average 70% of their sticker price to students, or $42k. Not exactly chump change.

That's Columbia University, not just the undergraduate school. The terrible USNews page for Columbia says that just over half of undergraduates get financial aid, which is lower than I'd have guessed, and that the average scholarship or grant is $41K.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:59 AM on March 22


That's Columbia University, not just the undergraduate school.

And when you consider that there is no need based aid for their MA programs (some of which, like SIPA, are pretty big classes) and thus everyone is paying the full sticker price, including the graduate school will skew the numbers.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:15 AM on March 22


For anyone wanting to investigate their own numbers, the Columbia net price calculator is here.

Damn. I wish these sort of calculators existed when I was applying to college in the late 90s. I could've gone to Columbia for less than I paid for state school.
posted by donajo at 10:37 AM on March 22


Hmmm. . . in both physics and astronomy, at least, there are lots of "soft money" positions like these. They aren't really hired by an institution, though; rather, an institution agrees to host the researcher (and give them sort of title, like "researcher" or "research professor") in exchange for the overhead on the person's grants. It's a trade; the soft-money person gets to trade on the prestige and utilize the infrastructure of the host institution, and to create a faculty-level job in whatever place they would like to be for themselves, while the host gets a cut of the money coming in. There's no expectation that soft-money people will receive a salary directly from the university, but on the other hand they don't have teaching obligations either (some soft-money people teach occasionally, but they get paid separately for that if they do).

You can think of it as an extended postdoc position, with the lack of job stability that entails (in fact, at the University of California, senior postdocs have to be reclassified as research faculty as there are time limits on how long you can be a postdoc). Soft-money positions may be funded by grant proposals the person in question writes or by tenure-track faculty with funding for them. Again, in the fields I know about, no one would view a research faculty position as having any guarantee of longevity (though I know plenty of people who have supported themselves in them for decades). Funding agencies don't require that regular faculty spend 80% of their time on research; I suspect that's a requirement only if you're trying to fund your entire salary from a grant.

It could work differently in public health, of course; but if it's anything like soft-money positions in other fields, I think it's missing the point to ask why Columbia wouldn't just pay these people out of its endowment (or tuition, etc.) funds. It is unlikely they would have been there in the first place if they weren't self-funding.

The healthiness of this model is a different question, of course; it's extraordinarily stressful (and distracting from research) to make peoples' entire livelihoods dependent on their next proposal's success. I don't think Columbia is entirely the bad guy here.

Regardless, given the qualifications of Vance and Hopper, they hopefully could get a tenured position at another institution (and smart departments will try to recruit such people when they can); but they might have to be willing to leave Columbia to do so.
posted by janewman at 12:37 PM on March 22 [4 favorites]


I'd be more incensed about this, but I expect that either next year or the year after you'll see both of them doing pretty much the same research and teaching they're doing now, but at an anthro department somewhere where they're not facing the same grant pressure.

Aside from the truly horrible state of the academic job market at all levels (and that many places have completed any hiring they will do for next year), there's the total screw job any students they are advising are facing. Some people will have attended this school just for these professors, some of them may already have taken on serious debt just so they could study and be mentored by them - and going by the reports they were seem as great mentors and instructors as well as academics who have published some important works.. Colombia just gave their students a giant fuck you, all for the sake of saving what is a drop in their overall budget. (And I know people in a few science departments who hold similar positions, but normally if you're not coming up to scratch they give more advance notice because firing people months before the end of term causes serious disruption for students and departments, most of whom have already done their planning for classes and taken on their cohort of new grad students by this point.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:51 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]


Wow, this situation seems really all-around terrible. Isn't it likely that another school would gladly pick up a highly accomplished, already-proven academic? Or is there some reason that it doesn't work that way? Not that it wouldn't be cold comfort.

Though I found this aside from the author kind of perplexing:

(References to multiple “stakeholders” always mean: You to whom I am speaking will get screwed.)

Is this a widespread sentiment? In my own work and experience it's been the opposite; the idea of recognizing multiple stakeholders has almost always been associated with expanding process participation in a way that brings under-represented groups to the table. (I.e. the "multiple stakeholders" discourse is much more likely to be invoked in telling NuclearCorp why they can't put their waste facility in the middle of a poor neighborhood of color than in explaining to that neighborhood why the corporation deserves its own say.)
posted by threeants at 6:15 PM on March 22


I mean, isn't the "multiple stakeholders" discourse an inherent challenge (the literal opposite, really) to hegemonic thought? The simple idea that multiple parties deserve input on most issues has proven pretty radical over the past century or so. It may be mis-used on occasion but I think it does a whoooole lot more work for social justice than against.
posted by threeants at 6:19 PM on March 22


> when you consider that there is no need based aid for their MA programs (some of which, like SIPA, are pretty big classes) and thus everyone is paying the full sticker price, including the graduate school will skew the numbers

They gave out fellowships that weren't need-based when I got my MFA years ago.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:57 AM on March 23


I believe that fellowships are lots of money that pay your tuition, so I think it may be accounted for differently than need based grants. I could be wrong though
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:04 AM on March 23


Grad school fellowships often include a stipend for living expenses. They're generally not need-based: universities use them to attract the best graduate students, regardless of financial need, and for the most part graduate students are considered independent of their parents for purposes of financial aid anyway. Most grad students are going to look entirely broke on their financial aid applications, unless they have trust funds or other independent wealth.

I think this is kind of a side issue, though. Clearly, Columbia is very rich. Equally clearly, it has a lot of competing funding priorities, most of which probably seem pretty compelling.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:50 AM on March 23


Grad school fellowships often include a stipend for living expenses.

For PhD students yes, but, for example, at Columbia SIPA MA students are expected to pay their entire bill, unless they get an outside fellowship, like a FLAS. Then the FLAS pays the tuition to Columbia. Other methods of funding MA students is for them to work at the school.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:17 AM on March 23


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