Ohio State 'Taxes' Departments to Make a Select Few Top-Notch
By ROBIN WILSON
On a quiet day last July, about a dozen English professors at Ohio State University were sitting around a conference table in their jeans, talking about a forthcoming retreat. A few minutes into the discussion, O.S.U.'s very own Prize Patrolburst in and the university's provost, Edward J. Ray, announced to the surprised professors that the department had just won $1-million. A university cameraman was on hand to record the scene, as the professors cheered and slapped one another on the back.
The department is one of 13 divisions, including history, chemistry, and psychology, that have won the game-show-size awards as part of an ambitious program here to recruit top faculty members and, more important for Ohio State administrators, move the entire institution up in national rankings. Like many public universities, though, the campus is far from flush, so it financed the $13-million awards in a unique way: by "taxing" all of its colleges and giving the money back to a select few through a high-profile competition.
Before Ohio State started the program, which it calls "selective investment," any new money that came along was spread across programs evenly "like jam," says Mr. Ray. But, he continues, "Too often for us the first good idea that came in the door got funded."
Higher education, fearful of ruffling faculty feathers, is infamous for avoiding tough decisions about which departments deserve more money and which deserve less. Reallocation is typically done quietly by deans after hearing pleas from department chairmen.
What's different about Ohio State's approach is that it was a well-publicized competition, a concept that is alien to most universities. From the start, the university tried to make the winning departments feel like stars -- hence Mr. Ray's Ed McMahon role in delivering the good news. The extra money has made for splashier laboratories and cushier packages for top graduate students.
The winning divisions have hired 35 new professors so far and have plans to hire 51 more. Chemistry lured a member of the National Academy of Sciences away from the University of California at Berkeley, and political science beat out the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania in its bid for an up-and-coming scholar of American politics. The English department, which was selected because almost every undergraduate takes at least one English course, has just hired four senior professors and expects to bring on up to four more, increasing the number of those in its top rank by at least a third.
Opposition to the program here has been minimal, in part because the university has a weak faculty union but also because administrators put professors in charge of choosing the winners. (A similar program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln failed, partially because of the resentment professors felt when administrators made the decisions without setting down clear guidelines about how departments could qualify.)
Some professors here whose departments lost out do believe the university has been blinded by its quest to move up in the national rankings. In the process, they say, it has ignored programs like media-arts technology and food science that don't fit neatly into the ratings. But for the most part, the competition has been well received on the campus, and the awards have already made a difference. William F. Massy, a professor emeritus of higher education at Stanford University, says Ohio State is on the cutting edge of what he calls performance-based budgeting. What's yet to be determined, says Mr. Massy, is whether Ohio State can pull it off.
If Ohio State does manage to bootstrap itself in the rankings, it won't be because of support from the Ohio General Assembly. Only 10 other states spend a smaller proportion of their budgets on higher education than Ohio. Right now, the legislature is debating a budget that would deliver only a 4-percent increase to the university.
It was precisely because of money problems that Richard Sisson, Ohio State's former provost, decided the university had to find a way to support its best programs if it wanted to keep the whole ship from sinking. In the mid-1990's, the university had to trim $9-million, or 15 percent, from its spending on academic programs. Some departments and schools were merged, including journalism and communication -- which lost a total of $1-million and 20 faculty posts in the process. The College of Engineering consolidated its 15 departments into just 8, and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences whittled its 11 units down to 7.
But amidst the cutting, Mr. Sisson and others wanted to create an opportunity for good programs to flourish. "It's extraordinarily important when times are lean to make a statement that the sun will come up again," he says.
So the university inaugurated its 20-10 Plan: By the year 2010, 20 of its programs should rank in the top 20, and 10 of those should be in the top 10. The university uses measurements by both U.S. News & World Report and the National Research Council, typically relying on whatever is the most recent. By its own count, it is six short in the top 10 and two short in the top 20. It ranks 37th among all four-year institutions and 20th among all public universities, according to U.S. News, a source administrators here watch closely.
To finance its 20-10 goal, the university began requiring all colleges to give back one-half percent of their budgets each year starting in 1995. For the College of Humanities, that amounts to about $200,000 per year; for the College of Social Work it is about $16,000. The tax, as the university refers to the cuts, netted $1.5-million a year. Combined with new money, the university built a pot of $3.5-million each year to use for competitive awards and special initiatives.
