Trying to Measure the University of Texas

How “productive” is the University of Texas at Austin? With the state threatening to cut funding for state schools unless the institutions created more for the Lone Star State, UT went into action. The university, understandably anxious to justify its existence and funding, says it’s actually quite efficient. The report the school produced in September indicated that, in terms of what the school produces for what taxpayers spend, “UT is the second most efficient university in the country.” In the area of efficiency, the University of Texas “excels.”

Ohio professor Richard Vedder, however, disagrees. He published his own study back in the Spring indicating that it actually isn’t. Today he spoke about the study a conference on higher education at the Cato Institute. He discovered, according to a piece by Daniel de Vise in today’s Washington Post, that 99.8 percent of research funding goes to only about 20 percent of faculty but 2 percent of academics do about three-fifths of all funded research.

Who’s right? Well, as much as this sort of thing is even measurable (why did policymakers decide that universities are supposed to be “productive” anyway?), UT Austin is; Vedder’s study appears to be somewhat misleading, at least according to standard university operating procedure.

As a report issued by the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education this week indicated:

By choosing not to filter information and instead use the raw data set, the report treated all instructional staff as equal, whether they were graduate students who supervised a few undergraduates as part of their studies or actual full time faculty. By mis-categorizing almost 1,300 adjuncts and part-time lecturers and more than 600 graduate students as full-time faculty, the report is intentionally misleading as these part-time roles are – by definition – not full-time.

There’s also a little problem with what “faulty” means here. According to the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education:

Vedder included retired faculty members who continue to supervise graduate students, yet teach no classes.

Vedder included UT Austin’s president, college deans, administrators, research scientists, and others whose primary function is not instruction, but who teach undergraduate courses or supervise graduate students in addition to their full time work loads.

Vedder indicated that UT had some 4,200 faculty members. The school has 1,988 tenured or tenure track faculty.

Granted, a lot of this problem has to do with the fuzziness of the concepts. Counting graduate students as instructional staff is odd because they’re not actually professors but then, they do teach students, so how should they be counted. Perhaps college administrators aren’t expected to spend much of their time teaching or performing research but isn’t that a problem for a university that’s trying to be more efficient?

Perhaps the greater problem here is that productivity is so hard to measure. UT compared itself to other large state universities and discovered that it was very productive. Vedder appeared to compare the school to some theoretical factory model and discovered that it was very unproductive.

What’s the truth? Well, that depends on what the ideal university is. UT Austin actually seems to be pretty damn efficient, but only when compared to other colleges. As an institution it’s sort of inefficient, employing a lot of staff who don’t seem to contribute to the “central mission” of teaching undergraduates.

But maybe that’s just the way universities are supposed to operate. UT performed a study and indicated it was the most efficient model out there. Vedder doesn’t seem to agree. But how does his ideal university operate? What’s the model to emulate?

Read the Texas Coalition report here.

Read Vedder’s study here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer