Category Archives: Ronin Institute

The case for independent scholarship #2: Administrative bloat

So, welcome back to installation #2 in The case for independent scholarship, the new series where I explain why you should quit assuming that scholarly research needs to be limited to the university system. In fact, independent scholarship provides a number of advantages over the standard model.

Today, we’re going to focus on the administrative bloat that has overcome the university system. Specifically, I want to draw your attention to statistics on the California State University system. These data have been collected and written about by Ralph Westphal, a Professor in the Computer Information Systems Department at California Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Before I show you the statistics, though, I want you to ask yourself, how many administrators and other, non-academic professionals does a university need for each faculty member? What would be a reasonable ratio of academic to non-academic employees?

Clearly, there is a certain amount of support required to maintain facilities, to manage offices and accounts, and so on. But how many, would you say? Here are the numbers (from this document) for the entire California State University system for the 1975-76 academic year:

  • Faculty (all ranks): 18,406
  • Service and maintenance: 3,260
  • Skilled crafts: 883
  • Technical and paraprofessional: 3,246
  • Clerical and secretarial: 6,920
  • Managerial and professional: 3,800

So, what do you think? Does this seem reasonable? Roughly speaking, for every four faculty members, there are three non-faculty employees doing all of the jobs that keep the university running smoothly, and therefore allowing the faculty to pursue the fundamental goals of the university: teaching and research.
What about now? Well, if we fast forward thirty-some years to the most recent data provided in the same document, we find that, in the faculty increased to 23,581. That’s a 28% increase in the size of the faculty. This goes along with a 54% increase in the number of full-time student equivalents (as per Westphal). Clearly, that means there are fewer teachers per student, but, you know, times are tough, budgets are crunched, and so on.

  • Faculty (all ranks): 23,581
  • Service and maintenance: 2,170
  • Skilled crafts: 1,045
  • Technical and paraprofessional: 3,105
  • Clerical and secretarial: 4,145
  • Managerial and professional: 12,183

The “skilled crafts” category has grown roughly in proportion to the number of faculty.
The “service and maintenance,” “technical and paraprofessional,” and “clerical and secretarial” categories have all actually shrunk in absolute numbers.
The big winner, of course, is “managerial and professional,” which increased to 3.2 times its 1975-76 size.
So, what we see is a faculty that has failed to keep pace with the growth in the student population. We see support staff that not only has failed to keep up with the growth in faculty and students, but has actually been slashed. In contrast, the administrative ranks have become bloated beyond belief, to the point where there is nearly one “managerial” or “professional” employee for every two faculty members.
Westphal also points out that while the administration is willing to cut academic programs, there is little hope of reversing the administrative bloat. This is from the LA Times, quoting Cal Poly Pomona’s Provost, Marten L. denBoer:

He said administrative functions will be reviewed and probably pared, but he rejects the argument that significant cuts can be made in that area. “The lights have to stay on, and someone has to maintain the computer system,” he said. “These are people who work very hard and have to be properly compensated.”

Note that the people who, say, keep the lights on, are not the problem.
Fundamentally, the problem is that people in administration see a valuable role for administrators, and devalue everything done by everyone else. So, when cuts have to be made, and you leave those cuts up to administrators, it is no surprise that administration is the last thing on the chopping block.
So, here’s a question for you. If you are a donor, or a taxpayer, or a funding agency, why would you allow your resources to get eaten up by institutions that devote less and less of their effort to the research and teaching that you want to support?

The case for independent scholarship, #1: Everything

So, as regular readers already know, I have recently founded a nonprofit institute that is dedicated to supporting and promoting independent scholarship — that is, scholarly research outside of the standard system of research universities and government laboratories.

(Sounds cool, right? Want to know more? Drop by the webpage of the Ronin Institute.)

Why do we need to promote independent scholarship? Well, there are a lot of great reasons, and they’re the topic of my new series: The case for independent scholarship, where I’m going to break those reasons down for you. But, for those of you who can’t wait to read about all of those compelling reasons in detail, here’s a précis of the coming argument. Whether you are a scholar yourself, a financial supporter of scholarship, or just someone who believes that things should be done better in the future than in the past, here is why you should be looking beyond the standard academic model.