In 1997, it kicked off the largest of those competitions, calling the awards selective investments. It asked departments and colleges to submit proposals showing how they were central to the university's mission, how they advanced the institution's goal of "becoming a preeminent public research university," and how they promoted interdisciplinary activity. The annual competition ran for three years, and 34 departments and programs applied.
Nine professors sat on the evaluation committee, along with L. Alayne Parson, the university's vice provost. The committee visited departments to talk to students and professors, and asked outside scholars to evaluate the strengths of the applicants. The panel recommended its top choices to the provost, who followed their advice and named four winners in each of the first two years and five in the last. Most of the winners are established departments, although one is a college -- law -- and one is an interdisciplinary program, cardiovascular bioengineering. The winners got $500,000 each from the university, and $500,000 more from their colleges, which were required to match the university award. The College of Law got $500,000 from the administration and put up $500,000 of its own money for the selective-investment hires, using extra funds from a tuition increase and cash it raised from outside donors to finance the matching requirement.
Because the $1-million awards to departments began just three years ago, it is too early to tell whether they have influenced Ohio State's position in the rankings. The National Research Council, which measures graduate programs, is due to come out with a new report in 2004 that people here say should reflect the new hires.
Changing a reputation can take years, and it's probably safe to say that Ohio State is better known for its beloved Buckeyes than for its biology or business programs. "There has been a willingness at Ohio State for a long time to accept being average," says one professor who asked to remain anonymous. "This is a very clear attempt to introduce differentiation based on excellence."
Administrators here believe the rankings are important because they give graduate students, the public, and state legislators a benchmark. "They are an indication of what league you're in," says Randall B. Ripley, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "Are you competing with Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Berkeley, or are you competing with lesser places?"
For the 13 winning divisions at Ohio State, the awards have meant a significant financial boost. They've also helped morale, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, where hiring in some departments has been slow over the last several years. "This allowed us to transform the department in a major way and go after people at the very top of the market," says Paul A. Beck, chairman of the political-science department, which has made five hires so far and plans two more.
Many of the departments are using their money to recruit expensive, senior scholars. Prying established professors loose from their home institutions takes months of wooing, and big bucks. Full professors at Ohio State earn an average of $92,200 per year. The 13 divisions have paid their new senior recruits as much as $220,000 a year (the economists have the biggest salaries). In addition, Ohio State has provided scientists with state-of-the-art laboratories and start-up packages reaching into the seven figures. And for others, the university has supplied generous research and travel funds and reduced teaching loads.
"At the moment, I feel I'm getting anything that I want," comments Ulrich Heinz, who came on board in January as a professor of physics. The 46-year-old's nine-month salary is $90,000, plus he received $196,000 in start-up funds for research travel and to hire graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow. At the University of Regensburg, in Germany, where he taught before coming to Ohio State, he earned about 50 percent less.
The chemistry department has hired two top scholars so far: C. Bradley Moore, who came from Berkeley last summer, and Malcolm H. Chisholm, a fellow of the Royal Society, which is the British equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences.
"If you're going to go after senior hires, you go after an eyebrow move," explains Bruce E. Bursten, chairman of chemistry at Ohio State. "Big, decisive hires can shake up rankings in a hurry." They also make a dent in the budget. The market for high-profile chemists, says Mr. Bursten, "has gone almost as screwy as in the sports world."
When Mr. Bursten came calling, Mr. Chisholm had been firmly ensconced at Indiana University's Bloomington campus for 20 years, with no intention of leaving. The two had dinner one evening in late 1999 when Mr. Bursten was in Indiana for other business. Mr. Chisholm had previously turned down offers from the University of Cambridge, as well as from Duke University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What interested him about Ohio State was its medical school and its materials-science and engineering department. Indiana University's Bloomington campus has neither. But Mr. Chisholm's research has been branching into multidisciplinary areas, such as the quest for new origins of biomaterials, and access to medical and materials-science professors would come in handy. Another draw, says Mr. Chisholm, was Ohio State's "greater instrumentation for characterization of materials." He adds: "You know, boys with toys."
