Reformers call for more teaching and less research
By MELISSA LUDWIG | STAFF WRITER
July 10, 2011,
Lazy professor, beware.
Your time delivering droning lectures and writing overwrought articles for obscure journals draws nigh. A posse of free-market thinkers led by a conservative Austin think tank wants to hold higher education accountable by weeding out bad teachers and unproductive researchers.
But how do you corner these elusive creatures? Their peers characterize the lazy professor as a rarity, quietly culled from the herd before earning tenure.
Critics, however, believe they are far more commonplace, and can be exposed by crunching numbers on teaching loads, research grants and student evaluations.
Some would like to do away with tenure, reasoning that professors would work harder if their contract came up every few years. Others, including Gov. Rick Perry, have suggested that professors should stick to research that "delivers real dollars."
Yet academics and a new coalition of higher education boosters say critics are on the wrong track if their goal is to improve Texas universities.
Those kinds of remarks about research, coupled with the release of reams of detailed salary and workload data for thousands of professors in the Texas A&M University and University of Texas Systems, have already bruised the national reputation of two well-regarded university systems, said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.
"People around the country are watching that and would be leery of taking a job at A&M or UT," Curtis said. "If it continues that way, it may be a detriment for all of public higher education."
Return on investment
Those who seek greater productivity insist the scrutiny is long overdue.
"All we've ever wanted to do with this issue is just have an open discussion about 'Are the taxpayers of the state of Texas getting a good return on their investment?' " Perry has said. "To be honest with you, we can't answer that unless we have openness and transparency in higher ed, and there's some that just block that."
In addition to the governor, the roster of change-seekers includes several university regents, some conservative lawmakers and wealthy Austin entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer. Many have ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank that has acted as the movement's brain trust.
David Guenthner, a TPPF spokesman, said the cost of higher education has spiraled out of control, and many students are questioning whether it's a worthy investment.
In his view, tuition and state dollars subsidize the time professors spend writing journal articles of questionable value to society.
The system, he said, is set up to reward research with higher pay, professional kudos and a job for life, while good teaching often goes unrecognized.
As a result, Guenthner declared, students who pay top dollar for a flagship education spend a good deal of their first two years in huge lecture halls being taught by adjuncts rather than by tenured professors.
"The pendulum has probably swung more in the direction of research in recent years, to the detriment of teaching," he said. "We think there needs to be a better balance for the sake of Texas students."
Most universities break down the job of a professor as 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent service.
Service is a broad category, but typically involves sitting on governance committees, which give tenured and tenure-track faculty a voice in hiring and other decision-making at the university.
Most professors will say it's dreary work and there are too many committees. But no one seems to be fighting over the 20 percent of time professors spend on service.
The debate has centered squarely on teaching and research.
The term "research" conjures images of professors in white coats playing with beakers, but for most scholars it means publishing books or articles in academic journals.
Ideally, these writings illuminate new knowledge in the field, whether a theory about the origins of hominids or consumer behavior in modern Latin America.
But in the opinion of the change-seekers — and more quietly, some within the ranks of academia - much of this scholarly output is of questionable worth.
"I would say that 90 percent of it is a waste," said J. Ronald Carey, professor emeritus of marketing at Our Lady of the Lake University. "I am hesitant to call it research."
Carey received his doctorate from UT-Austin and taught at George Washington University, which has high research activity, before taking a job at the Pentagon and later at OLLU in San Antonio. For Carey and his colleagues, "research" was issuing questionnaires to sophomores and spinning their answers into multiple publications.
"We would get the data and say, 'How many line items do you think we can get out of this?' " he said.
Playing the research game has its benefits, Carey said.
"The people producing research have lower class sizes, more favorable schedules and they get teaching assistants," he noted. "And if they are doing really well, they get offers from other schools and can lobby for higher pay. Teachers do not have that leverage."
Few would argue with the premise that research is critical for promotion, but many disagree that most of it is fireplace fodder.
"No one thought the double helix would have any practical value," said William Powers, president of UT-Austin. "The value is not always recognizable at the time. It's a little like your stock portfolio; you don't know what the winners and losers are going to be."
Defending 'soft research'
Research, especially in the sciences, is also a huge enterprise for Texas institutions, generating nearly $1.7 billion annually. A portion goes directly to the university to cover overhead, fund laboratory infrastructure, pay faculty salaries and support fellowships for graduate students.
But few are picking on research that can be measured in dollars. It's the ones that can't be measured that troubles some.
Academics defend so-called "soft research," saying it advances knowledge. The act of getting out in the field, reading new material, attending conferences and exchanging ideas helps professors keep curriculum fresh and up-to-date, to the benefit of students.
"It is very easy to teach the same thing over and over," said Renee Rubin, a professor of education who retired this year from UT- Brownsville. "I would not want to see the research component go."
However, Rubin said she would welcome more flexibility about what counts as research.
UTB is primarily a teaching institution, yet her bosses raised the bar on publications in recent years, expecting two or more a year from professors who teach four classes per semester.
"Personally, I am more of a teacher. That is why I went into it," Rubin said.
In the University of Texas System, regents require an average faculty teaching load of three classes per semester, but that doesn't mean every professor teaches exactly three.
A scientist at a Tier One research institution - especially if backed by a large grant - may not teach at all, while a professor such as Rubin may teach four courses and do a little scholarly work. However, that scientist may supervise a dozen master's degree and doctoral students in a lab, a task that's hard to separate from "teaching."
Averaged across the UT System from 2007 to 2010, faculty members exceeded the minimum, spending from 29 to 39 actual weekly clock hours on instruction, including grading papers and preparing for class, according to the system's records.
Solutions spelled out
Critics still complain, however, that tenured and tenure-track professors prefer small, upper-level seminars, leaving the grunt work of teaching broad introductory classes to instructors, adjuncts and teaching assistants.
Statewide, 65 percent of full-time equivalent faculty were tenured or tenure-track in 2010, yet they taught only 39 percent of lower division credit hours, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
That isn't how it should be, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For.
"You want the most experienced teachers in front of the introductory classes because that is where it is hardest to engage students," Riley said.
The ideas are spelled out in Seven Breakthrough Solutions, written by Sandefer, promoted by TPPF and embraced by Perry.
Emails obtained through open records laws show that Perry and Sandefer have been leaning on university regents to implement the solutions since 2008, when they were introduced at an Austin summit.
Bonuses panned, dropped
The Texas A&M University System implemented the teaching bonuses, but they were panned by faculty at the flagship campus as a popularity contest. Research has shown that evaluations correlate closely with the grade students received in the class, and most administrators also rely on peer review when evaluating a professor's teaching skills.
Last week, the new interim A&M chancellor discontinued the teaching awards.
UT-Austin has taken a more targeted approach to the problem.
To give freshmen and sophomores more contact with senior faculty, UT has created seminar classes and research opportunities for those students.
Also, many large introductory courses are being redesigned to promote more active learning and improve success rates.
"These reforms have been going on for the last five years. Our faculty are behind (them)," Powers said.