An Interview with President Theobald - Part One
By Steve Newman
On January 16th, I sat down with President Theobald for an hour to talk about his view of the issues facing the university, with an emphasis on the faculty’s role. The following is the first part of a transcript that I’ve redacted for clarity, with President Theobald’s approval. My thanks again to him for agreeing to the interview. The second part of the interview, which will appear in the next issue of The Faculty Herald; includes dialogue on: the assessment of teaching, general education; the role of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs); the course President Theobald will teach next Fall; funding graduate and undergraduate students; and Temple’s place in the community as a public research university.
Three Key Issues Facing Temple
Steve Newman: First, I just want to thank you again for your time. I know how busy you must be.
Neil Theobald: Sure.
SN: The first question I have has to do with your delaying your inauguration till October, to wait until you’ve gotten a sense of what’s here. Are there particular issues that you have in mind that the faculty can help you try and answer. What are some of those questions? We are enthusiastic that you’re here, and we want to know how we can help answer the questions you come in with.
NT: The question you’re asking is the reason to push it [my inauguration] back from April. I would hate to give a vision of Temple University in April and then after I’m around and talked to faculty and staff say, I don’t think I had quite had that right. You don’t get a mulligan: “Ignore what you heard last April. Get everyone all dressed up again and we’re going to this all again.” I come with a certain perspective. I was at the University of Washington for, gosh, 7 years, and then I was at IU for 20 years. But that’s not Temple University. So I have a context. But the specifics really matter in these kinds of things.
The issue in general that I always think of is: “How do we make this more affordable?” I mean if there is any major issue that we face as an entity—and that means all of us—the staff, the trustees, the faculty, the administration, everybody—the current trend in costs, not just in costs but in student debt, that’s not sustainable. And we can’t be part of an entity that says, well, they’ll just have to figure that out. Because it‘ll get figured out—
SN—Whether we like it or not.
NT—And we’re part of it, what’s going to happen in the end. First, it’s just the right thing to do. There’s a practical sense to it. But there’s also simply a moral sense, that to send out a generation of students with 30,000 in debt, 40,000 in debt... This isn’t to say that college isn’t still a great investment. A question I’ve been getting a lot from alumni groups, and I’ve probably done one a day at least, I’m averaging more than one a day, is: Is this still as good of an investment? Should people do this? Absolutely. The answer is yes. Absolutely. And not just because I’m in this business and I want everyone to do this. There’s no doubt if you look at any kind of statistics, these guys… There is the corporate leader who will pay kids not to go...
NT: Incredible. I mean, I would love to know if he sent his own children to college, if he has any...²
SN: And, of course, he went to college.
NT: Yeah. This is unconscionable from where I stand. You just look at data. The cost—is it worth it? On average, yes. But we have to make sure that we make that cost as affordable as possible. We do that by containing costs, by fundraising so that we can provide financial aid, so that we make sure students have the financial literacy they need. How do you borrow money? How do you plan to pay it back? What is the labor market like? All of these kinds of things. That’s part of our role, to make sure people leave here ready for the real world. And know, “Ok, I’ve got a debt of $15 thousand, and I’m going to pay $150 dollars a month for 15 years...” whatever those numbers are, and how are you going to do that? I think we have to be part of that. Otherwise... we are morally responsible, and people are going to find alternatives. That’s a big one--the whole affordability issue.
SN: How we are going to contain costs.
NT: It’s really how are going to contain debt.
SN: And what can faculty do to help you think through those issues.
NT: Exactly. What is it that we can do? And what can we control? I mean we can help them with their literacy, but what can we do to control costs by looking at how we do things, online education, all of these kinds of things. I’m not saying online education is the answer, just that we have to look at all the alternatives.
Clearly, another major set of questions facing us has to do with the medical school and the hospital. What is their role? Where is that headed? We’re in North Philadelphia, where the hospital ends up being the provider of public health services. What is that role? What is our mission there? Clearly we’re a health provider. What are the financial implications there? We need to think this through. That’s massive.
SN: I know a lot of faculty, whether we’re at the medical school or not, have been to presentations where we see how relatively low the
bond rating is for the hospital, and we know a bit about the profound changes in the economics of healthcare delivery. On one hand, it speaks to Temple’s mission as we like to think of it. A lot of us who are here, we just feel lucky to have a job; if you’re in the humanities, you feel lucky to have a job. But many faculty stay here in part because we believe in the mission...
SN: And the mission has to do with accessibility to groups of folks who normally don’t have it. And in some way the hospital reproduces that model and yet that model doesn’t come without a price.
