Fixing Academia: 5 Ways To Save St. Joe’s (and Every University Like It)

Academia needs to start thinking like — and working with — the business world.

Nov 28, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Saint Joseph's Hawks mascot. The Hawk, during the second half against the LSU Tigers at ESPN Wide World of Sports. LSU Tigers defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 82-65. Photo | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 28, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Saint Joseph’s Hawks mascot. The Hawk, during the second half against the LSU Tigers at ESPN Wide World of Sports. LSU Tigers defeated the Saint Joseph’s Hawks 82-65. Photo | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

St. Joseph’s University is facing financial problems. Revenue is not as high as projected. Expenses continue to rise. So they’re implementing budgetary cutbacks. Last year the university ran a $4.4 million deficit. Wow, what a huge surprise, right?

I don’t mean to pick on St. Joe’s. It is an excellent college. I have a St. Joe’s grad working for me and I often meet the school’s alumni in the business world and find them to be smart and successful.  Also, I live near the campus (my kids often play soccer on their turf field) and I think their outreach to the community is great. I want them to succeed. But the university is facing a problem that many other excellent colleges in the area and around the country are facing: the problem of potential extinction.

People just can’t afford to pay $50-60K a year for a college education, even if it’s at a good school like St. Joe’s. The payback just isn’t there. The numbers don’t make sense. St. Joe’s has to make some hard and unpopular adjustments if they want to survive. Adjustments that won’t compromise their standards or reputation. And I’ve got a few tough ones to recommend.

End Tenure

Only in academia (and the Supreme Court) do people have lifelong jobs. You can teach at a university from anywhere between 10-15 years, publish, speak and politic your way through the administration, and sure enough you may never have to worry about a paycheck ever again. And if you change jobs, your tenure usually follows along with you.

For colleges like St. Joe’s to survive, this has to end.

University professors need to compete and stay relevant. They need to be evaluated just like every employee in every business is. And they need to understand what it’s like for other 99 percent of us who face termination at any time. Supporters argue that tenure allows professors to “think” and “write” more without worrying about a job. Baloney. Ending tenure will shake up the University system and may in the short term inhibit St. Joe’s from attracting good faculty. But in the long term, as other universities follow (and they will follow), it will surely reduce their long-term liabilities, create a better, more competitive work environment, increase compensation flexibility and improve educational quality.

Work More Hours

I have three kids in college right now and I swear they’re home more often than they’re at school. They’ve got “mid-term breaks,” “winter breaks” “spring breaks” and of course “summer breaks.” One of my kids finishes exams in April! Plus they get the usual holidays off. They  sometimes have one class a day, sometimes no classes in a day. And so do the teachers.

So here’s a crazy idea: Instead of taking four years to complete a degree, why not do it in three? Why not, like the rest of the civilized world, work during the summers and spring and December and January? Why not have 9-to-5 days of classes? You can cut the cost of education for your students, get more work done, increase enrollment, and attract those students who are looking for a better, more affordable model.

Co-Op and Partner

Go ahead, unabashedly reach out to the business community. Create a required co-op program, a la Drexel and Northeastern, where your students get actual jobs at actual companies. Borrow some of the company’s executives to teach classes. Oh, and please let those companies advertise, offer products and be more visible.

Scandalous? No. It won’t ruin academia — in fact it will put your students in closer touch with the business community and teach them more. While you’re at it, reach out to other universities in the area and share classes with them. Instead of offering everything to everyone, focus on those certain areas of studies where your school can be best and coordinate education for your students in other disciplines with other institutions. You can expand your student population that way, make yourself more visible and offer more alternatives.

Your TAs Suck… Replace Them

When I went to college in the early ’80s my teaching assistants in calculus and economics were brilliant grad students who couldn’t speak English and visibly hated my and my drunken friends’  feeble attempts to understand their world.

And guess what? Nothing’s changed in 30-plus years. My kids report the same experience.

Sure, this is partly due to the students being idiots (including my kids). But let’s just admit that there’s little education taking place here. Instead, reach out to educational sites like and Google’s Helpouts or Hangouts on Air — inexpensive, fast, new and easy to use. You can use these platforms to provide individualized instruction to your students by people from anywhere in the world who may better be able to relate to them. And you can do this for more students (i.e. more revenue) because it’s a 24-7 schedule.

Reconsider Your Athletic Programs

Temple University recently had to make some hard and unpopular choices and cut some of its athletic programs. Good for them. Two of my kids play Division 1 sports — they love it and they’re excellent programs. But these programs are also ridiculously expensive and suck money away from education. Some Division 1 programs are worthwhile because they bring in revenues, provide good publicity for the school and offer opportunities for some kids. But most of the other athletic programs can be significantly curtailed (not necessarily cut) and the world will continue to turn. In other words, just because you’ve got a great football program doesn’t mean you have to be spending boatloads of money on tennis too. No offense to the tennis players but… well… c’mon, you can still play at a club level, and get good exercise and competition. You’re at college to get an education, remember?