  • Independent scholarship is cheaper and more efficient. Research universities and government laboratories support huge, bureaucratic infrastructures that must be fed by siphoning funding away from research.
  • Independent scholarship is more democratic. Along with the bureaucracy of large research institutions comes hierarchical structures that can limit academic freedom.
  • Independent scholarship is more humane. The independent-scholarship model avoids many of the problems of the traditional academic lifestyle, which is often at odds with other goals, such as being an involved parent. Independent scholars can set their own hours to accommodate other priorities, and are not as geographically restricted as traditional academics — thus avoiding the academic “two-body problem.”
  • Independent scholarship is more transdisciplinary. The departmental structure in universities — or whatever bureaucratic structure exists in a particular institution — tends to create artificial barriers to exploration and collaboration. Some institutions have taken steps to encourage interdisciplinary research, but the independent scholar is naturally situated to pursue the most interesting questions without any artificial constraints.
  • Independent scholarship can exploit untapped intellectual resources. In the United States alone, there are tens of thousands of people with PhDs who are not making use of their PhD training. The independent-scholarship model allows people with training in and passion for a subject to contribute to their field, even if only in a part-time capacity.
  • Independent scholarship does not need to be profit driven. Increasingly, hiring and tenure decisions at universities are driven by funding considerations. Independent scholarship can be driven by important questions, rather than by the need to develop and justify large research budgets. 
  • Independent scholarship honors donor intent. For philanthropists who support research, donations to universities are always problematic, since the fungibility of funds means that donations rarely go 100% to support the program(s) that the donor cares about. Independent scholarship can be structure in a scalable way, so that donations translate directly to increased support for those research projects that are most important to the donor.
  • Independent scholarship is more open. The independent-scholarship model aims to break down the distinctions between the ivory tower of academia and the broader population of intelligent, educated individuals who are eager and able to contribute to scholarly discourse.
In upcoming installations of this series, I will devote one or more posts to each of these bullet points and more, bringing in some detail and statistics to illustrate each. 

Ronin on the Radio

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog, presented here for you to enjoy in the default Blogger font, rather than the default WordPress font:

Buongiorno Ronineschi!

I had two opportunities to speak on the radio about the motivation and goals of the Ronin Institute this week.

Yesterday, I was on WBUR’s Radio Boston, along with Victoria Blodgett, Associate Dean and Director of Career Services for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale. If you’re interested in listening, you can find the segment here.

On Monday, I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth (listen here). The WBUR segment is about 25 minutes, while the Word of Mouth segment is something like 10-12. 

The WBUR segment was called “nice and didactic” on twitter, which I choose to interpret as a compliment.

White Paper on Fractional Scholarship

So, I’ve been working with the incomparable Sam Arbesman to write up some thoughts on the concept of “fractional scholarship.” Basically, the idea is that there are a lot of people out there who have the expertise and the interest to contribute to scholarly research, but for whom, for whatever reason, the seventy-hour-a-week academic lifestyle just doesn’t work. We need to develop mechanisms that will allow people to participate in research at ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week, and to get paid for doing it.

Obviously, someone working only ten hours a week would get paid a lot less than a university professor, which is part of what makes this such a powerful model. Keep in mind that a typical university professor probably does not spend much more that ten hours a week actually doing research anyway, what with all the personnel-management and bureaucratic tasks that take up so much of their time.

Basically, all the people out there (and there are tens of thousands of them) who got a PhD, but then dropped out of academia (e.g., to have kids) represent a vast underutilized intellectual resource that is trading well below its actual value. Tapping in to that resource is one of the things that we hope to do with the Ronin Institute.

Check out the full white paper at the Kauffman Foundation website, here.

No one true path for PhDs

So, there’s a nice little op-ed piece up at the Chronicle for Higher Education. (For the non-academics out there, it’s sort of like People magazine, but with History professors instead of Kardashians.) It was written by Jon Bardin, a current PhD student at Cornell Med School, who is planning to abandon the canonical academic path. Unfortunately, it’s behind the Chronicle paywall, but basically he argues against the idea (much hyped, recently) that there is an over-production of PhD students. At least in the sciences.

He mentions the common complaint that graduate school has become a sort of pyramid scheme, where huge numbers of PhD students enter, with the implicit promise of a tenure-track position waiting at the other end of the tunnel, while there are not nearly enough such positions available.

This is true, but he argues that we should look at the situation from a different perspective.

