“Faculty performance data” may be the three most dangerous words on American university campuses these days – much more controversial than anything to do with political correctness, tenure or affirmative action. They hold the key, however, to bringing a true productivity boom to our colleges and thus popping the higher education tuition bubble and returning sanity to the cost of a college education.
Those with responsibility for the governance and management of a college, university or higher education system – from boards of regents to governors to legislators – who wish to position their institutions for success in the decades ahead must confront three realities, and then decide what to do about them.
First, a college education costs too much. Middle-class families can no longer afford tuition that increases faster than inflation, per capita personal income, consumer prices and even health insurance. Total student loan debt in America is $1 trillion and exceeds credit card debt. Taxpayer money stretches only so far, with health care, public safety and K-12 education claiming ever larger shares of state budgets.
Second, the higher education industry is undergoing a complete restructuring. Technology is fundamentally altering how courses are created and taught while upending the cost structure of delivery. New entrants – from for-profit white-label degree providers like 2tor to nonprofits like Khan Academy – are bringing disruptive innovation.
Third, even at elite schools there are questions about how much value is truly added. Abysmal four-year graduation rates and longitudinal studies showing many students learn little in college are just two frightening indicators. Philanthropists are even offering to pay the best and brightest college students to skip entirely and go do something “more worthwhile.”
Advocates of higher education productivity rightly understand that these three realities provide an opportunity to break the iron triangle in higher education that assumes expanded access, improved quality and affordability are mutually exclusive. Efforts to (1) reduce overhead costs through shared administrative services, (2) create clearer degree pathways and better student advising to boost four-year graduation rates, and (3) create blended classroom/online courses to improve learning at a lower cost are all important productivity initiatives to break the iron triangle. They are necessary but not sufficient, however, to unleash a true productivity boom in our universities.
I have always taken the view that it is the responsibility of leaders to define reality. That comes first, before you can do anything. The most fundamental reality of higher education economics is that universities are labor-intensive organizations. Until colleges get a handle on labor costs and labor productivity, all else will be incremental productivity improvements at best. As Willie Sutton responded when asked why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is.
The regents at both Texas A&M University and the University of Texas understand this and should be praised for their courage in asking for and publishing detailed faculty performance data. In doing so they faced tremendous resistance from entrenched interests who aren’t eager to have their workloads scrutinized and were understandably scared by increased transparency.
While serving the UT regents, I heard many arguments from frightened administrators and faculty as to why regents shouldn’t be asking for faculty performance data. Some worried that it would hurt the university’s prestige. Others complained that regents were micromanaging by seeking individual faculty-level data. Finally, there were those who worried it devalued research that wasn’t externally grant-funded, such as that in the humanities.
Like self-esteem, real prestige comes not from others pinning on blue ribbons that may not have been earned, but from true achievement. Having led organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, I’ve learned that high performers are rarely scared of scrutiny, because they know they usually exceed expectations. The faculty we should most want to recruit to places like UT and A&M – great scholars and teachers at the peak of their research and engagement with student learning – are unlikely to be afraid of accountability. In fact, excellence tends to attract excellence, and a culture that clearly says we won’t allow unproductive faculty and we have mission-driven resource allocation that prioritizes excellence and weeds out mediocrity is the path to greatness and recruiting the best.
Peter Drucker once said, “The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager.” In the modern research university, the current rules and incentives for how faculty are promoted, paid and, for an increasingly small minority, granted a lifetime appointment, are fundamentally to blame for low productivity. Changing these rules and incentives is at the core of any regent’s duties if he wants to reduce costs while simultaneously improving both student learning outcomes and the value of research produced. But without data to properly diagnose the problem, regents can’t put in place the right policy and management prescriptions. In asking for faculty performance data, regents aren’t micromanaging but performing their fiduciary duty.
While it is true that not all scholarship and research of value is externally funded, without the peer review process embedded in external funding, there are few internal university measures to evaluate on an objective and systematic basis the quality and outcomes of the hundreds of millions of dollars of student- and taxpayer-financed faculty time each year that is spent on this research. When 87 percent of Texans respond in public opinion research studies that the most important purpose of universities is “educating students to prepare them for fruitful careers,” while only 6 percent say it is “conducting research led by professors to create new knowledge,” if universities want students and taxpayers to continue to subsidize research, they need to create a way to measure it, quantify it and value it. In the meantime, external research grant awards will remain the primary metric for measuring the research productivity of faculty juxtaposed with their teaching responsibilities.
The faculty performance data for UT and Texas A&M do not paint a pretty picture of how the modern research university operates. In “Higher Education’s Faculty Productivity Gap: The Cost to Students, Parents & Taxpayers,” I detail the five different faculty types (Dodgers, Coasters, Sherpas, Pioneers and Stars) and the dramatic productivity disparities among them. The study shows how even small improvements in faculty productivity among only a portion of professors would yield enough savings to dramatically reduce tuition. It also raises serious questions about the quality of teaching when senior faculty do not teach the majority of undergraduate classes, depriving students of an opportunity to regularly engage with scholars at the top of their field.
As governing boards and policy makers face the realities reshaping higher education and the legacy of the unproductive research university which have inherited, they will need to decide: Do we want to follow the leadership and management model of IBM or GM?
A little over two decades ago, these American icons, which once dominated their industries and were the pride of American economic prowess, faced their own harsh realities. IBM found in Lou Gerstner, and the board who hired him and backed him up, leadership willing to seek the truth, acknowledge that the old management and labor models no longer worked, and make the hard changes necessary for IBM to once again thrive. General Motors, on the other hand, dithered for decades with half-measures and never fundamentally tackled its unproductive labor model until it was in bankruptcy, at a tremendous cost to its shareholders, workers and the American taxpayer.
Leaders willing to undertake the vital work of ensuring that universities succeed in the decades ahead, and who want to unleash a true productivity boom in higher education, need to ask for faculty performance data. They must have the courage, like regents at UT and A&M, to not flinch either at resistance to that request or from what the data shows. As the inscription on the Main Tower at UT (and on Palmer Hall, where I studied history and political science at my alma mater, Colorado College) says: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Rick O’Donnell  has served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. Most recently, he served briefly as special adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents.