Tuesday, May 24

Op-ed: UCLA must support interdisciplinary education through its budgeting decisions

This post was updated Oct. 27 at 11:10 p.m.

This fall, UCLA launched an interdisciplinary data science initiative named DataX. Motivated by “the ever-expanding role of data in society” and backed by a $10 million seed investment, DataX will “expand opportunities for students across the disciplines,” including the creation of “interdisciplinary DataX cluster courses … accessible to students without extensive technical backgrounds.” Once the seed money runs out, the long-term success of interdisciplinary curricula initiatives like DataX depends on having a university budget model that supports interdisciplinarity. Unfortunately, the new “Bruin Budget Model” – set to launch next year – continues the present state of hostility to graduate students who want to take courses outside their home department.

As a UCLA associate professor of education, I often observe graduate students excited about courses outside the education department. However, that excitement turns to despondency when they are told the course does not have room for students from other departments. My experience as a Ph.D. student in the School of Education at the University of Michigan was different. I developed the foundation that enabled me to compete for faculty positions by taking graduate coursework in the departments of sociology, economics and statistics and the business school. Looking back, I never had trouble getting into these courses because the university ethos – and the university budget model – prioritized interdisciplinary course-taking. As an assistant professor of education at the University of Arizona, I experienced a similar culture.

So when I arrived at UCLA in 2017, I was surprised to find that my students often could not enroll in courses outside the education department. I should not exaggerate the issue; many departments welcome outsiders. Nevertheless, I believe that most UCLA graduate students in the social sciences are unable to take coursework in other disciplines with the level of ease I observed at Michigan and Arizona.

To help build a more inclusive culture, I created an interdisciplinary graduate sequence that welcomes students regardless of their department. “Anyone Can Cook: Foundations of Programming and Data Science” is a two-course sequence designed for graduate students who have no prior programming experience. The workload is intense, with weekly problem sets, but the students perform admirably, and most discover they have more talent for programming than they imagined. “Anyone Can Cook” embodies the curricular aspirations of DataX. Enrollment this fall reached 80 students, with strong representation from education, but also from information studies, public policy, public health, political science, management and others.

The success of “Anyone Can Cook” depends on amazing graduate teaching assistants who provide technical and emotional support while students find their feet and also grade weekly problem sets. Unfortunately, obtaining departmental support for teaching assistants has been a challenge.

I tried making the case that my enrollment numbers warranted additional TA support. Departmental administration replied that many of my students are from other departments and the department of education does not receive additional funding when non-majors take our classes. This argument is a logical response to incentives created by UCLA’s budgeting policy. But if many departments operate by this logic, interdisciplinary learning opportunities for UCLA graduate students will be scarce.

My hopes rose when UCLA announced the Bruin Budget Model, an activity-based budget model based on the University of Michigan approach. In activity-based budgeting, tuition revenue is typically allocated from central administration to academic units (e.g., the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies) based on some combination of instructional credit hours and majors. For undergraduate tuition revenue, the Bruin Budget Model allocates 80% of tuition revenue based on instructional credit hours and 20% based on majors. This split encourages interdisciplinary course-taking in that academic units experience a financial incentive to enroll students from other majors in their courses.

I hoped the Bruin Budget Model would also allocate graduate tuition revenue based on both credit hours and majors, as the University of Michigan does. If so, non-education students in my “Anyone Can Cook” sequence would have financial value to the education department and I would be in a stronger position to ask for TA support. Unfortunately, the Bruin Budget Model will allocate 100% of graduate tuition revenue based on majors, a continuation of how graduate tuition revenue is allocated under the current incremental-based budget system. This policy incentivizes academic units to enroll few “non-majors” in graduate courses, in that these students bear costs (e.g., grading, office hours) but generate no revenue.

As a scholar of higher education, finance and enrollment management who has published on the effects of activity-based budgeting, I believe that UCLA is making a bad decision.

One goal of activity-based budgeting is to improve decision-making by clarifying the revenue and cost implications of decisions. When tuition revenue follows credit hours via a funding formula, academic units can calculate how many students a course needs to enroll to cover the cost of a TA. By contrast, the Bruin Budget Model does not assign value to graduate student credit hours, so there is no basis for making decisions about TA support.

The primary purpose of activity-based budgeting for public research universities is to encourage the constituent parts of the university to create the things we value most. Indeed, the 2013 University of Delaware Faculty Senate report on activity-based budgeting begins with President Joe Biden’s quote, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value.” A university cannot be governed through incentives alone, so a smart budget model goes as far as it can in creating the right incentives and relies on regulations and academic leadership to achieve the rest. However, we should not adopt a budget model that is hostile to our academic values. When the UCLA Bruin Budget Model allocates 100% of graduate tuition revenue to majors and 0% to instruction, the incentive academic units hear is, “We care about recruiting new graduate students but not about the coursework opportunities they’ll have once they enroll.”

UCLA administrators often talk about the value of interdisciplinarity. Don’t tell us what you value, show us with your budget. If we want interdisciplinary courses and interdisciplinary campus-wide initiatives like DataX to succeed, our budget model must support interdisciplinary course-taking.

Jaquette is an associate professor of higher education at the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies.

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