First, he argues that there are many alternative careers for PhDs. Of course, we all knew this already. After all, Starbucks is almost always hiring. But, actually, he argues that the skills that you develop in grad school are widely applicable. He talks specifically about the humbling experience of having his first manuscript rejected:

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

These are great points. Now, the availability of funding varies a lot from field to field, but, at least in the sciences, I think the typical graduate student stipend is somewhere on the order of $30,000 per year. Now, that’s not huge money, but it is enough to provide a comfortable living. Add in the fact that grad school is a great social environment (at least, it is if you’re a dork, and you like hanging out with other dorks, which, if you’re reading this, you probably are, and probably do), and you’ve got the makings of a pleasant and rewarding five years.

The trick, of course, is to find an advisor who’s not a jerk, but that’s a topic for another post.

The other point that Bardin makes is that the problem is not one of the availability of a certain type of job, but of the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one. What is needed is a change in attitude, from the students themselves, and from the advisors responsible for them. In Bardin’s words:

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor’s time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

In a way, maybe we need to start viewing graduate school more like undergrad. After all, professors don’t resent teaching undergraduates who are smart and engaged, but who are going to do something other than academia.

Or, rather, most probably don’t. I’m sure there are some who do. (Those are also the ones you want to avoid when choosing an advisor.) But, they probably also resent the students who are going to follow in their footsteps, just for different reasons. What are you going to do? Resenters gonna resent.

Reposted from the Ronin Blog.

h/t to Ronin Kristina Killgrove.

Lessons from a 40 year old

So, this was posted on Boing Boing last week, but I only just got a chance to watch it. This is a talk at “Webstock,” by Matt Haughey, the guy who started Metafilter. (He also has a cool blog called A Whole Lotta Nothing.) He talks about the value of maintaining work-life balance, and avoiding the pitfalls that come with the raise-huge-money-and-grow-really-fast model that everyone in the tech industry seems to want to pursue. Instead, he favors a model where you work reasonable hours, build a quality product, and focus on a long-term strategy.

A lot of this resonates with some of the things we’re trying to do with the Ronin Institute. Of course, academia isn’t exactly plagued by a get-rich-quick mentality. However, there are some analogous traps that a lot of people fall into. Younger scholars often feel like they have to score the big paper in Science or Nature, and beat themselves up for doing work that is good, solid research, but not the sort that grabs headline. Faculty often feel a pressure to bring in large grants, and will sometimes let this drive their research agenda, rather than letting the research questions be the driver.

I like to imagine that the independent scholar is following the Metafilter model rather than the Facebook model. Because, you know what’s cooler than a billion dollars? A million dollars, and your soul.

Anyway, this is well worth a watch when you’re chilling out, or when you’ve just set up a batch of simulations. While the mapping from Silicon Valley to the Ivory Tower is not one-to-one, there is enough similarity there to make the talk thought provoking for anyone who wants to ponder how to integrate scholarship into their life.

Webstock ’12: Matt Haughey – Lessons from a 40 year old from Webstock on Vimeo.

Reposted from the Ronin Blog.

Calamities of Nature, RIP

So, nature got a little bit less calamitous last week when Tony Piro announced that he would no longer be updating his absolutely superb webcomic Calamities of Nature. Fortunately, he has announced that he intends to keep the site up, so you can peruse the archive of over 650 of the smartest meditations on science, philosophy, religion, and bacon that you’ll find anywhere.

I’m writing about this here because of something that he said in the post where he announced the end of the strip:

Today is my last update for Calamities of Nature. And I’ll be perfectly frank about the reasons. My full-time career is in academics, and I need to put everything I have into it if I’m going to have any chance of keeping it that way. As much as I love this comic, I can’t have it taking precious time away from my work. It’s time to move on.

Now, I hope, for Tony’s sake that he had also grown tired of maintaining his updating schedule, that he felt that five years was long enough, and that he is happy committing his efforts full-time to his academic career.

But, whatever the actual situation in this particular case, there is no question that he has hit on an unfortunate truth about academia. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a traditional academic career while devoting time to other interests. Once you add in family (Tony also mentions that he has two kids), traditional academia basically demands that all of your time not spent sleeping or parenting be devoted to a very specific, constrained set of activities.

I think this is a shame. Certainly, there are people out there for whom this is the ideal lifestyle, people whose interest line up neatly with the demands of an academic career. I’m glad that they exist, and hope that they will continue to populate our Universities. But, for a lot of people, a more piece-meal career with time devoted to a broader range of activities would be more compelling, more fun, and would lead to their doing higher quality work over all.

