The New Divide over Productivity

A rift is building between, on one side, university professors and, on the other side, university administrators (including finance officers), politicians, and parents.  The rift doesn’t fall into one of the usual conflicts over ideology (for example, leftist faculty vs. moderate or conservative others) or educational mission (for example, social justice vs. workforce training).  It opens over the meaning of faculty productivity.  With education funding threatened, efficiency measures evolving, administrative and extra-curricular costs rising, and tuition a point of bad publicity, officials on and off campus are increasingly posing questions about what academic work counts and what academic work doesn’t.

See, for instance, these two reports on productivity, one by Richard  O’Donnell, former-adviser to the University of Texas, and  one by Richard Vedder et  al, whose Center for College Affordability and Productivity has become a leading voice on the issue. Both documents focus on faculty activity in Texas, where the productivity debate is heated. It was heated here, too, when I posted on the issue at the Chronicle of Higher Education. See here, too, for more description of faculty-administration tensions in the state. If Gov. Perry makes it through the primaries to become the Republican nominee in 2012, you can be sure that the education establishment will make his higher education policies a central point of criticism (and, I predict, an effective one).

The rift comes down to this:  What faculty members in many fields consider “productivity,” others do not.  At universities such as the University of Texas, professors in many fields choose to regard published research as a good in itself, and a reliable measure of productivity.  But for administrators and politicians and parents, too, faculty productivity lies mainly in the amount of money a professor brings to the university (directly or indirectly) and the number of undergraduates a professor teaches.  A psychology teacher who fills Psych 101 with 450 students and uses six teaching assistants is more productive than an English professor who teaches a graduate seminar with eight students enrolled.  A biochemist whose research leads to a new drug that the university sells to a pharmaceutical company for $100 million dollars is more productive than a film professor who publishes a book that sells only a few hundred copies and brings no funds to the school.

Faculty members reject those discriminations, but administrators can’t avoid them as they feel pressure not only from the budget but also from outsiders who regard much academic research as having no impact whatsoever except upon the annual salaries and egos of the researchers.  In the next year, we will see faculty productivity increasingly under scrutiny, and the simple production of printed pages is not going to be sufficient to fend off calls for adjusted working conditions and employment expectations.  Consider the results of this Chronicle of Higher Education poll of Chief Financial Officers at universities across the land when they were asked about the best ways to improve the budget.  The most popular reply was to increase teaching loads (38 percent).  Well below that rate, at #2, was to raise tuition (19 percent).  The next three policies returned to faculty labor: “Eliminate tenure” (17 percent), “Hire more adjuncts” (11 percent), and “Add mandatory retirement age” (7 percent).

One thought on “The New Divide over Productivity”

  1. Part of the difficulty is that if we look at just the faculty whose main claim to productivity is published work, there are areas where there is indeed a reason to support SOME writing and publishing, but not the amount that can be produced by thousands of tenured faculty. We revere and value the professors (even if they don’t teach many students) who can come up with groundbreaking and insightful new interpretations of works of literature (although we may not be able to see which of the hundreds of claimants to that role actually deserves the reverence until 20 or 50 years later). At the same time, it’s pretty clear to pretty much everyone outside academia — including many very smart people who appreciate academic research on literature — that a lot of what’s produced is going to be forgotten very quickly. There should be some mechanism that identifies those who legitimately spend a lot of time on research and publishing, and assigns them fewer students. But there isn’t, so we support a rather large body of faculty to teach few students and spend a lot of time writing, just to make sure we get those few books that will stand the test of time.

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