Whenever college professors from diverse colleges and disciplines gather, before long they are usually complaining about how university administrators—individuals who do not teach (and many never did) thwart colleges performing their two major missions: disseminating knowledge, mostly through teaching, and by creating new knowledge and creative contributions through research or artistic activity. Empirical evidence shows the downplaying of the core teaching functions has been substantial, with many universities having far more administrative and related personnel than teaching faculty. Moreover, many of the increased numbers of administrators are not involved in research either—they are involved in other things: student life outside the classroom, promoting sustainability or diversity efforts that were virtually completely absent from universities a few decades ago, and other assorted functions: information technology gurus, development folks hustling funds from alumni, folks in charge of maintaining buildings, or serving food, librarians, athletic support staff, and so forth.

We are approaching 250 years since the founder of modern economic analysis, Adam Smith, noted (in that annus mirabilis 1776) that the quality of teaching at Oxford University had undergone notable decline as a result of changing administrative practices. Previously, professors collected fees from students attending their classes. The more popular the courses, the greater the number of students and the higher fees that could be charged. Pleasing the students enhanced professorial income, so, in Smith’s judgment, the quality of instruction was relatively high.

Under the new system (used today), professors work on salary. Smith observed “In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Making the students happy, intellectually fulfilled, was secondary. Professors were rent-seekers wanting to maximize income per unit of work effort. They sought to Do Less For More, and having the University collecting and disbursing revenues was a convenient mechanism to permit that. So universities have increasing devoted vast portions of tuition fees collected to things unrelated to teaching. Many schools spend millions subsidizing ball throwing exercises that entertain some but provide almost no value to the students. And I suspect even fervently environmental students might cringe if they knew their tuition fees are hundreds of dollars higher because university efforts to conserve energy so as to reduce planetary temperatures in 2090 by one millionth of a degree.

The Faculty, while often selfish, sometimes collectively moronic, and occasionally very lazy, are not always paragons of virtue, they at least believe in centering the mission of the university around disseminating and increasing the body of knowledge (as well as enhancing their salaries and assuring themselves convenient parking).

As people envision new academic institutions like the University of Austin, perhaps they should adopt variations on Smith’s model, where teacher salaries depend at least partly on how they are received by the customers, the students. Let the students pay the professors, who, in turn, will pass on a portion of proceeds to the university for providing classroom and office space, administrative services to students (e..g. providing transcripts), as well as some academic support—most notably a library to house books filled with prior knowledge. As for housing and eating, most European universities leave that up to the students and the community to resolve, not the university.

I have done some summer teaching at a private school in the Czech Republic that I thought offered pretty high quality education, largely funded by tuition fees approximating $10,000 annually—there was no government support. There were a few non-teaching people collecting money, keeping records, admitting students, cleaning the building, etc., but most resources went into teaching. Why can’t we have a teaching U in the U.S., with superstar professors in abundance, but few if any sustainability coordinators, diversity and inclusion czars, PR flacks, expensive football coaches, etc. Universities are in the business of teaching and research—other things are relatively non-essential. Why do universities provide housing and food, something others can do as well or better? A high quality Back to the Basics University with lots of enthusiastic and good professors but little else might be an attractive concept. To be sure, some think college is as much about loving and drinking as learning and exploring, but those peripheral activities can be pursued elsewhere.