Calamities of Nature is consistently smart and thoughtful, and it has a huge readership (roughly 5% the traffic of the mega-popular xkcd, according to alexa). It has probably engaged more people with ideas from science and philosophy than most academics do over the course of their entire careers. It seems criminal to me that the all-or-nothing structure of traditional academia means that someone with this much talent, and this great a platform, has to abandon it in order to maintain their career.

This is one of the things that the Ronin Institute aims to change. We are building an alternative model of scholarly research, one where scholars would be able to scale their commitment to research based on their personal interests and constraints. I imagine an ideal world in which someone like Tony Piro could commit, say, two-thirds of his time and effort to traditional scholarship, and one third to maintaining Calamities of Nature. I’m putting words in his mouth, of course, and I don’t know whether or not this is something that the real Tony Piro would want, but I think the world is full of Tony-Piro-esque scholars out there, who have other talents and interests that they have had to set aside in order to commit themselves to academia.

Of course, a part of this alternative model is that the two-thirds-time scholar would only be paid, say, two thirds as much as the full-time scholar. For people whose outside interests also made money, this would likely be an ideal scenario. For people whose other interests have no corresponding income stream, full-time academia might be the only way to pay the mortgage. However, I suspect that there are a lot of academics and would-be academics out there who would gladly trade a portion of their paycheck for a saner and more well rounded life.

Here’s the final Calamities of Nature strip. When you have a chance, go check out the whole archive.

Best of luck to Tony Piro in his all his future endeavors, academic and otherwise.

[Reposted from the Ronin Blog]

Short-term job opportunity for Ronin Anthropologist

So, on my recent visit to the Colorado School of Mines, one of the people I got to meet was David Muñoz, who recently retired as a professor there. He has started a cool initiative that he calls “Humanitarian Engineering.” I will write more about it when I understand it better, but, briefly, he wants to instill a greater sense of service, and a greater awareness of cultural issues, in tomorrow’s engineers.

You can read some more about it here.

But here’s today’s action item: Dr. Muñoz has been working to build a water system for a village in Honduras. The village dates back only to 1998, when it was founded by refugees from Hurricane Mitch. The “Humanitarian Engineering” angle means that this project is not just about creating the infrastructure, but also about integrating it into the existing social/cultural milieu. He had a cultural anthropologist on board with with project, but this person had to drop out unexpectedly at the last minute.

This creates a perfect opportunity for the Ronin Anthropologists out there: if you have the right set of skills, and you are currently un- or under-employed, you might be able to fill in.

If you are interested, you need to be a cultural and/or social anthropolgist. You need to be pretty fluent in Spanish. And, you need to be willing and able to go soon. The job would involve going down to Honduras ASAP (ideally sometime in the next few weeks) and staying for a couple of months. Dr. Muñoz has funds to cover travel and expenses, as well as a modest stipend (something on the order of $4000).

If this is something that you might, possibly, be interested in, contact Dr. Muñoz for details: If you have friends (or colleagues, or family members, or former students) who might be a match, please forward this information on to them.

Clarification re: "Hot like Mexico"

So, I just got back from the Colorado School of Mines (And boy are my picks tired!!!), where I was speaking about the Ronin Institute. One of many wonderful things about the trip was the opportunity to meet Alejandro Weinstein, who has been featured twice on Guillaume’s Mailbag over at Darwin Eats Cake. Following a conversation with him, I wanted to clarify something regarding the following strip:

Best URL for sharing:
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding:

Alejandro apparently took the third frame of the comic to mean that Guillaume thought that he was from Mexico. I asked Guillaume about this, and he said no, that with a name like “Alejandro Weinstein,” he had assumed that Alejandro was from Argentina. It turns out that Alejandro actually hails from Chile, which is sort of the Argentina of the west coast of South America, so, he wasn’t too far off, really.

Guillaume went on to explain that, actually, “hot like Mexico” and “cool the bad” are references to the lyrics of the Lady Gaga song “Alejandro.” Guillaume had assumed that this was common knowledge, at least until I pointed out to him that the set of people with a high degree of fluency in Lady Gaga lyrics probably shares little overlap with the set of people who read Darwin Eats Cake.
Anyway, Guillaume felt bad about the misunderstanding, and asked me to address it here.
On a related note, Guillaume’s Mailbag is still accepting submissions. Send in any biological trait of any species, and Guillaume will provide an adaptationist explanation for its evolutionary origin. You can reach him at