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July 28, 2011

'Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little'

                            By Richard VedderUniversity of Texas

A huge brouhaha has erupted over the release and interpretation of data about the faculty of the University of Texas, centering on whether a relatively few individuals are doing most of the teaching at the system's flagship institution, UT-Austin. Two reports drew most of the fire, one by my organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), the other by Rick O'Donnell, a recently fired aide to the system.

The CCAP bottom line: it seems like a relatively small portion of the over 4,000 persons teaching on the Austin campus shoulder a huge percent of teaching burden (especially in relation to the costs they incur to the University) and an even smaller group garners the bulk of the outside research funds viewed as critical to the maintenance of the research mission. This means a large group of faculty members do moderate amounts of teaching and not much funded-research.

Our report said preliminary data "strongly suggest that the state of Texas could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching. Looking only at the UT Austin campus, if the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach just half as much as the 20 percent with the highest loads, and if the savings were dedicated to tuition reduction, tuition could be cut by more than half ...."

In May, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the UT-Austin released a long 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 mere release of the data started a frenzy of activity, with an email blitz to alumni urging them to help save the school, a Committee of 125 being formed, and other gestures—long before anything substantively had been done with the data. The university community was worried that O’Donnell, hired as a special adviser to the UT Board of Regents, was leading the charge to radically change the place. The clamor to fire O’Donnell succeeded, but the battle rages on.

As the lead author of the CCAP report, I was heartened by the many messages of praise I received from those outside the academic community and bemused (but certainly not surprised) by the harsh criticism that came from within. Our report was billed as “preliminary” and was merely a first glance at the data, but even persons in general sympathy with the conclusions, such as Charlotte Allen, labeled it as “simplistic.”

We were blasted because the sample included lots of part-time instructors. For example, UT President Powers was included in the sample because he taught one course a year (receiving over $280,000 annually for “student services,” nearly 40 percent of his total pay). Surely, if you exclude the part-timers, a different picture emerges. Ms. Allen noted that around 400 were “lecturers” with high (six courses a year) teaching loads, although I note that what is now considered “high” teaching loads was approximately my typical teaching load over several decades of teaching—and a load that still allowed me to complete research that would compare well with typical UT faculty in my field.  

Nonetheless, the critics had a point. So we have done some additional analysis of the UT data.  Led by my associate Michael Koslen, we decided to look at the “pure” full-time professoriate, those working 100 percent of their time who carry the rank of “assistant professor,” “associate professor,” or “professor.” We identified 1,904 of these persons, doing a bit over half the total teaching and most of all funded research. Over 1,500 of them are tenured. How is the teaching and research burden distributed amongst them, and what does it suggest about faculty utilization?

Looking at the 381 professors in the top quintile of this large sample, we observe that they do nearly half the teaching of the group as measured by “semester hours,” and about one-fourth the total teaching on the Austin campus. They teach almost as many student credit hours as the remaining 1,523 members of the full-time professoriate combined. One might suspect that they garner markedly less in research money than those with low teaching loads. In fact, that is not the case. Those in the bottom quintile with respect to the number of students handled actually received slightly less outside research funds than those in the top quintile, and these folks with high teaching loads on average received nearly $153,000 in annual research grant money—more than their average salaries. Surely those professors with lots of students earn higher wages than others? In reality, their average salary is almost precisely the same as the average of all professors (somewhat over $127,000 annually excluding fringe benefits)—there is no apparent incremental reward for shouldering more of the teaching burden.

We identified 699 professors, or 36.7 percent of the total, that received nothing in the way of research grants and also had moderately light to very light teaching loads (although see the caveat below), with fewer than 350 student credit hours taught annually and an average number of 34 students taught per semester. These professors earned on average $113,000 a year, only about 11 percent less than the average of all faculty, even though by all accounts they had relatively light teaching and research responsibilities. Over two-thirds of them were tenured. 

At the same time, there are those at the other end of the spectrum, 150 professors who both were meaningful grant recipients (at least $75,000 a year) and had fairly high to very high teaching loads (at least 400 student credit hours annually and an average of 125 students taught).  Despite receiving good amounts of outside funds and shouldering a large teaching burden, these professors earned on average $153,000—about 20 percent above the average of the entire group. Those who the data suggest were doing a lot received almost 35 percent more than those doing relatively little. The good news, then, is that hard work had its rewards; the bad news is probably that those rewards were relatively modest compared with what is typical in the for-profit private sector—there are “carrots” and “sticks,” but not as big as ones as found elsewhere. The incentives for hard work are relatively modest. Those taking long vacations, showing up on campus at most four days a week, and spending a lot of time gossiping and reading the New York Times  do not have a dramatically less affluent life than those working relatively long hours and taking relatively short vacations.

