Chicago, Paris-8, and the magnitude of university wealth

I was a little bit stunned to realize yesterday that my working conditions — as a lowly graduate student at the University of Chicago — are in a sense markedly better than those of a typical French public university professor. You see, the University of Chicago owns a building in Paris where they give us, the visiting grad students, office space. But if you are a Maître de Conférences (somewhat like an associate professor) at, say, the University of Paris-8 (Saint-Denis), you get no work space whatsoever, aside from a cramped class preparation lounge where you can leave your coat while you teach your class. University professors in Saint-Denis, unless they are also administrators, must either find office space elsewhere or work at home.

Now I could tell you all sorts of other things about how my home university, a very rich private American university, is different from the French public universities I’ve encountered. But I’ve looked up some figures and, frankly, the sheer quantitative difference between Paris-8 and UChicago is so enormous that it almost speaks for itself. Behold:

Paris-8 UChicago Ratio
Students 21,487 15,149 1.4 : 1
Faculty 1,075 2,211 1 : 2.1
Staff 601 ~12,000 1 : 20
# Buildings 11 more than 190 1 : 17
Annual Budget €119.3 million $2.8 billion 1 : 16.8
Endowment None $4-5 billion

As you can see, there are actually 6,338 more students enrolled at Paris-8 than at the University of Chicago. However, the balance tips the other way for every other indicator. In Chicago there are twice as many faculty (for fewer students), twenty times as many staff, and seventeen times more campus buildings — which is probably an underestimate, since UChicago also owns a lot of residential and commercial real estate in its neighborhood over and above the campus buildings. UChicago’s annual budget of $2.8 billion is also about seventeen times larger than that of Saint-Denis, and of course, UChicago controls an endowment of 4+ billion dollars while Paris-8 has an endowment of, as far as I know, zero. (French universities don’t have endowments; and much of their funding is dispersed directly by the ministry, though that’s changing as a result of contested “autonomy” protocols being put in place. The Chicago endowment on the other hand used to be $6.6 billion, though they claim it shrunk as much as 30% during last year’s economic crisis.) At any rate, I think the overall picture here is clear: the disparity in organizational wealth is enormous. The disparity in teacher-student ratios is obvious. The disparity in staff, money and buildings is even more obvious. This isn’t, in short, just a story about simple difference; it is a story about profound educational inequality within and between nations. If we imagine a similar 17x disparity between two American workers, it would be similar to the difference between someone who makes $15,000 working minimum wage in a fast food restaurant and someone who gets a quarter million dollars a year as an executive.

The whole long international history of how these different universities came to be so economically different is something I can’t get into here. And there are, for that matter, some interesting commonalities between the universities that aren’t obvious from the official statistics. For instance, I happen to know that the official count of the staff population is probably too low in both cases, since both universities employ significant groups of outside contractors to do various sorts of campus service work. While Paris-8 has private security guards, UChicago has, for instance, outsourced its janitorial staff; and these people should probably be counted as staff, because they are regular campus workers even if their paychecks are routed through some private entity. The faculty counts are probably unreliable as well, since both campuses hire teachers who are graduate students and, in Chicago’s case, temporary adjunct faculty who probably aren’t being counted in the official size of the faculty population. (This is, of course, just a guess; I don’t know for sure how they compile these figures. But it’s well-known that, in the U.S. case, there are various reasons why administrators don’t like to count grad student teachers in the ranks of their teaching staff.) At any rate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the systematic skewing of these figures would cancel out across these two universities in the context of the comparison here.

In a lot of ways it’s an unsatisfying comparison. Similarly vast wealth disparities could be found by comparing UChicago to an American community college. Still, even leaving aside all the cultural and intellectual and sociological and historical and political differences that separate UChicago and Paris-8, leaving aside everything that you would have to consider to make a comparison satisfying to an anthropologist, even just looking at the most crude and basic figures, it’s worth thinking about the extent to which campus life is bluntly determined by available wealth. Indeed, maybe it’s good to start out by thinking about the gross inequities in material resources across universities. Maybe only once you’ve taken account of that can you really understand how some kinds of academic life depend on large fluxes of cash or, conversely, manage to flourish in spite of them.

