By Eric Dexheimer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, May 23, 2011
Twenty percent of University of Texas at Austin professors instruct most of the school's students, while the least-productive fifth of the faculty carry only 2 percent of the university's teaching load, according to an analysis of recently released data by a researcher with ties to an Austin organization promoting controversial changes in how the state runs its higher education system. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the faculty bring in 90 percent of its research grants.
The UT System's flagship school could save taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing professors' teaching loads and jettisoning under-performing instructors without jeopardizing the school's commitment to research, said Richard Vedder, an economics professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
The center, "dedicated to researching the rising costs and stagnant efficiency in higher education," released the report late Friday. UT faculty members quickly took issue with its conclusions.
Vedder, who said the analysis was intended to address soaring costs that have turned a college degree into a financial burden, stressed that his results were preliminary. UT System administrators also cautioned that the underlying data were "raw" and "incomplete" when they released the 821-page spreadsheet of faculty salaries, course loads, research grants and student evaluation results two weeks ago.
But even beyond that, the analysis, "Faculty Productivity and Costs at the University of Texas at Austin," comes with sufficient caveats and political baggage to give opponents ample ammunition to fire back at its conclusions.
Vedder is a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank. The foundation has close ties to Gov. Rick Perry and is at the center of an ongoing debate about research, teaching, faculty productivity, the rising price of tuition and other issues in higher education.
It helped organize a May 2008 summit where Perry urged public university regents to pursue the foundation's so-called breakthrough solutions, including bonus pay for teachers based solely on student evaluations and separation of research and teaching budgets. The same month, Vedder authored a report for the foundation concluding that the state's public universities were failing to deliver results for their cost. In the 17-page paper, Vedder analyzed faculty productivity based strictly on the number of student credit hours each professor taught. He calculated the most-productive fifth of UT 's faculty, about 840 instructors, taught an average of 318 students, and 896 credit hours, per year. That comes out to 57 percent of the campus's total student credit hours taught.
The remaining 80 percent of the faculty, by comparison, each taught an average of 63 students over the year, or 167 student credit hours, the analysis found. It also calculated that "77 percent of all faculty at the Austin campus receive no external research grants."
"You could enormously reduce the number of people needed to fulfill the teaching obligation of the university" without reducing research, Vedder concluded.
University faculty were quick to point to omissions or weaknesses in the report. The UT System's original spreadsheet of salaries and course loads released in early May, for example, used a weighted system to count credit hours that assumed upper- and graduate-level courses required more teacher time per student.
"Usually a graduate course is considered more intense, more of a load than an undergrad course," said John Curtis, director of research for the American Association of University Professors.
The college affordability center's analysis, by comparison, counts credit hours in a introductory survey course the same as a graduate seminar. By that standard, faculty members who teach courses with a small number of students receiving intensive instruction would be penalized, said Alan Friedman, a professor of English since 1964.
He said his students write a steady stream of papers that have to be read and critiqued. "It's incredibly labor-intensive," he said. "But I look very bad by these measures."
Vedder's study also does not account for faculty's administrative responsibilities or service, which can range from chairing a department to serving on committees or running programs outside their teaching duties. For example, Friedman said that in addition to his teaching, he serves on a half-dozen committees and manages a drama residency program at the university. "I spend about 30 hours a week on service," he said.
Faculty also questioned the value of using the dollar total of grants as a measure of research productivity. Such a calculation would overwhelmingly favor science professors who run labs that need specialized and expensive equipment over humanities instructors, who often require much less grant funding to, say, travel to a library, Curtis said.
"Many faculty are involved in research that doesn't bring in money," said Janet Staiger, a communications professor and past chairwoman of the UT faculty council. "Or I might get money for a research project that takes five or six years, but get the money in a lump sum one year," further skewing the measurement.