NT: And the price continues to grow. I think at one time when health care costs were at a level, we could say well, that’s just part of we’re going to do. But given what an open heart surgery actually costs today, to say that we’re just going to provide it. Well, you can’t just bankrupt the university doing that. And there has to be a real discussion about that issue.
The third major issue is deciding what story Temple wants to tell about itself. I was contacted for this position at the end of May or the 1st of June. What I have learned in my seven months about Temple University is what a fabulous place this is: the quality here; the really good people; the student response. The other night, before the holiday, I went over to the residence hall, just walked around the dining hall, talking to the students. I didn’t talk to a single student who wasn’t wildly positive about being here. It was a random group, and they didn’t know who I am. We need to let people know that. And not simply for PR purposes. If we’re going to recruit good students, they need to know what a wonderful experience the students who are currently here are having. If we’re going to recruit good faculty, they need to know that gee this is really a top-notch place. If you look at US News and World Report, and there are many different opinions about those rankings, but I was just looking through them to see where Temple is on various things. If you look at public universities, and that’s the realm we’re in, we have the fifth ranked medical school in the east. The only ones higher ranked than this medical school are Pitt, Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. Those are our peers, and with the purchase of Fox Chase, if we’re not past Maryland, we’re right there with them. That’s the way we need to talk about ourselves and talk about our peers.
And this matters simply for getting research funding. I’ve sat on a number of panels in DC, and it matters where that research proposal comes from. And so that’s part of what we need—that mission, especially with the medical school but also the university. What’s the story we want to tell, and how are going to tell that story, and how are we going to make sure that people know about Temple University? That’s a really big part. What are we going to emphasize? You can’t tell 58 stories. The cacophony of the higher ed press isn’t going to hear that. What should The Chronicle write about Temple University? What are we really proud of? What do we really want to be? Then we have to make sure that that message gets out.
Simply looking across disciplines, the world is changing. Revenue sources are changing. Are there schools and departments that we want to grow? Are there schools, departments that are less of a priority today? We need to have those conversations. I don’t come in with any knowledge of what those are here at Temple. But certainly in the field I’m in, which is the financing of education, when I first started going through 35 years ago, being able to a budget by hand was really important. We had better not be teaching kids how to do these green sheets one way or another. You don’t do that anymore. It’s a different set of skills. It’s much more about “How do I impact change?” In my own field it’s a wildly different type of faculty member, type of emphasis you have than you had before. I’m sure that’s true in English as well and I’m sure it’s true in Engineering. So we need to really figure out where are we going to put what are always going to be scarce resources, which generally means if we’re going to put it one place, we’re not going to put it somewhere else. What is it we want to be?
On RCM: Common Misconceptions
SN: I had a couple of questions about the model that’s on everybody’s lips, various versions of RCM. There are a bunch of questions that faculty who, when they knew I was going to have this interview wanted me to ask about this.
SN: My first question is: What do faculty most often misunderstand about this model? I have some detailed questions I really want to get to about faculty review of deans and other things like that. But you’ve been at this for a while and you clearly know how this system works.
NT: I’ve worked at it for twenty years.
SN: So what do we tend to misunderstand about it?
NT: I think what is misunderstood is that somehow this is creating a business model that doesn’t currently exist. That, well, “We’re not here to generate profits." Well, right now, you could take the most centralized system in the country—Penn State is a very centralized budget system. At Penn State University, they are not allowed to have more expenditures than they have revenue. That’s simply a reality at any non-profit, unless you have reserves, and that can only go on for so long. And then there’s, "Well, RCM means that we’re going to not have losses.” No, it works the same way. The big difference is that rather than those discussions going on in this building and being allocated out, they go on at the faculty and dean level. Everyone starts with a balanced budget. Ok, where do we want to emphasize and de-emphasize within that school? I have found it a much more faculty-centric model, a much more cost-effective model. Because generally, someone sends me something on, say, a new hire; Say that we need to hire another Chaucer specialist. You would have a better idea of whether that’s where the field is going. You are in a much better position. You get the decision making down to the people closer to the action. No, Chaucer is not the future, the future is Keats, or whatever. So that’s really the idea. It isn’t a different outcome. The what is no different, the where is different. So rather than things happening centrally, things happen out in 17 schools.
