By Charlotte Allen
The firing of a controversial aide to the University of Texas system has triggered a full-blown debate over the productivity of teachers and whether “star” professors who teach few classes are really worth the cost to the public. Rick O’Donnell, dismissed on April 19 after only 49 days on the job as special adviser to the public university system’s regents, had argued forcefully that public universities should devote their resources to teaching undergraduates rather than academic research. On May 5, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the University of Texas-Austin, the flagship of the 15-campus UT system, released an 821-page spreadsheet listing the names, tenure status, total compensation, and course enrollment of each of the 4,200 people with teaching responsibilities on the UT-Austin payroll.The university cautioned that the data were preliminary and likely contained some errors. Nonetheless, acting on the presumption that the spreadsheet was generally accurate, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who heads the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, quickly issued an analysis of the spreadsheet from which he drew some startling conclusions: measured by student credit hours taught (the credit value of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in them), the top 20 percent of faculty shoulder 50 percent of the teaching load, while the bottom 20 percent teach only 2 percent of student credit hours.Furthermore, only about 20 percent of faculty–more or less the same people who are most productive in terms of credit hours— pay for themselves in terms of outside research grants, Vedder asserted. He saw most of the rest as a net drain on university resources. Vedder also concluded that non-tenure-track faculty—graduate assistants and others–teach a majority of undergraduate student hours and a large fraction of graduate-student hours. He surmised that if the entire UT-Austin faculty taught as many student hours as its top quintile, the campus could ultimately reduce its total number of faculty so drastically that it could reduce student tuition by “63 percent, from $9,816 per year [for Texas residents] to only $3,632.”
Some numbers don’t check out.
Vedder’s analysis came under immediate and probably well-justified fire: he had jumbled together full-time and part-time instructors, so that graduate assistants teaching a single section or administrators taking on a single course to keep active in teaching counted the same as full-time faculty; he had ignored the fact that some courses, such as freshman composition, cannot be taught to hundreds of students in the lecture format that boost credit hours; and he counted as “productive” research only the kind of research that generates major external grants—typically scientific research. The historian who garners a few thousand dollars from the Mellon Foundation to peruse an obscure archive during the summer doesn’t count as very productive under Vedder’s metric. And what about the professor of ancient Greek? Wouldn’t he have to teach Greek from morning to evening in order to generate as many “productive” credit hours as a psychology professor with a 350-student introductory class? “Probably,” was Vedder’s crisp reply when I posed that question to him in a telephone interview. “It’s a matter of what students and taxpayers can afford to pay for.” (UT released an updated and more fine-grained set of data for the entire UT system in late June, and Vedder said he is currently seeking funding for a more thorough analysis of it.)
O’Donnell and Vedder might be accused of having different axes to grind, but a turn in the debate came on July 6: the Chronicle of Higher Education, which can hardly be called a conservative entity, published the results of a survey of chief financial officers of universities it had conducted in conjunction with Moody’s Corp. In response to a question as to what strategy the CFOs would pick to reduce costs or raise revenues if they did not have to worry about the consequences among constituents, a decided plurality of the CFOs—38 percent—said they would increase faculty teaching loads. Another 27 percent said they would eliminate tenure, and 7 percent opted for instituting a mandatory retirement age. Since slacking off by professors with tenure is a common complaint among younger faculty members, the Chronicle survey essentially indicated that a full 72 percent of university CFOs wanted professors to teach more and work harder.
The O’Donnell fracas also drew attention to another issue: whether during troubled economic times, states such as Texas can really afford to heavily subsidize prestigious, research-focused universities such as the UT’s flagship institution, the 50,000-student University of Texas-Austin, and its technology-focused cousin in the Texas public system, the 49,000-student Texas A&M University in College Station. According to UT-Austin’s own website, UT-Austin’s annual budget has increased nearly fivefold during the past 25 years, from $503 million in 1985 to $2.26 billion in 2010, far outstripping the effects of inflation. It has also become more tuition-dependent. In 1985 tuition and student fees ($27 million) accounted for only 5 percent of UT-Austin’s total revenues, but by 2010 that number had jumped to 24 percent, or $544 million. It is common to blame UT-Austin’s increased tuition-dependency on a stingy legislature that has gradually withdrawn state support—except that state allocations to support the Austin campus have actually increased by about 40 percent over the years, from $237 million in 1985 to $318 million in 2010—and it may be unfair to ask Texas taxpayers to cover every new budget-boosting expense that the university chooses to incur. Read more…