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Study finds U. of Texas faculty are productive

Nuance on Faculty Productivity
November 14, 2011

In July, culminating months of criticism of the University of Texas at Austin from people associated with Governor Rick Perry, a report was released blasting the institution as requiring too little of many faculty members. "The data shows in high relief what anecdotally many have long suspected, that the research university’s employment practices look remarkably like a Himalayan trek, where indigenous Sherpas carry the heavy loads so Western tourists can simply enjoy the view," said the report.

While the report noted the presence of faculty members with pathbreaking research projects and heavy teaching loads, it found many other groups of professors failing to carry their fair share. The report said that faculty members could fit into five categories: Dodgers, Coasters, Sherpas, Pioneers or Stars. Not surprisingly, many at UT didn't appreciate being called (or having their colleagues called) Dodgers or Coasters.

On Sunday, the university released its own study of faculty productivity. The university's study focused, like the earlier one, on how much time different groups of faculty members teach, and on their success in obtaining outside funding for their work. But beyond those similarities, the new study couldn't be more different.

First, the new study contains constant references to the limitations of such an analysis -- from the way credit-hour analysis, for instance, ignores time spent by faculty members in advising, in supervising research of undergraduate and graduate students, and so forth. Another key limitation the new study notes at length is that the availability of outside research funds varies widely by discipline, and thus may be far more valid a measure of faculty productivity in some fields (generally in the sciences) than in others.

Second, the new study finds that -- even with all of the limitations the study notes (limitations that it says understate the contributions of many faculty members) -- the overall productivity picture finds professors to be not only productive but cost-effective for Texas taxpayers. The earlier study (and much of the rhetoric around it) suggested that tenured and tenure-track faculty members rely on adjuncts and graduate students for much of the teaching, but the new study questions that finding as well.

Among the key results of the new study:

  • Measuring all instructors by the tuition revenue they bring in (on a per-credit analysis) and the outside research support they win, the faculty generated about about $658 million in revenue in 2009-10 (with about $400 million of that coming from external research). These faculty members were paid about $318 million in salary and benefits from state funds -- meaning that the state is gaining twice as much in revenue from its faculty as it puts in.
  • The average compensation and benefits to tenured and tenure-track faculty members was $129,000 in 2009-10, but the average sum generated in tuition revenue and research funding by each one of these faculty members was $280,000.
  • The only group of faculty members, on average, who are not bringing in more money than they are paid are those who earn less than $75,000 -- many of whom are assistant professors just starting their careers.
  • The external research funds that come to the university are generated by about 860 professors (or 43 percent of the faculty). The average for this group is about $460,000.
  • About 88 percent of professors in colleges with undergraduate programs teach undergraduates.
  • The data rebut the assumption that the busiest teachers are graduate students or those without tenure. Of the instructors in the top quintile in terms of credit hours taught, 56.8 percent are tenured or tenure-track faculty members. Of those in the lowest quintile in terms of credit hours taught, 77.2 percent are either graduate students (many of whom have only minimal teaching expectations) and non-tenured faculty members.

The study was prepared by Marc Musick, a sociology professor who is also associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UT. In an interview, Musick said that no limitations were placed on his work, and that he didn't spend much time at all looking at the past studies or statements blasting the faculty's productivity. "My hope was just to do a good job," he said. His view upon starting the project, he said, was that "the data may make us look bad, but it is what it is."

Having completed the work, he said, the data make the university look quite good from the perspective of Texas taxpayers (the perspective generally cited by those who have been criticizing the university). "They are getting a good deal," Musick said. "This is one of the best universities on the planet. The people of Texas have one of the intellectual gems of the world sitting in Austin, and they have another one [Texas A&M University] up the road in College Station.... The people in Texas have a group of [faculty] paying for themselves."

Musick said he thought it was important for the university to show that it took productivity issues seriously, and that it could point to data showing that faculty members are indeed working hard. While he personally didn't believe the suggestions of critics that the university employed many people not contributing much output, Musick said he was very concerned about the impact of the barrage of attacks on the university.

"I know people are upset," he said. "My concern is demoralization. I don't want the faculty to become demoralized. I don't want them to feel that they are not valued for what they do." He said that the reports saying that faculty members are "coasters" could well make it more difficult to recruit and retain professors. "There are many universities that would love to hire our faculty. If faculty start to feel 'I don't need this,' they could go somewhere else. Many administrators are concerned about this. I have that fear," he said.