Having said that, the mistake we made at IU, and we corrected it after 5 years, we actually started with no money in central administration, it all went out. Which sounds great in theory. But there are interdisciplinary initiatives, there are common good initiatives that we all want to have, but no one of us is willing to pay for all of it. You have to have a pool of money. So the way it has worked, and there are lots of different way to do it, but I’ve worked a lot with people at Michigan and Ohio State that do this as well. We do it three different ways. But the Indiana model is all the money goes out so that everybody knows exactly who’s got what, but then we tax it back, but it doesn’t stay at the center.
SN: It gets re-disbursed.
NT: It gets re-disbursed, but it’s this: “Ok, let’s meet, let’s have budget conferences”—that’s what the budget conferences are about. What is it that liberal arts wants to do that would also benefit engineering? What is it that we all need? Those sorts of things. You need a mixture. Another thing I think is also misunderstood—you asked for one, but it’s hard to have only one--the biggest mistake we can make on this is being doctrinaire about it, that, “Oh, no, the purity of decentralized budgeting will not let us do that.” We set the rules. I just think we have to be pragmatic, that, maybe we want to say, “Well, there’s a difference between a graduate and an undergraduate course.” And someone says back: “Well, the beauty of RCM says, you can’t… ” No. It isn’t as if we’re handing away our authority or handing away our decision making to some process, not at all. We set all of that. It’s really just to get it out to people who know more about it, to get them involved.
Faculty Review of Deans
SN: This leads me to some of the questions I have about this that are both mine and also because other people have asked me to ask them. This is obviously a system that gives power to deans—
NT: Absolutely, deans, and also faculty groups within schools and a piece that gets missing here is there really needs to be a strong campus faculty budget group as well. The money that comes back and then goes back out, there really needs to be not only at the school level—decentralized—but there has to be that central group. It’s critical.
SN: One question that’s been raised—it’s been raised at the Faculty Senate Steering Committee—is what possibilities are there for faculty input into the hiring and renewal of deans? Because on the evaluation side, it’s something that doesn’t seem to exist at Temple now and whether we like or love our deans and want to keep them or maybe are a little worried the directions our deans are going, there’s a sense that maybe we should think about building that in and I’m wondering if that was a tradition at IU or if you have any thoughts about it.
NT: Well, it’s a separate issue, and I’m not sure what the current process is. You absolutely need a review of deans, and every 5 years seems like a reasonable amount. You’re always fighting the last war. What I would say is in doing that in order to be fair to all parties—again, what we did poorly and what I think worked better. At one point there was just simply an anonymous survey and those data were—if you don’t know who and what the context was.
SN: There was no accountability.
NT: I’d get those data and I’m not sure what I knew when I had it. And so we moved to a much more transparent process, but, yeah, I clearly think, but that’s isn’t tied to de-centralized budgeting.
SN: It’s not necessarily part of it. But you could see why the question would be raised with more urgency because the sense is that RCM is great insofar as the principle of proximity does seem to put more both responsibility and autonomy in the faculty’s hands, and yet insofar as it also empowers deans, the question then becomes, well, if the deans clearly have a lot of say in who gets hired at the college, what say do we have in regards to hiring and renewing deans?
NT: Well, I think that the faculty would certainly be involved in dean’s search committees but also in the review of existing deans.
The proposal to take chairs out of bargaining unit
SN: Great. One of the other issues that has come up with RCM at Temple specifically has to do with the union. Is the faculty at IU unionized? I don’t believe so.
SN: One of the issues that’s come up—and, again, it might not be tied to RCM, but many faculty see a connection, was the proposal recently moved before you came here to take the chairs out of the bargaining unit.
NT: I’m ignorant of these things.
SN: Here’s a bit of background: When our union was first organized back in the early 70s, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board weighed in on this and said that chairs are really not managers, they are primarily faculty at least at public universities and so they should be part of the bargaining unit. And for some time now for reasons I understand although I don’t agree with, the administration has wanted to take the chairs out of the bargaining unit, and we keep saying, well, “No, we don’t think that that’s a good idea.” And so now Temple’s administration has filed a suit with the PLRB directly saying, “We, the administration, think that chairs’ responsibilities have changed to such a degree that we think that they should be out of the bargaining unit.” This has caused much consternation among chairs themselves, and some of them have contacted me saying, I don’t like that change, and even some faculty who don’t have all that much love for the union were taken aback.
NT: I know so little about that issue… ask me in six months.
SN: I didn’t know if you knew anything about it.
NT: No. I have a lot to learn.