St. Joe’s, like many great private colleges, does not just face financial problems. The university faces survival problems. And they will have to make hard and necessary changes in order to stick around.

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  • DTurner

    While I think this is an excellent list, I would advise against extending the work hours through the summer, or even going later into the summer.

    Summers provide students with the opportunity to take on full-time internships, absolutely critical for understanding how to conduct yourself in an office on a regular basis, not just 20 or so hours a week.

    They also allow students to apply for internships outside of the region (or the country), providing them with different skills, more worldly perspective, and a nice way to differentiate themselves from their peers on their resume.

    Sure, kids might graduate early, but they are going to have a harder time finding employment.

    • PAPlan

      Also, 9-5 class days? Most of the work actually takes place outside of the classroom. More than 20 hours per week of class time is counterproductive.

      • DTurner

        Agreed, better to mandate internships and to offer comprehensive co-ops programs.

        Also, 9-5 classes would be totally counterproductive, at least after freshman or sophomore year. It would basically prevent students from interning or working during the day and it would cull the crop of potential adjunct professors.

        The best courses I had at university were in the evening with adjunct professors who only taught one or two evening classes. Granted, I was also a policy major, so a STEM major might benefit from a 9-5 course load.

  • Aaron

    SJU does have a voluntary co-op program. Some would argue this is better than a mandated co-op program because the students applying to the program are looking for full-time experience.

  • Steve McMillan

    As a prof at PSU Abington, I agree with some of this, but suggest caution on parts. First, getting rid of tenure is fine by me even though I have it. The tenure track (pre-tenure) process is a nightmare. You have no real idea how you are doing and if you have done enough. Plus, it’s an up or out system. Get it or leave. Not much fun at all. And politics play a substantial role in the decisions.
    Work more hours. Well, I work a lot now. Might not be in the classroom, but doesn’t mean I’m goofing off, at least not that much. Trying to be an active researcher is very difficult. And before you say the research is useless, it’s not. Many, many important discoveries have started in a college or university setting.
    Regarding TAs, you have a solid point. Many universities have PhD programs that are no longer needed, but they can be justified by using TAs to teach classes. But, some of the best and brightest PhD students are foreign, and by coming here to study they decided to stay. That certainly adds to the US intellectual capital base.
    Changes are needed in academe, but it’s is much more complicated than your essay suggests.

    • Matt Starr

      Does St. Joes even have TAs? I went to La Salle which i would say is very similar in size and structure and did not have Teacher Assistants. I am now enrolled at Temple for grad school and all my classmates are lamenting that they don’t have TAs anymore and I have no idea what to make of it.

  • JWalsh

    You raise some great points. But its also important to make sure that when you make claims that all of your facts are complete and accurate.

    For instance, St Joes does have a co-op program, and from what I understand a good one. Where do you mention that?

    TA’s suck? You are correct, the do. That is why St. Joe’s don’t have any. They do have adjunct faculty who are working professionals (with advance degrees) teaching in their area of expertise. A double bonus for partnering with the business community! Where is your comment on that?

    Work more hours? Students have the ability to take summer class and classes over winter break, but many choose not to.

    Tenure does not automatically follow with you. Only stellar academics benefit from this.

    So, where as I agree with your comments that things need to change,I think as a good journalist you would agree it’s important to get your facts complete before you go to print.

  • Grumpy

    First, with apologies to my friends who are alumni, but St. Joe’s is a fine school, just not an “excellent” one.
    1. I have no issue with the elimination of tenure unilaterally, but it’s one thing to do so if you’re considered a world-class university and will therefore attract the best of the best faculty (and therefore students). St. Joe’s should not lead on this front.
    2. As is noted elsewhere in the comments, most of the work is done outside the classroom. If your kids are off from school all the time, seemingly goofing off and getting A+ in every course, then you’ve done a phenomenal job raising them and you’re 100% right. Otherwise, they’re not studying enough and your issue should be with them.
    3. Co-ops are great for students in professionally-oriented areas, and are great practical experience. But maybe not for everyone, or for every school. I can’t think of any world-class universities or colleges that have them.
    That said, your other points in that category are solid.
    4. I had some great TAs, but yes they often suck.
    5. How about making ALL college sports club-level? I mean seriously, if they’re about revenue generation, then they should be professional. If they’re about education, then the emphasis is in the wrong place. The Ivy League was right to eliminate athletic scholarships oh-so-many years ago.