It's no secret that big changes are afoot in academe, and psychology departments are feeling them. Less clear is what some of these changes--decreased state funding for universities, the rise of technology and for-profit institutions, and increased emphasis on accountability and efficiency--will ultimately mean for academic psychology.

One of the most immediate concerns for universities and departments is a freezing or diminishing of public monies for higher education. This, along with a recession-induced drop in personal and corporate donations, has left many university administrators facing some tough budgetary choices, says psychologist Edward Sheridan, PhD, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Houston.

And the place many could feel the pinch, he says, is research. The decline in funding could pressure universities to focus more on the money-generating function of teaching. At the same time, they may find it harder to attract top researchers, says Sharon Brehm, PhD, chancellor at Indiana University-Bloomington. And if that happens, notes Brehm, the whole state suffers.

"We're not doing research just to do research," she says. "Increasingly, research findings affect the long-term economic health of the state. The economies of the states, and that of the whole nation, have become more and more dependent on research and technology transfer."

Sheridan agrees. "In the long term, this is a big problem for our country because what has distinguished our research universities is that they're on the cutting edge of new ideas," he says. "You can't continue to do that in chemistry, physics or psychology without funding."

Traditionally, money to pay for research has come from tax dollars, tuition, research grants, corporations and endowments. But with recent stock-market losses and tax cuts, those sources have taken a hit, save tuition and research grants. And since research grants don't always cover research costs, that leaves tuition as the main money generator, says Sheridan.

In fact, 40 states now have less tax revenue, and "we will feel this in education," says Arthur Levine, PhD, president of Columbia University's Teachers College and a higher-education analyst. Evidence of this can be found in a recent survey by Illinois State University's Center for the Study of Education Policy. The study found that state higher-education spending has risen by the smallest amount in five years, with inflation outpacing university spending in 13 states.

In addition, student enrollment is expected to swell, which, predicts Levine, will encourage schools to earmark more money for teaching at the expense of research. Without significant funds coming in through donations, investments and other channels, he explains, dollars from tuition--particularly at public institutions--will not stretch far enough to substantially support research.

Universities are also pouring more money into teaching to compete with the increasing numbers of online institutions, such as the University of Phoenix. These institutions compete for instruction from top faculty and tap federal student aid for funding, Levine notes. Facing such threats, "universities could see a drop-off in research quality and quantity."

This is not to say that the research drop-off will happen dramatically, says Sheridan. "It will happen 1 or 2 percent at a time until you find there is now 10 percent less of the budget going to research," he explains. "Such a change would significantly impact the culture of research universities. The reason this possible phenomenon is so important is that it happens gradually but eventually has such a profound impact."

Unbundling of research

Another trend is pressing major research universities to spend more money on teaching: the public outcry for better undergraduate instruction and advising. This, in turn, has led administrators to separate out or unbundle the traditional triad of teaching, research and service: Faculty account for the time allotted to each of those functions, and administrators share that information with legislators, parents and the general public.

Of particular concern for those groups, is the time top scholars spend on teaching and mentoring students.

"The major problem for research universities now and for the last 30 years is that the public thinks--with some justification--we have not paid any attention to undergraduate education," says psychologist Charles Kiesler, PhD, formerly a chancellor at the University of Missouri and now retired. "We need to upgrade the quality and excitement level of that experience, and make certain the public is aware of our efforts."

But combine that focus on undergraduate education with reduced research funds and a continuous flow of dollars from tuition, and, "you place more pressure on researchers to do more teaching...at the same time, it gets harder to support graduate students doing research," says psychologist Judy Genshaft, PhD, president of the University of South Florida.

Kiesler is less concerned. State budgets are getting tighter, he acknowledges, but federal research budgets have increased. Regardless, the burden on research faculty is growing heavier, says University of Michigan Professor Emeritus Wilbert McKeachie, PhD, a long-time observer of teaching and scholarship issues. "If you increase the teaching load on faculty, something has to give because national studies show that faculty members already work as many or more hours than most other professionals and top business executives," says McKeachie. He believes academic departments will need to work harder at reducing faculty teaching loads.

For example, they could use more graduate teaching assistants (TAs), although supporting TAs can be costly. A less expensive option is hiring more part-time faculty who exclusively do either teaching or research. But a concern there might be that departments become too dependent on part-time staff for their teaching or research programs, says the University of South Florida's Genshaft.

One way around this, says Genshaft, is to hire more research assistants who can free up faculty for instruction, though such a route may require departments to supplement the state funding they receive for research. Some examples of ways to raise that funding include:

* Publishing books written by faculty members.

* Sponsoring prestigious conferences.

* Applying for federal grants that cover indirect costs of research operations. Major grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation sometimes provide enough funding for research assistants too, says Genshaft.

By comparison, she says, state grants often cap indirect costs at 5 percent, which means state-funded research can lose money. However, rather than avoiding state grants--through which universities can provide important community service for mental health and other agencies--departments can strive to balance them well with federal grants, Genshaft advises.

"Everyone is being forced to make strategic choices," she says. "It's the only way to keep moving forward."

Over the next few months, the Monitor will explore the major changes and challenges ahead for psychology departments and universities in general, examining such issues as the hiring of part-time faculty, the growth of student-driven education and the sensitivity of graduate education to the marketplace.