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Robert Dolan Imagines the Universities of the Future

Question: How will university endowments survive hard economic times? 

Robert Dolan: Well, I think, the short answer to that is there’s two pieces to it. One is to maintain a robust set of educational programs so that you have lots of students who want to come to the school. But the second way, frankly, is through the generosity of your alumni, that with the state budgets being cut as they are in Michigan and a number of other places, we found, a few years back, that we were just not going to be able to be within the top tier of the schools competing with the people we want to be competing with if we didn’t go out and raise a significant amount of money from our alumni. So we started a capital campaign, probably, five, six years ago, which we just ended up and the timing was good for us, obviously. 

But we raised $362 million against the goal of $350. And so, it’s really through the generosity of the alumni. And, I think, more and more is difficult as fundraising may be in an economically difficult time like this. For schools like ours, as we try to stay in the same league with the private institutions, I think it’s what the alumni are going to be kind of support that they’re going to be providing. So that is, I think, an increasingly important part of the financial structure of the school as the state support has dwindled. And you would expect, you could not form a viable strategy around increase, seeing that, believing that state support was going to be increasing in the future.  I think, it really is the alumni support.  And we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had some terrific alumni help us with that. 

And the second thing we did is we really didn’t have the physical plan that would enable us to offer educational programs in a way which had some economies of scale associated with them. And so, as part of our capital campaign and part of the $100 million gift from Steve Ross, we just completed a 270,000 square foot facility, which came online a couple of months ago.  So we now have a great physical plant in Ann Arbor that allows us to do things in a very efficient way while we’re still undertaking the action based learning of dispersing our student teams around the globe, which is a reasonably expensive way of doing education. 

So I think the two big things were, number one, to have a really good physical plan that allow us to do things in an efficient way and keep building the alumni relationships and kind of making the case for alumni support. And we’re very fortunate that we’ve had a great history of people being very committed to the school.

Question: How are faculties coping with decreasing numbers of tenured positions? 

Robert Dolan: At Michigan, our model is that we are a pretty decentralize operation so unlike some public schools in which you would have to get presidential approval for a particular slot or the number of the tenured faculty, that’s pretty much a decision which is left to us as the business school. So we have to be able to operate as an economically sound institution. But as long as we can do that, we can grow the faculty as we wish. So we are not in a mode where we’re saying, okay, what we’re going to do is decrease the number of tenured faculty as state support comes down.  Instead, we’re looking at ways to probably increase the size of some our programs. 

Particularly, right now, the demand for our undergraduate business program is extremely strong. And while we were in a constrained physical position over the last couple of years as we were under construction, we really had demand three or four X what our supply was. So what we are trying to do is say, all right, is there a way for us to adjust the size of some of our programs so that we are able to maintain a sustainable economic model sitting underneath the school. And for us, I think the big benefit is that we’re an extremely diversified school in the sense of having both undergraduate and an MBA program and a Masters in accounting program. 

And also, we’re, we have a lot of very strong demand for all of our programs. The program that is a little bit of a challenge for us these days is our evening MBA program, which, you know, obviously, is very geographically bound. And historically, that had served the automotive companies. And now, obviously, with their economic difficulties, their tuition assistance programs have declined and so, as a result, our enrollments in our evening MBA program have declined. But that’s about one-tenth of our overall enrollment base. So what we try to do is maintain a robust set of educational programs so that we won’t have to either cut the number of faculty lines we have. Because it’s really important to be able to continually bring in new talent into the school all the time.  So for this year, for example, while we’re expecting that the state budget allocation to us declines, we’ll be hiring 6 or 7 new faculty members right out of PhD programs.

Recorded on: April 13, 2009

 

Universities must cope with the financial sector fallout too.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
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  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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