There are other ways of classifying the data –for example a majority of all research money of the professoriate was brought in by only 57 faculty members, many with grants in the seven digits. The median research grant for the entire professoriate is zero—a majority received nothing.

Caveats, of course, are in order. There are some disciplines where teaching small numbers of students in itself says little about the time and effort spent on instruction—professors of piano are perhaps the quintessential example. Some of the 699 above may have, in fact, moderately significant administrative responsibilities that might legitimately explain low teaching and research outcomes. Professors in the humanities and social sciences and other disciplines outside the hard sciences have a more difficult time garnering research support. And, of course, not all teachers with, say, 100 students a year are the same in the quality of the instruction they render—that is why we need additional qualitative indicators of performance. For these and other reasons, our next step is to look at the faculty on a micro basis—name by name and incorporate such data as is available (fortunately, we have web sites such as RateMyProfessor.com and CampusBuddy.com to help us).

Nonetheless, the more we have refined the data so far, the more convinced we are that the initial concern about huge variations in outcomes relative to differences in rewards has validity. The amounts involved are not trivial—the group of 699 relatively low performers above costs UT, when fringe benefits are added, roughly $100 million annually, or nearly $2,000 for every student at the institution. Yet they garner no outside grant money and provide a near trivial portion of total instruction. Those wanting to reduce college costs need to engage in this sort of nitty-gritty research, despite the intense opposition of many on the faculty. We are encouraged that other political leaders, notably Governor Rick Scott of Florida, who have signaled a willingness to extend this analysis to public institutions in other states across the country.

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Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University and an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.



Comments (5)

I graduated from a small college in 1957. Attended professional schools and earned additional degrees.
The student tuition cost was minimal then, but when the U.S. Government began to fund university and college education, administrators found the mother lode of finances.
One university president told a Chamber of Commerce meeting that 9% of the university was funded with govenment aid. That is over 12 years ago, and I am sure the amount has increased as has tuition and the like.
The day of the university is closing, because there are other means of getting an education that equips one for a job or occupation.
The university originally was meant so cultivate the mind and warm the heart; in my estimation, it does neither of these today.
Aside from math and science, why do we have a university at all? Small colleges with emphases on humanities and the like would serve the bulk of the student population, as do community colleges with practical courses geared to work and jobs.

Brad:

1) Mr. Vedder, UT offers both very small classes and very large classes. This lines up with your analysis. It isn't surprising.

2) Moderately increasing teaching loads means that the huge classes would be split up among faculty. Faculty would not be let go, nor would there be any savings. There would be substantial tuition savings if the state moderately increased its support in line with inflation.

3)Your teaching load was normal for a non-research university. You are not as well regarded as UT economics professors. Sorry to break the news to you.

4) Semester hours is a function of class size. Those with more semester hours aren't necessarily doing more teaching than others. A 500 student intro to chemistry course is not more important than an advanced lab for 5 graduate students or upperclassmen.

5) Professors can and do perform research without outside grants. Some just use the resources FREELY available at the university's libraries and museums. You should know this. Besides, they are paid by the university to do research. It is in their contract and job description.

6) "Those taking long vacations, showing up on campus at most four days a week, and spending a lot of time gossiping and reading the New York Times do not have a dramatically less affluent life than those working relatively long hours and taking relatively short vacations."

You've gone off the deep end here. Where is your proof that any professors are living this affluent life?? Where are the numbers?

7) Ratemyprofessor is hardly a reliable tool for evaluating professors. The fact that you don't realize this is quite appalling.

8) You insist on nitty gritty research, yet you fail to engage in such research. You need to look at what classes professors are actually teaching. What kinds of classes does the university offer? What percentage of classes are 400 or more students, what percentage are for less than 25 students?

Lisa Crider, BBA '81:

Mr. Vedder - the Commission of 125 delivered its report to the University in 2004. It was the culmination of a 2-year process and is part of UT's ongoing, serious efforts to cultivate a culture of excellence. It was NOT a "gesture."

As brad suggests in the comment above, your failure to get the basic facts correct suggests that your own research methods are sadly lacking.

Here's a good place to start: http://www.utexas.edu/com125/ All the reports produced by the commission are there in PDF form.

Additionally, RateMyProfessor.com and CampusBuddy.com are hardly reliable sources of statistical information.

Phil Harris:

As a student I applaud your efforts to tackle the tough issues of faculty productivity Mr. Vedder. It's important to know exactly how much our public universities are spending on instruction and the return for their investment. It matters little wether this is too similar to the way private business is conducted. At the end of the day, taxpayers and students must know they are getting a good return on their sizable investment.

Anon:

Phil Harris--are you paid to write these things? You seem to have a professional life as an outraged student.

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