Measuring Faculty Productivity (or Not)

Via a source in the UT system, this Austin American Statesman post on claims by a think tank linked to Texas governor Rick Perry that it is possible to measure faculty productivity.

In the 17-page paper, Vedder analyzed faculty productivity based strictly on the number of student credit hours each professor taught. He calculated the most-productive fifth of UT ’s faculty, about 840 instructors, taught an average of 318 students, and 896 credit hours, per year. That comes out to 57 percent of the campus’s total student credit hours taught. The remaining 80 percent of the faculty, by comparison, each taught an average of 63 students over the year, or 167 student credit hours, the analysis found. It also calculated that “77 percent of all faculty at the Austin campus receive no external research grants.”

Protests from faculty members that these numbers are hideously unlikely to capture actual productivity are likely to sound self-serving, even though they are certainly true (for example, academics teaching masters’ students, who take smaller classes, will come out badly on these measures). Perhaps a better way of thinking about this is to observe that universities are supposed to fulfil a multitude of tasks, which do not always sit well with each other. Public universities in particular are supposed to provide relatively affordable degrees to people from a variety of backgrounds (they aren’t doing this nearly as well as they should). They are also supposed to support research (it used to be that this was supposed to be publicly relevant research – now, the emphasis is nearly entirely on research that brings in money). Finally, they’re supposed to contribute to the community around them in various ways.

According to the article, Vedder proposes that by using these metrics, “’You could enormously reduce the number of people needed to fulfill the teaching obligation of the university’ without reducing research”. This seems completely implausible to me. There is surely some dead wood in the system, as in any other organization, but it’s clear that Vedder’s numbers grossly overestimate it. Instead, you’re going to end up facing tradeoffs – mandating large classes is going to mean that certain forms of learning (including graduate learning) disappear, while also making it far less likely that research active faculty want to stay in the system (Vedder clearly has no idea how important intellectual relations with good colleagues are to researchers, and how difficult it is to maintain them). I suspect that the end result of Vedder’s ideal reforms would be a cross between the University of Phoenix and a community college system. There may be something to be said for at least the community college part of this (these colleges do excellent and important work, and are perennially badly underfunded), but such reforms would certainly mark a radical transformation of the Texas education system. I don’t think it would be possible to maintain an active research profile, or MA level programs (let alone Ph.D., which I suspect Vedder is not especially interested in). The public spillover effects of the university would be dramatically reduced.

There may be a case to be made for changing the Texas higher education system in this way (personally, I think it would be an enormous mistake). However, if there is, I really would like to see Vedder and his allies making it, rather than pretending that better incentives will magically transform these universities so that they offered dramatically higher teaching loads, while still maintaining impeccable quality, and supporting first rate research. If Vedder is offering a version of ‘economic efficiency,’ it’s of the ‘magical market pixie dust showering down ponies and unicorns on every Texas voter’ variety rather than the ‘trying to find tradeoffs between different good things that you might want to have’ sort that characterizes the real world.

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.