Job Security for those not on the tenure track
SN: One of the other things around this is… I can see sometimes when I talk with administrators, while there are always tensions with the union and while the relationship here has historically been even beyond the normal tensions one would see. There were strikes in the late 80s and early 90s as you may know, and, you know, bargaining is often contentious. On one hand, it gives you one group you’re bargaining with, so there are certain kinds of advantages there, since you’re not cutting deals with a hundred separate people. One of the issues that the union has been trying to put forward is more job security for people who are not on the tenure track. So English is one of the chief examples here, though hardly the only one. I know you’ve just come here, but I wonder what your sense here is working with a unionized faculty on issues around job security, and wages, and across-the-board vs. merit, and sticky issues like that.
NT: I come out of a union household. My father’s UAW, one brother is UAW, another brother is Teamsters because he works for the state. I certainly understand that context, but how it plays out, but since I don’t have any experience with it, I’ll have to learn.
SN: One of the issues here, is that we have all these folks who have their doctoral degrees or their terminal degree from great schools, Temple included, and they do a lot of teaching and along with the adjuncts they make my teaching load possible. I’m not under any illusions about that. Many are also productive scholars and artists who don't get the recognition they should. They’ve been here for 10, 12 years, and they just get one one-year contract after another, and you can imagine that that wears on them. I also know that the administration wants flexibility in hiring, so it can be a push-pull.
NT: That’s the same issue that is in non-unionized places. An approach that makes sense to me is to create some multi-year roles, not tenured roles, but multi-year roles where it’s quite clear what the expectations are, so that people can plan; and that is also a great advantage to Temple because then those people that are really good, you can put them in those positions and keep them. So, that makes sense to me and is in fact something I already do and have been doing. I think the key there is that needs to be tied to the individual you’re offering the contract to. That’s the key. Does that person meet your needs and you know I’m going to need someone to do this for 3 years? Then, yeah, let’s enter into a multi-year contract. We had a lot of those at IU.
RCM: Timeline, periodic review, and administrative efficiency
SN: The last question I had around RCM, it is going to be phased in over the next few years, and it’ll be live, as it were, a few years from now.
NT: Fall of 14, yeah.
SN: In terms of the timeline, my sense is that one makes adjustments year to year, there’s lots of reviews I saw on the IU website, there’s a feedback loop.
NT: It’s really not year to year; I’ll tell you how it works. I’ve been involved in 3 of the 4 reviews. It’s every five years. You can’t change year to year, since then people can’t plan.
SN: There’s no predictability.
NT: Say that this starts in Fall 14, which is the plan. Then, at the end of the 2018-19 school year, then we’ll have a five-year review that includes faculty, staff, deans, everyone. And we just say, “Ok, this is our plan. We can change it.” At the end of that first five years, we made radical changes, because what we had put in place… IU was the first public university to do this. The only reason we did because the provost at Penn became the president of IU, so he brought RCM, RCB I think he called it, to IU. But we put in a model that a public university that needed revising. It worked, but there were lots of ideas in the first five years to make it better. We had a committee, and we just had the fourth of those committees, because last year, two years ago was the 20th year. And so it’s every five years. And everything is on the table. Including “let’s go back to the old model.” That’s always part of the discussion, is there any reason we would want. And it has been, I’d say, actually, that’s not true, it wasn’t truly unanimous. Ten years ago, there was a chemist who out of a committee of 32 wanted to go back to the old model. But you’ve had probably 30 people on each committee so it was 119 to 1 so far that we should stay with the model.
SN: I want to change tack. I had questions about how administrative efficiencies are produced out of RCM, but I’m mindful of the time...
NT: Actually, I could answer that very quickly. What it does is that it makes transparent what you’re paying for an administrative office, Because the money comes out to the school first and then comes back. So you say, ok, the liberal arts is paying, make up a number, $200k for the president’s office, and then you begin to say what do we get out of the president’s office?
SN: Is that true within an individual college? I’m thinking as much about efficiencies there.
NT: No, the unit of analysis that works is the school.
SN: So there is no decoupling of, say, the expenses involved in faculty salaries and start-up costs on one hand and the expenses of the dean’s office in the other?
NT: Right there, is no dean vs…Obviously, the incentive there since you have to balance your own budget...
SN: You have to be lean.
NT: Efficient. As far as central administration, it gives you a way to talk about it. I love this office, but it costs us $8 million per year and so on. And also it makes the office say this is what we do. It makes things more transparent. •
¹ The venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who funds a program called The Thiel Fellowships,which gives students under 20 $100,000 to not go to college for two years to pursue their own entrepreneurial ideas.
² Thiel does not have children, but he did receive both a B. A. and a J. D. from Stanford.