The learning curve

The learning curve

By Allison Mudge

The university has invested money into a variety of changes since 2000. First, it increased university visiblity to the public. Then came calls for improved academics. Now, the university has found a way to leverage both.

Thad Somoza and Nicholas Glawtschew face problems with their university experience, but they have little to do with grades.

Both students complain that they are faced with the university’s bureaucracy whenever they have to deal with the university.

Somoza, a middler communications major is experiencing his difficulty with the financial aid system.

He is trying to plan for study abroad, but waiting for the financial aid package to clear makes that difficult.

“You’re trying to get something done and you have to go to like 10 offices,” he said, calling it a “system of ignorance.”

The “system of ignorance” that Samoza characterizes is more commonly referred to as the “NU shuffle,” a term that has become so popular it spawned its own satirical Web site, www.nushuffle.com.

Glawtschew, a senior computer science major, is taking his final class this semester, but is being charged for four.

“[Because] of semester conversion, I have to go one semester longer because they left credit for one class out,” the senior computer science major said.

He said because of the conversion, certain classes were combined to meet the same requirements, causing some students to have to overload and pay more. In Glawtschew’s case, he has to pay for classes he is not taking.

On the surface, complaints like Somoza’s lead to the characterization of the university as a bureaucracy, and, perhaps, even a business.

By the time these students think about how drained they are from having to navigate the bureaucracy, the students begin to think about what other things the university is taking from them.

It’s not only taking their time, but their money.

True to form, Somoza’s rant concluded the familiar complaint that characterizes the university’s money-making arm in student’s eyes – the tuition increase.

“It keeps costing so much more money, but you still have to pay for stupid stuff,” Somoza said. “[Tuition] can’t go up every year. When’s it gonna stop?”

With students staring at another tuition increase that will add on almost $1500 per year, the reminder is constant.

In order to function, the university has to make money.

But money is not the only requirement that business and academics face. Director of University Communications Fred McGrail said a relationship between the two is required for the university to function.

“The way you need to run a university efficiently is to have good management in place,” he said.

But the debate does not end there.

At Northeastern, most of the money that forms the cost of the university’s largest budget – the operating budget – comes from tuition dollars.

So, students are the university’s prime money makers, but the the debate still remains over how to best attract those students.

At Northeastern, that debate has largely become one of investments that are visible, and those that are beneath the surface.

Political Science department chairperson John Portz said the university’s prime investments have been on what can be seen – on-campus buildings.

“When you invest in the educational functions it takes longer to see the return. Hiring faculty raises the prestige of the university, produces more scholarly publications, etc. In the eyes of the students that are coming, they don’t see that. They will see the buildings, landscaping and nice classrooms.”

Targeting visibility

In Portz’s mind, investing in all those physical structures is the university’s way of targeting its main source of money.

“It’s a tuition-driven institution,” Portz said. “Everybody will say that. What that means is attracting students.”

Often grouped along with NU Shuffle are the advertising banners on campus, poked fun at recently by www.nushuffle.com’s latest campaign: T-shirts that read “Higher Tuition. Richer Freeland.”

McGrail acknowledged that recent efforts have been made to make Northeastern more visible.

“I think that’s true,” McGrail said. “I think that part of the reason for that is we want students to find us more easily. We want to be on the radar screen of students. We want Northeastern to kind of be on the tip of their tongue. We want them to have a sense of what the university is about and what it has to offer.”

From music professor Leonard Brown’s perspective, the school has always operated more as a business than an educational institution.

Brown has 20 years of experience at Northeastern and has had his foot in “both camps,” formerly serving as a department chair and as vice provost.

Brown said the transition from a commuter to residential campus and President Freeland’s aspirations to enter the top 100 colleges in the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings were admirable.

“[Housing] changes the whole environment to move students to what a university is supposed to be about which is a campus community,” he said.

With the expansion, though, he said many faculty have openly wondered if the university’s priorities were set on education.

“I think in terms of that aspect the developments over the last decade have been beneficial,” Brown said. “But with that comes a business focus, and there’s some tension in that in terms of what our priorities are and how much the educational mission of the university needs to get compromised based on economic issues.”

