ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Miami Ohio’s smart spending, rigor and academic freedom position it to succeed

The Plain Dealer
August 22, 2019 by Connor Murnane

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nestled in Oxford, Ohio, lies the “Ivy of the Midwest,” Miami University. As colleges across the United States reach an inflection point, with public confidence eroding and solutions in short supply, Miami University finds itself in a unique position to lead the charge in reclaiming the original intent of the academy. Through renewed emphasis on its core curriculum, prudent spending habits, and a firm commitment to academic freedom, the university has outlined a promising path through the uncertainty of higher education.

Traditionally well-regarded for its dedication to liberal arts curricula, Miami University’s new strategic plan reinforces its foundational belief that “a liberal education provides the best possible framework for life in a changing world.”

As the school’s paper “The Miami Student,” reported, the strategic plan notes that the school receives a “C” grade from a report that analyzes the core curriculum requirements at colleges and universities nationwide. Seeking to raise this grade, the university is repairing gaps in its general education programs. The plan outlines a sharpened focus on the humanities, natural sciences, entrepreneurship, composition, and quantitative reasoning, along with advanced writing and perspective courses that will help students develop their critical thinking and marketable skills for the workforce.

In recent years, administrative bloat has been a major driver of tuition increases at countless colleges — as campuses add one-trick bureaucrats such as compliance professionals, sustainability czars, and various other deanlets, directors, and assistant vice presidents.

Miami University has responded to the emergence of this “new normal” by reducing 391 administrative staff positions since 2008 and adding more than 80 new full faculty members — about half of whom are tenure-track. This move provides a sharp contrast to colleges that are shrinking their tenure-eligible faculty by increasing their reliance on adjunct instructors while allocating resources toward bureaucratic oversight.

According to the website, HowCollegesSpendMoney.com, Miami University has kept its administrative costs under $2,500 per student, while its self-selected peers have been steadily approaching $3,500 per student. Although the school has added numerous faculty positions, it also has managed to keep its inflation-adjusted instructional expenditures stable, hovering around $13,000 per student. This places the university’s administrative versus instructional spending ratio at an ideal 17 cents of administrative spending for every dollar of instructional spending. Year after year, Miami University nonetheless boasts a four-year graduation rate that is 10 percent better than its peers, disproving the common misconception that the only way to increase graduation rates is to grow the college administrative state.

Miami University’s tuition, while higher than its peers, has risen at a much lower rate. From 2008 to 2017, the sticker price rose from $13,346 to $15,418, just a 16 percent increase in eight years. In contrast, the university’s peer institutions increased their rates by an average of 35 percent, from $9,441 to $12,751. While tuition rates are vastly outpacing earnings growth nationally, Miami University’s tuition as a percentage of state median household income has actually fallen from its high of 30.6 percent in 2012 to 27.3 percent in 2017.

In addition to a demonstrated commitment to fiscal responsibility and academic rigor, Miami University is serious about academic freedom at a time when many campuses are caving to student activism.

Miami University has recently completed negotiations with the Altman Charitable Foundation for a $1 million gift to the Humanities Center, which has one major string attached: The university must first adopt the Chicago Principles, the gold standard for an institutional commitment to freedom of expression. As of July 2019, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported that 66 American colleges and universities have adopted the statement; Miami University can now proudly claim to be No. 67.

In an era when 37 percent of college students believe it is acceptable to shout down a speaker, academic leaders must cultivate the kind of intellectual environment that we would be well-served to see spread beyond college campuses — one that is genuinely open to a diversity of perspectives.

It is no surprise that a majority of Americans (56 percent) lack faith in our country’s institutions of higher education. Threats to free expression, declining intellectual diversity, and the erosion of curricular standards are just a few of the current challenges that have degraded American colleges and universities almost beyond recognition. Faced with the same pressures, Miami University has risen above the clamor and modeled an exemplary way to realign higher education practices in light of the academy’s traditional purposes.

Connor J. Murnane is a communications officer at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.