Foreign-Born, and Productive

Does job satisfaction play a role in productivity of faculty members? Not if those faculty members are foreign-born with undergraduate degrees from abroad, a study says.

November 30, 2011

With faculty productivity drawing increased attention from politicians and other would-be critics of higher education, a new study offers some evidence about which professors produce more papers -- and the results don't bode well for American-born professors or those most satisfied in their jobs.

Foreign-born faculty members in the United States who got their undergraduate degrees abroad are more productive than both their U.S.-born peers and foreign-born professors who earned their undergraduate degrees from U.S. institutions, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Higher Education. At the same time, foreign-faculty members with undergraduate degrees from abroad reported lower levels of job satisfaction.

The study, co-written by three University of Kansas researchers -- Dongbin Kim, Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Susan Twombly -- measured productivity by the average number of peer-reviewed articles published from 1998 to 2003, based on data from the 2003 Survey of Doctoral Recipients.

According to the study, foreign-born faculty with undergraduate degrees from outside the United States produced one peer-reviewed paper a year, while their U.S-born colleagues produced 0.60 articles annually on average.

Wolf-Wendel said the study was important because American universities now hire more foreign-born professors for tenure-track faculty jobs in STEM fields than they do women or members of underrepresented minority groups.

The survey looked at 5,527 faculty members born in the United States, 424 foreign-born faculty members who got their undergraduate degrees in the U.S., and 987 foreign-born faculty members with undergraduate degrees from abroad.

“It is not a cause and effect, but there is a relationship between the two variables,” she said. “The foreign-born group could be more productive because they put their heads down and worked harder. Maybe it is a fear of not getting tenure.”

The other possible explanation, she said, is that the foreign-born and foreign-educated professors might have had better training as undergraduates.

The researchers found that U.S. faculty members working at an institution with more foreign-born faculty members were more productive than were those at less diverse campuses. "This finding suggests that not only is international faculty status (FBFD), in itself, a unique and positive predictor of faculty productivity, but the positive effect of internationalized campuses is equally important for U.S. faculty productivity,” the study says.

When the study was presented at a American Educational Research Association conference in 2009, the Kansas researchers were asked if peer-reviewed journal articles were the best measure of productivity. Could it also be measured by the amount of grant dollars earned, some asked? Another question related to teaching ability and how it was connected to productivity.

“We were unable to answer these questions. There is no measure of teaching in the [Survey of Doctoral Recipients],” Wolf-Wendel said.

Vicki Rosser, a professor of higher education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas with similar research interests, said the new study is important because it is a sophisticated multilevel analysis.

“I can understand there can be a relationship between happy campers and productive faculty. But this study raises more questions -- what is it about some foreign-faculty members that they don’t have to be happy to be productive?” Rosser said.

Answers to these questions are important, the authors say, because the presence of foreign faculty members is related to the productivity of U.S. faculty members.

“This study reinforces the need for further understanding the experiences of international faculty," the study concludes, "if the U.S. is to remain in the forefront of global knowledge production.”


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