Portz agreed there has been conflict.

“There’s always a bit of a built-in tension around that dynamic between putting forward initiatives that support the money-making side of the institution versus issues that support the educational development side.”

When the university initially began expanding from a mainly commuter school to a residential school in the late 1980s, a surge of expansion and new revenue gave administrators new money to work with, said longtime faculty senator and English professor Stuart Peterfreund.

‘Area for Improvement’

With increases in tuition, the school knew it had to give its students “something,” Peterfreund said. That “something” has come in the form of physical expansion like dorms and dining facilities, including the recently revamped Stetson West cafeteria, but not as much in academic offerings and staffing, he said.

“That’s the area for improvement,” he said.

Students indicate that they are looking for academics as well.

As emotionally enraged as Glawteschew can become when talking about the NU Shuffle, he said the need for academics is obvious.

“Name recognition is good,” he said. “But when it’s just through publicity and no academic success to back it up, it doesn’t mean as much.”

If Glawteschew is right, the academic achievements that Portz mentioned may actually be too far removed for students to see.

And to the dismay of Peterfreund and other faculty, the academic piece has been slower to come.

But the administration has worked to change that in recent years with the Academic Investment Plan.

The $75 million initiative looks to add 100 new full-time professors over five years.

It is currently in its third year.

Creating Revenue

But the plan is also an instructive lens on the point where attracting students’ dollars and providing them with a quality education intersect.

In addition to the investment in professors, the plan also looked to attract more money for the university by looking for professors that already had grant money to sink into research, Provost Ahmed Abdelal said immediately following the plan’s unveiling in February 2004.

The initiative was also embedded with other ways to produce more money for the university. A $2.1 million piece of the plan was set aside for improvements to the university’s part-time education program, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

It combines each of the university’s marketing strategies – visibility, education and the hope of ultimately attracting students.

Like the rest of the initiative, the improvement looked to add full-time faculty to the school.

But the plan also came complete with a full marketing campaign on the T and in the Boston Metro. Once the visibility and educational value was increased, the implication was that the improved school would make money for the university, administrators said at its unveiling just after the announcement of the Academic Investment Plan.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences James Stellar, who trumpeted the plan at the time, said there are a number of ways to leverage the school to make money, and provide education.

In addition to the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, Stellar said Northeastern could offer courses taught outside the university to increase revenue.

In his mind, the courses would involve teaching executives on topics like law or public policy.

It would “supplement the base budget with new revenue,” Stellar said.

“There are ways in which we can make money teaching,” he said. “Especially at the graduate level.”

Despite the inclination to view marketing and education as separate entities, the reality is that they can be closely intertwined, Stellar said.

As the university’s need to fund more of its educational programming increases, so does its level of commitment to academics.

McGrail said the university is being pulled toward academic improvement by the increasingly brighter freshman classes it is managing to attract to the university through its business-style marketing campaigns.

“Northeastern clearly has become, and continues to become, a more selective university,” he said. “There are a lot of metrics that indicate that from test scores to grade point averages to the class rankings of incoming students. I think that the quality of students and the type of the students the university is attractive to very much has an impact on the quality of the education.”

Brown said the Academic Investment Plan is a good move overall, but since it is meant to help Northeastern move up in the academic rankings, it has its roots in marketing.

“Why would people want to come here and spend $40,000 for a kid to get a bachelor’s degree?” he asked. “You have to invest in terms of where you’re going.”

Despite Brown’s cynicism there are students who see a reason the high investment is required to make.

Senior sociology major Kevin Mundt said he has seen an improvement in the faculty in his five years at the university.

“I think the teaching staff generally cares about students,” he said, noting he has learned something from every professor he has had.

Regarding tuition increases, Mundt said he was willing to pay the price in dollars now for the value his degree will show later.

“I feel like it’s such a good investment to go here, especially now,” he said. “Over the next 10 to 20 years the ranking is going to climb at a much higher rate than it is now.”

On the heels of the Academic Investment Plan, Stellar was also optimistic about the unversity’s recent trend toward focusing on education.

“I’m hoping this will be the phase of [continued] investing in academic structure,” Stellar said.

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