While Musick said there was value in using the available numbers on research support, he stressed the importance of recognizing that this is valid only for some disciplines. (And one of his recommendations going forward is that the university develop better measures for research productivity of faculty members who work in disciplines without significant sources of outside funding.)

His own field of sociology is a perfect illustration of the limits of using outside funding as a measure of faculty research productivity, Musick said. Sociologists have some government support for which they can apply, but not nearly as much as do those in the physical or biological sciences, he noted. Even within fields, one's success at obtaining funds may be based on area of expertise, not productivity. Musick said that as a medical sociologist, he has been able to win National Institutes of Health grants that some of his colleagues in sociology -- people with good research agendas -- could not seek.

He also said it was important to reject the idea that universities should be based only upon those fields that can attract the most outside support -- even if you have a goal of producing more scientists. Musick cited as examples STEM-oriented universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology -- both of which invest significant funds in humanities and social science programs. "They recognize that universities are ecosystems," he said. "They recognize that to produce the best scientists, they need the humanities and social sciences and the fine arts."

So will this new analysis change the debate in Texas about productivity? Musick said he does not know.

Outside Perspectives

Rick O’Donnell doesn't think it should. O'Donnell -- who briefly served as special adviser to the UT regents and who wrote the report calling some professor "dodgers" or "coasters" -- said he wasn't impressed. O'Donnell noted that by relying on state tuition reimbursements as a measure of the value faculty members bring to the university, the report was based on "weighted" credit hours used by the state. (The UT report spells this out in detail.) These formulas assume that it is more difficult (and more valuable) to teach more senior level courses (such as graduate courses) than entry-level courses. O'Donnell called this system "arbitrary," and said that it is used to justify faculty members' focusing on graduate students.

Just because the state uses this formula doesn't make it right, O'Donnell said via e-mail. "They may say 'it's the same formula the state uses' but the iron triangle of the higher ed lobby, education committee legislators and higher ed bureaucrats are the ones who wrote the formula," he said. "Just because the Federal Reserve says it's O.K. for banks to not realistically price the assets on their books doesn't mean a bank is solvent, it's regulatory capture or crony capitalism.  Just because the higher ed lobby has convinced the state to assign extra credit for producing Ph.D.s doesn't mean those faculty are more productive."

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, who has written extensively on how colleges spend money, said she found the analysis "credible" and "reasonably well done despite some imperfections in the data." Wellman said Texas deserved praise for both noting the flaws with information it had, and still pursuing the analysis.

"I’m glad they didn’t do the usual thing and avoid doing any analysis because they didn’t have all the data," she said. "This shows it’s possible to take the data that exist and show something important and interesting with it."

Wellman said that the methodology was "a little unusual" in that it doesn't focus on hours of teaching per week or "conventional student/faculty ratios," but instead examines tuition and research revenue that the faculty members generate. Focusing on revenue is a legitimate way to approach the issue, she said. And Wellman said she was also impressed that Texas didn't attempt a "multiplier effect" of research funding on the Texas economy, but instead kept the analysis direct. That makes the work more credible, she said. "They could have made it really rah-rah, and didn’t, and that’s good."

A few issues could benefit from more attention, Wellman said. For instance, the university's analysis documents that tenure-track faculty members are a key factor in undergraduate instruction. But Wellman said she suspected that much of the undergraduate teaching by tenure-track professors is in upper division courses, and that graduate students and adjuncts are more dominant in teaching introductory sections. (Musick said that the data from which he produced the report did not have such breakdowns.)

Wellman also said that the data do not refute the idea that there may be some unproductive faculty members, and she said that Texas and other public institutions should be willing to address that issue. Wellman stressed that "unevenness" in productivity is not a problem confined to higher education. "It’s my experience that human productivity and creativity in all organizations is pretty bell-shaped -- a few super performers, a few at the other end, and a lot in between," she said, and public higher education should consider the implications of that.

In total, however, Wellman said that the most significant thing about the new Texas report is that it was done, and done seriously. "Reports of this type are all too rare in public research universities, and there should be more of them," she said. "It’s too bad that this became a political cause célèbre in Texas, but since it has I’m glad the institution is stepping up and getting better analytics.  I hope this means they’re going to do more of this in the future."

 

 

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