After seven months of negotiating, Mr. Chisholm struck a deal that gave him a $165,000 annual salary and a $2-million start-up package. (At Indiana, he earned about $145,000 per year.) Mr. Chisholm has two university offices, one chock full of floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets that house colorful chemical models. The other holds file cabinets filled with neatly categorized copies of Mr. Chisholm's 500 journal articles. In between the offices winds 3,000 square feet of laboratory space, double the amount he'd had at I.U. He teaches three courses a year, about average for scientists at Ohio State.
In history, the price tag for top scholars was lower -- about $130,000 a year for its most senior hires, with annual research and travel funds of between $10,000 and $12,000 apiece. But the historians got other perks. They'll teach fewer classes than colleagues in the department, and the university has been patient about giving them ample time to come on board.
The department was so interested in John L. Brooke that it is waiting two years for him to make the move from Tufts University. Ohio State first approached Mr. Brooke in 1995, but he said he wasn't interested, in part because he was caring for his ailing mother in Massachusetts. Last year, after Ohio State came calling again, Mr. Brooke accepted the offer, but he wants to wait until his oldest son graduates from high school next year before moving to Columbus full time.
The new job means a 60-percent increase in salary for Mr. Brooke, a specialist in early-American history who in 1995 won the Bancroft Prize in American history and diplomacy. At Tufts, says Mr. Brooke, he had no graduate students in his field and only $300 for research travel each year. At Ohio State, he'll have a $12,000 fund from which he can hire graduate students and buy computer equipment. And he'll teach four courses a year, compared with the usual five in history.
Not all of Ohio State's high-profile searches have been successful. One professor turned down an offer because his wife, who is also an academic, did not believe the department at Ohio State that offered her a position was strong enough (it is not one of the award winners, and the couple declined to identify it). Bonnie G. Smith, a professor of history at Rutgers University, turned down Ohio State's offer this spring after Rutgers matched it, and after she decided she didn't want to leave her graduate students.
For the divisions that missed out on the $1-million awards, life has been more difficult. The College of the Arts entered and lost the competition three times. It managed to launch its Motion Capture Laboratory anyway this spring, but only after raising money from industry. The lab is in temporary quarters on the campus because the college can't afford to rent other space. The lab uses technology to capture human motion, and it opened in April with an analysis of a performance by Marcel Marceau.
If it had won a selective-investment award, the college would have hired at least two full-time technical staff members to operate the lab, and had enough money to house it. Judith Smith Koroscik, dean of the college, has had to press professors and staff members into working overtime to get the laboratory up and running. "It's about taking the path of most resistance to get something we were really passionate about," says Ms. Koroscik. "Somehow we launched it. Now the question is, can we sustain the energy without the continuing resources?"
Ms. Koroscik wonders whether her college missed out because many of its fields, like dance, design, and art education, aren't ranked by either U.S. News or the National Research Council. "Do you invest in those unique assets that can't be compared to other institutions?" she asks. "Or do you make your investments based on comparisons that come down to following the leader?"
Others caution that, by focusing on being highly competitive in a few fields, the university may lose its traditional mission of serving the broad interests of students in the state. William Hartnett, a Democratic state legislator who sits on the state House of Representatives' Education Committee, says the university shouldn't lose sight of its land-grant status. "We don't want to miss out on producing great teachers and good social workers," he says. "I realize that once in a while you have to buy stars, but let's not shortchange those other colleges or departments."
After losing out in the selective-investment competition, the department of food science and technology here has temporarily shelved its plans to start a food-packaging program, with four or five new senior professors. None of the departments in the agricultural college, including food science, are measured by national rankings.
Mike Mangino, a professor of food science and technology, says Ohio State has "never been elitist," but he adds: "I hope we don't sell out too much for somebody else's perception of what's good."
Mr. Mangino questions the wisdom of focusing on a handful of departments and their high-profile hires. "While I applaud selective investment, anybody who thinks you're going to raise your status by what a few, selective departments have become is wrong," he says. "There are a lot of places that want to buy rankings, and if everybody is doing it, we're just going to trade players."
The political-science department may be a case in point. It snatched up Diana C. Mutz two years ago -- even after she had gotten a handsome offer from the University of Pennsylvania. Now O.S.U. will lose one of its own professors -- Edward D. Mansfield -- to Penn this summer.