Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Faculty performance data released by Texas A&M University and the University of Texas – the only two major public research universities in the country to have released such detailed data – for the first time shines a bright light on higher education’s faculty productivity gap. 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.
The problems with a trek-like employment model, however, are many:
- students and taxpayers are charged hundreds of millions of dollars more than necessary to subsidize low productivity;
- top scholars who bring in almost all the research funding see large amounts of their grants siphoned off to pay for the overhead of their less productive colleagues;
- thousands of students are deprived of opportunities to learn from the most senior faculty members, raising troubling questions about quality; and,
- the faculty who do the most teaching perform under working conditions that make them second or third class citizens, with low-pay, few benefits and little, if any, job security.
An analysis of the UT and A&M faculty performance data show that faculty can be categorized one of five ways, which I’ve labeled for ease of understanding, based upon how many students they teach in an academic year and how much externally funded research they do.
Dodgers are the least productive faculty, who bring in no external research funding, teach few students and cost nearly ten times as much as Sherpas to teach one student one class; in essence, they’ve figured out how to dodge any but the most minimal of responsibilities.
Coasters are mostly faculty protected by tenure and seniority, which gives them reduced teaching loads and yet they don’t produce significant research funding. Their cost to teach one student one class is five to six times that of Sherpas.
Sherpas do all the heavy lifting on the teaching front and bear a disproportionate part of the teaching load; they are mostly adjuncts or other non-tenured faculty. Sherpas are what the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) terms contingent faculty who, to support themselves, “often commute between institutions and prepare courses on a grueling timetable, making enormous sacrifices to maintain interaction with their students.”
Pioneers are the highly productive research faculty, measured by external research dollars raised, who use their research grants and contracts to buy “released time” from teaching to blaze new trails in research, most often in science, technology, engineering and related fields.
Stars are highly productive faculty who do a lot of teaching and a lot of funded research.
“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. ...
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. ...
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. ...
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.”
- Inside Higher Ed, Calling Out ‘Coasters’ or Name-Calling?