The University of Maine student newspaper since 1875
Sunday, April 19, 11:08 p.m.

Department heads wary of trustees’ push for performance-based funding

The University of Maine System’s board of trustees’ intention to explore performance-based funding models for the system’s seven universities has department heads at the University of Maine worried.

The trustees decided at their January meeting to issue a request for qualifications to find consultants to develop the model, but as of yet, trustees don’t know what criteria would be used to evaluate programs’ performance or how funding could be reallocated.

Despite that uncertainty, some UMaine department heads are apprehensive of the idea and what it may mean for them.

‘It could just kill us’

“We’re down to the marrow,” said Jane Smith, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Classics. “Depending on how this is formulated, it could just kill us. That’s my fear.”

And the heads of the philosophy, history and women’s studies departments, as well as the dean of the College of Engineering, echoed Smith’s fear.

They worry that their departments will be pitted against others on campus, and with different departments come different priorities that may not mesh well with stringent criteria. They say their programs offer students opportunities to learn things difficult to evaluate.

“A concern might be if they tried to pigeonhole each of the campuses in a particular niche and this becomes the STEM campus,” Smith said, referring to initiatives for promoting education in science, technology, engineering and math that have recently taken root across the country.

A main concern for Smith is that the intangible benefits from studying foreign languages are difficult to quantify. She worries that criteria for performance would deal heavily with retention and graduation rates and overlook gradual developments that students make during the course of their studies.

“It’s achievement rather than, ‘OK, got another one out the door,’” she said. “The study abroad experience … you can’t quantify that. Cognitive abilities are increased through the study of another language.

“We’re training human beings to interact with other human beings,” Smith continued. “We’re not producing ball bearings to ship off.”

Possible performance points

Richard Judd, chair of the Department of History, was concerned that his department’s lack of focus on applying for grant funding could be detrimental when compared to the heavy emphasis on securing grants in the hard sciences.

“We do not typically seek grants, so performance for us is publication of books and articles,” Judd said. “My initial reaction is that it would be really disadvantageous to the humanities.

“So many of our skills are in intangible things like critical thinking,” he continued. “How do you put a value on that? I’m not really sure that it works.”

The trustees have not specified whether performance would be measured in relation to other departments or solely against a department’s own past performance. Furthermore, if performance was measured relatively, it is not clear if it would be calculated against other departments at the same university or against departments system-wide.

“Our department is clearly geared to research. Our criteria is basically publication. I don’t think that would be true at Fort Kent or Farmington,” Judd said, referencing other system campuses.

Roger King, chair of the Department of Philosophy, took issue with the idea that retention and graduation rates could be tied to funding, among other things, since philosophy is not a major draw for potential students.

“Almost no one comes to the university declaring a philosophy major,” he said. “So there would be no cohort to measure if they say, ‘Oh, we’re going to look at first-years and see what happens.’”

Also, King said if a program didn’t appear to be performing well and received less funding, it’s possible that the program could be less attractive to students who may have been considering it.

“It penalizes the departments when students want to explore different majors,” he added. “If you’re measuring retention rate at the department level, that penalizes the department.”

King said the idea of establishing clear-cut goals for performance is not something the university has avoided. His department is scheduled for an external review next year, and faculty are currently preparing for that evaluation, including developing a succinct way to express department goals.

“We’re still in the process of really trying to get a clear handle on that ourselves, so if someone were to try to link funding to that, we might not be prepared,” King said.

Ann Schonberger, director of the Women in the Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program, also takes issue with evaluating a program by its ability to move students through to graduation.

Most women’s studies students have two majors, Schonberger said, which would skew a measurement of her department’s performance based on graduation rates.

With the addition of a second major, a student is less likely to graduate in four years; however, Schonberger said the addition of a women’s studies major is sometimes a supportive force that can encourage a student to finish a degree in his or her first major.

She described past students returning to tell her that the critical thinking skills they learned in their women’s studies classes or the support they received from the department made it possible to graduate when otherwise they may not have finished.

Schonberger also expressed concern that a department’s post-graduation employment rate could be used to measure its performance.

“Most of the other majors in colleges that aren’t in Liberal Arts and Sciences are focused on certain job areas,” she said, adding that job opportunities resulting from women’s studies are not always clear-cut. “That’s a very different thing from something like engineering, where you can just go right into a job.”

Schonberger described a group of four graduates who will return to UMaine in April for a lunchtime Women in the Curriculum panel. Mia Baker, a 2004 graduate, will be on that panel.

Schonberger said Baker worked at a Hannaford supermarket during college and applied for the competitive manager training program close to graduation. Baker was selected from a pool of about 400 applicants, Schonberger said.

“The reason Mia was chosen was because of her major in psychology and women’s studies, and the reason was, ‘Most of the people you will be managing will be women,’” Schonberger said, quoting someone who had been involved with Baker’s hiring.

“Who would have thought?”

Cheapening education?

Dana Humphrey, dean of the College of Engineering, worries that specifying criteria for evaluating performance will lead to education geared solely toward those criteria at the expense of other departmental goals.

“If it isn’t measured in the formula, then that’s going to force us to do less of it,” Humphrey said, adding that he fears the university’s commitment to research and public service could become stunted at the expense of its commitment to teaching.

“A poorly implemented funding model could reduce the quality of education,” he said.

Humphrey speculated on how a funding model based on the number of graduates could hurt his department, despite its status as a high-draw program for the university.

He hypothesized that a model could be developed that allocated a specific amount to a program for each graduate. If such a model were applied systemwide, he said, it could lead to the University of Maine at Fort Kent receiving the same amount of funding for seeing a student earn a bachelor’s degree in English as UMaine would receive for seeing a student earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, for example.

“That would be very bad because what it costs to take and produce those degrees is very, very different,” Humphrey said. “I certainly hope that any model they come up with would not be so simplistic.

Humphrey wants to see any performance-based funding model evaluate his department against others at comparable institutions nearby.

“It’s also important that you compare apples to apples when you‘re talking about cost,” he said. “There are no institutions in the system that are equivalent to the University of Maine, so you have to measure outside of the system.”

Moving forward

The trustees’ request for qualifications was issued on Jan. 24. Any consulting service interested in developing a model needs to send a letter of interest by Feb. 21.

The RFQ mentions the educational mission of teaching, research and public service that Humphrey discussed, identifying that mission as something the trustees hope to preserve as they move forward with a new funding model.

The consulting service will need to identify criteria for evaluating performance and how to measure those criteria and to conduct financial analyses, including “revenue allocation forecasting and modeling.” They will also need to develop a method for introducing the new formula and applying it to the system’s seven universities.

A final report is due to the trustees on July 9, meaning any answers about the design of the model will likely not be forthcoming by semester’s end.