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 Curious.com 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.

Follow @GeneMarks on Twitter.

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