9 thoughts on “Chicago, Paris-8, and the magnitude of university wealth

  1. One difference between the US and French system (OK, between the US and almost everywhere else) is the things that are bundled into universities as “college life” in the U.S. “Good” American universities have dormitories and gymnasiums and football stadiums and student unions, and to go with them they have residence life staff and outdoor rec center directors and coaches and student affairs professionals. In most other nations, individual students live, exercise, visit the doctor, and relax off-campus and outside of the university’s purview.

    This doesn’t account for all of the differences, of course. I’m not even sure what percentage of the difference in staff this would account for – it doesn’t explain the difference in faculty or endowment at all. But it may be worth thinking about.

  2. I agree with the above comment. In many European countries many of the services provided by US universities i.e. dorms, health care, leisure activities fall under other instances, oftentimes the state. I do agree with you on the disparity of wealth, and signficant differences in student-faculty ratios, but I’m guessing these figures can’t account for the radically different funding structures of US private versus European public universities. I would be curious to know however, how Paris-8 would compare to a US public university, say UIC?

  3. Hi Elina and mysterious guest visitor with vegan name,

    Great to hear from you both and to have your useful comments. Seems to me that there are several different questions here:

    1) The role of student services in different universities. Paris8 does actually have limited student housing (mostly for international students, I think) and public space for student activities and the like, and certainly it has fairly well-developed campus cafeterias and coffeeshops, but yes, I agree with you, it certainly isn’t on the university-as-total-institution/shopping mall model of UChicago.

    You both raise the question of how these student services relate to the budgetary differences between universities; it turns out that UChicago’s “campus life” budget (which covers athletics, health services, career office, etc) is only about $60 million, which is a lot of money but still only about 2% of the total annual budget. I suspect that student housing, which has its own real estate empire, may be a bigger concern than campus life, but I didn’t find figures and I suspect it would be hard to separate student housing as a service from student housing as basically one component in the broader world of university real estate investment.

    The broader question about the different role of the university in student (or faculty) lifeworlds is a really important one, and one that maybe I will eventually have some ethnographic materials to deal with, but not just yet.

    2) How do we decide how to do international university comparisons? Here I think much depends on what the aims of our comparison is. One possibility is to compare the closest thing we can find to structurally similar objects, as in Elina’s suggestion of comparison with UIC. (I haven’t actually checked, but I would expect to find that per-student spending is higher at UIC, which certainly has a far larger campus and better buildings and more housing & student services…) If we do this kind of “apples to apples” comparison, we would indeed get a more rigorous sense of what varies as a result of differing university cultures, international variations in governmental funding, etc. The comparison I’m making here is obviously *not* that, though; it’s obviously a comparison between a wealthy private american university and a relatively poor public french university, which means that there are several axes of difference implicit in the comparison. I didn’t really think about this when I wrote the post, but in hindsight, I think my aim here is more just to highlight inequality and financial difference than to do real structural comparison. In response to a possible sense that the comparison is ungrounded, it seems worth emphasizing that my initial stimulus comes from the fact that the uchicago’s vast wealth enables it to reach out across the world as far as Paris and to provide better working conditions there than even many local academics get — so in some sense my comparison in this post is based on an actual institutional conjuncture in the world and not just on my ethnographic caprice!

    3) How do university funding structures actually work in France and the US? It seems, actually, looking at the annual report, that the largest single source of operating revenue at UChicago is the university hospitals, which produce 45% of revenue; tuition and fees are only about 11%. I don’t think that this is a typical fiscal structure even for most American private universities, however. I’m not an economist of higher ed so I think I have to postpone giving a more rigorous cross-national comparison (I’ll post one if I can come across one). One thing that does, intuitively, look similar cross-nationally is the fact that salaries compose a pretty large fraction of the overall costs for both P8 and UChicago. But without more detailed budget figures it’s hard to go into detail…

    To be quite honest, this wasn’t meant as an incredibly rigorous post to begin with, but I appreciate your both pushing me in that direction!

  4. Here are the numbers for UIC, except for number of buildings, which I couldn’t find. (Since it does have 10 residence halls alone, though, it’s on Chicago’s order of magnitude rather than Paris’s.)

    Students: 25,835
    Faculty: 2,323
    Staff: 13,419
    (this one is from
    # Buildings:
    Annual Budget: $4.7 billion
    Endowment: $1.46 billion (held by its foundation, not UIC)

    So compared to U of C, it has more students but the same size faculty and a marginally larger staff. I am actually surprised to see its budget is that large.

