Weight-Watching at the University: The Consequences of Growth

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Science  28 Jan 1972:
Vol. 175, Issue 4020, pp. 381-388
DOI: 10.1126/science.175.4020.381


We began by pointing out that tools (for example) have size optima that are dictated by function. If we assume that the university has a function, it would seem reasonable to think about the size which will serve that function best.

The principle of size optimization is fundamental, but its application to the university at once encounters a difficulty: What is the function of a university? It might take forever to secure general agreement on the answer to this question. The problem is that universities have a number of different functions, to which different individuals will attach different weights, and each function may well have a unique size optimum. Just as it is, in general, mathematically impossible to maximize simultaneously for two different functions of the same variable (29), so it is unsound to conceive of a single optimum for the multiversity. Nonetheless, a range of workable sizes may be defined by analyzing the effect of variation in size on all essential functions.

The examples from biological systems illustrate this approach. Cells exist in a variety of sizes, each size presumably representing an optimization to one or another set of constraints, yet there are upper bounds. There are no cells the size of basketballs because essential metabolic functions are limited by the surface-to-volume ratio. We must emphasize that one does not need a grand theory of life in order to identify this limiting condition. If cells could talk, they would no doubt differ on the general philosophy of being a cell, yet all conceptions would be subject to certain physically inevitable limitations on size.

In the case of the university, no grand theory of education is needed in order to identify dysfunctions of growth that affect essential activities (for example, the diffusion of individuals through, in, and out of the university) or that affect all activities (for example, overall morale). Balanced against these dysfunctions are such advantages of growth as economy, the achievement of a critical mass, and flexibility in staffing.

Our analyis of data from the California system indicates that unit costs of education decline very little above a size of 10,000 or 15,000 students. Moreover, the critical mass for departmental excellence, at least in terms of the ACE ratings of graduate departments, is achieved by a university of about this size. Growth beyond this size range conitinues to provide flexibility in staffing and spares administrators the trouble of having to make difficult decisions. At the same time, the dysfunctions attendant on growth become steadily more severe.

Our impression is that the dysfunctions have not been seriously considered, while the advantages have been greatly oversold. The idea of dysfunctional growth, although fundamental in biology, contradicts one of America's most cherished illusions. Particular dysfunctions of growth are rarely formulated, set down, and explicitly weighed against the potential advantages. Rather, the American prejudice has been to assume that growth is always good, or at least inevitable, and to treat the dysfunctions (which are inevitable) as managerial problems to be ironed out later or glossed over.

There has also been a remarkable failure to think in terms of optima and to distinguish in this way between what we have termed functional and dysfunctional growth. Rather, the tendency has been to extrapolate functional growth into the dysfunctional range: If a university population of 10,000 confers certain advantages as compared with a population of 1,000, then it is assumed that a population of 100,000 must confer even more advantages.

We suggest that it is time, in fact past time, to subject university growth to a more searching scrutiny. Functional and dysfunctional consequences need to be spelled out. Scale effects ought to be considered in connection with every plan for expansion. Ideally, one might expect a farsighted and tough-minded administration to carry out this function. This has rarely been the case. Too often administrators regard their function as simply that of broker among competing expansionist tendencies. Such a conception replaces philosophy by politics and often encourages mindless growth. Perhaps it is time for faculties to involve themselves in long-range planning and to pay the price of a more satisfactory environment by giving up some individual dreams of empire. The first step for every large university ought to be a careful analysis of scale effects (30).

If analysis indicates that continued growth of a university will be, on balance, dysfunctional, we suggest that plans be formulated to establish an absolute limit on further enrollment increase, and an absolute limit on further building expansion.

If further analysis indicates that a university is already well into the dysfunctional size range, then the obvious solution is to cut back. If this turns out to be the case, then we suggest that a program for the gradual reduction of the campus population be undertaken. There are two distinct ways to accomplish this: (i) the establishment of a new university and (ii) the decentralization of the existing university into two or more campuses. Decentralization strikes us as an attractive idea, worthy of careful study. One of the recommendations of the Scranton commission was, "Large universities should take steps to decentralize or reorganize to make possible a more human scale" (18, p. 14). Returning to the natural world, we note again that cells do not grow indefinitely. Instead, they divide.