    IPEDS allows you to quickly break down the funding sources of American institutions. At UIC, tuition is 15% of revenue, state appropriations are 18%, government contracts and grants are 26%. The other 40% comes from donations/endowment income via the foundation, fees for services, UBIT, etc. At U of C, tuition is 12%, 0% is state appropriations, and government grants and contracts are 14%.

  5. I like the *idea* of spending-per-student numbers, but they have to be calculated very carefully. Hospital revenue doesn’t affect students (except medical students); research funding doesn’t affect undergraduates (and it affects some graduate fields more than others, so the particular array of programs a school has matters). It is also far from clear what spending more gets you. Of course, no one disputes that spending $1000 per student will get you more than spending nothing, but there are very likely diminishing marginal returns at some point.

    “I suspect it would be hard to separate student housing as a service from student housing as basically one component in the broader world of university real estate investment.”

    I would disagree with this. Partially due to accounting regulations, these would be budgeted very separately. Student housing is considered an education-related service, as are things like parking, dining, student health centers, etc. Most of these services are run to recover their costs, to break even, but not to provide additional income. Property rental income is unrelated business income (UBIT) and taxed.

    Lastly, in a not-so-important point, a turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken, definitely non-vegan. 🙂

  6. Oh, I said that was lastly, but I’m looking at this again and am struck by the difficulty of doing cross-national comparisons. Let’s go straight to the top and compare Harvard and the Sorbonne, say. I suspect you’ll still find that Harvard has a lot more resources. Now, perhaps Harvard is superior (at least according to the Times Higher Ed Supplement and the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, but I don’t think it’s as superior as the funding differences would suggest. So why is that? I can toss out hypotheses (ie, faculty and students prefer to study within their own country, leading the Sorbonne to draw better of both than a U.S. institution with similar resources would), but they are only hypotheses.

  7. Mike, I think maybe a discussion of that article deserve a post of its own. Though I think its basic insight — that academics can gained something when they give up government involvement and government money — has a definite degree of truth, the rest of the argument seems to imagine that contemporary “great” American universities are free of government funds — which is pretty silly, given the huge federal research grants that flow to cornell and uchicago and johns hopkins and wherever else.

    Turducken, thanks for the tip about the carnivorous nature of your name. I think I had only ever heard of “vegan turducken” and somehow just assumed that that was the only kind. Seriously, though, I appreciate your knowledge of the tax differences between different kinds of university services!

    This isn’t conclusive, but here’s a few thoughts about the broader questions of the relation between funding and educational quality:

    (1) I don’t think there is any *single* scale of educational quality to go by, since different universities aim at different institutional objectives (if we measure by how much students change from when they walk in the door, a good community college might in a sense be teaching and transforming its students a lot more than Harvard College affects its already super-elite undergrads; or for instance UChicago anthropology is no doubt better at research than undergrad education, etc).

    (2) Even when the institutional objectives are identical, I don’t think there is ever a totally direct correlation between financial means and academic life. Crudely speaking, money can’t buy everything — and money also changes its value across contexts. I’d bet that for instance big-shot Sorbonne profs are probably happy to accept much lower salaries than big-shot Harvard profs: there isn’t such a culture of huge salaries in this country. I guess in thinking about how financial resources determine institutional culture, we have to accept that money makes certain things possible, sets limits to the number of faculty and the available space etc, but it only sets very wide ranges of possibility within which a lot of other factors determine what can happen. I’m sure we could find institutions with almost identical budgets and material resources that still produce really different kinds of educational spaces… Anyway, if you have clearer ideas about how money determines or doesn’t determine academic life, I’d love to hear them.

    (3) Getting back to the spending-per-student question, yeah, I wasn’t initially trying to use it as a measure of educational quality. I just think it’s a useful if we’re comparing sheer institutional wealth to give per-student figures so that we have some degree of control for different institutional sizes!

    I guess my larger point here is that, rather than forming hypotheses about why the Sorbonne isn’t worse than Harvard in direct proportion to the difference in their financial situations, we might do better to think through all the ways that rankings are unreliable and that money isn’t everything, institutionally. What do you think?

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