Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: An Economic Salvo in the Culture Wars About the American University as Institution

For those who missed it, there has been an increasing turn toward university assessment as a market actor and participant.  Ideologically predisposed groups--both those suspicious of the "efficiency" of university education and those committed to the status quo--are deploying the techniques of the social sciences to develop "facts" (usually made more rigidly legitimate through the deployment of of numbers and mathematically based equations) which, in the hands of those with policy changing ambitions, can substitute for analysis. Though the discussion is clothed in the language of efficiency and proper deployment of labor, it is less clear whether this language masks other objectives--including shifting the balance of governance sharing between faculty and administration, and disturbing the old consensus about the role of faculty in a research university.

  (From The University of Texas at Austin Home Page)

A recent contribution to the development of facts about the university and its deployment of labor, well worth reading, was distributed through the Center for College Accountability and Productivity.  Richard Veddar, Christopher Matgournis and Jonathan Robe, Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis (Center for College Accountability and Productivity, May 2011). It focuses on the practices of one of the more conventionally well regarded university institutions in the United States--the University of Texas at Austin. 

Founded in 2006, The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) is dedicated to researching the rising costs and stagnant efficiency in higher education, with special emphasis on the United States. CCAP seeks to facilitate a broader dialogue on the issues and problems facing the institutions of higher education with the public, policy makers, and the higher education community.

The authors are all connected with the CCAP, and one is also connected with the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with its own quite distinct political reputation. 
Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and author of the book, Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much. . . .

Christopher Matgouranis is a Research Assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and an undergraduate student at Ohio University. . . .

Jonathan Robe is a Research Associate at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. . . . (From Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis (supra at 2). 

Professor Vedder has also elaborated on the study in an essay, Richard Veddar, 'Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little', Minding the Campus: Reforming Our Universities, July 28, 2011. 
What has people buzzing is the conclusion:
Recently released preliminary data from the University of Texas 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 (or, alternatively, state appropriations could be reduced even more—by as much as 75 percent). Moreover, other data suggest a strategy of reemphasizing the importance of the undergraduate teaching function can be done without importantly reducing outside research funding or productivity. (From Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis (supra at 3).
Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis is rich, and I leave it to others to defend or critique the work.  I note only a few thoughts about the implications of some of the assumptions on the basis of which some of the analysis appears to be undertaken: 

The most significant of these assumptions, a direct correlation between productivity in research and success in securing third party research funding, produces a substantial effect on the construction of data and the formulation of conclusions based on this data.  Professor Vedder does modify the strength of the relationship and suggests the effects of this assumption on the results in Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis.  He tells us in this later essay: "Professors in the humanities and social sciences and other disciplines outside the hard sciences have a more difficult time garnering research support. " (From 'Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little', supra). But he does not question the basic assumption of the identity between research productivity and the quantum of third party funding. It is quite true that for some disciplines there has grown a sense of strong connection between external funding and productivity.  Yet there are others without a history or tradition of conflating external funding with research production or productivity.  This is something substantially more than the suggestion that external funding is harder to get--it is the suggestion that in some disciplines the connection between funding and productivity in research is weak or irrelevant.  As such, as a measure of productivity across disciplines the measure is unhelpful as a fact generator.  It might, however, be helpful as a generator of policy pressure to change the focus of productivity assessment in disciplines that have failed to conform to this assumption.  This sense of an underlying substantive agenda might be strengthened when one considers the possibility that there are other measures of productivity that do not abandon a focus on quantification: for example number of papers produced, reputation value of placement of papers, book production, invitations to deliver papers outside the institution, etc.  And all of this before one considers issues of quality, a subject not treated in  Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis. . On the other hand, it is true that there are fields of study, important ones, in which the "culturally natural" focus on research productivity is indeed quantity of external funding.  Yet to universalize the cultural habits of one field  produces of effects-- from indirectly changing the work patterns and values assessment matrices of a field, to affecting the focus and development of research agendas to suit clients (external funding groups).  One wonders if, were those funding sources to originate elsewhere--say Iran or China, or politically motivated groups of other sorts--whether there might be some considerations of the substantive effects of choice of assessment measure. As such, the universalizing of this measure can have a potent instrumental effect--a form of indirect governance through the techniques of monitoring and reporting.  See, Larry Catá Backer, Global Panopticism: States, Corporations and the Governance Effects of Monitoring Regimes. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 15, 2007. 

Moreover, the leveling effect of the choice of research productivity assessment tends to privilege the relationship between outside funding agency and faculty member in ways that might affect the relationship of the university as an institution and its stakeholders.  The result, as is clearly visible to those in the business of institutional academic governance is the proliferation of management in this area.  In particular, the costs of defining classes of acceptable funding sources, monitoring compliance with funding rules, and the costs of outside processes and monitoring costs among funding and governmental agencies increases as the focus of research becomes universally dependent on economic transactions between researcher and funding agency.  As such, it might be necessary to include  added costs of administration of these grants now ought to be added in (or subtracted from productivity because administrative expenses can be a drag on profitability) These administrative burdens are not merely internal to the university but also shared with government and outside funding agencies.  And, as hinted at above, the reconstruction of some academic fields to a focus on third party sourcing as a measure of productivity will necessarily have an effect on research agendas--effectively shifting control over the nature and direction of research from the researcher to the third party finders. The choice of the measure, then, lends itself to critique in several respects.   And the question is not merely quantitative--as a matter of increasing efficiency--but also a matter of substantive control over cultures of research and the control over the direction and character of this function. 

   (From The University of Texas at Austin Home Page)

These thoughts are not offered as critique but as a caution.  The sort of empirical research at the heart of Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis can produce important insights in the direct relationships between facts.  And it can suggest the value and character of particular facts and relationships.  But such research can easily be reduced to sloganeering, especially in the hands of those who would use these sorts of studies instrumentally. Given the assumptions under which he developed his methodology, Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin: A Preliminary Analysis provides a set of quantifiable relationships that can be understood as facts, even relational facts.  But the production of facts ought not to substitute for analysis.  Facts do not have the sort of singular character that makes the exercise of analysis, and the discussion of values, irrelevant.  The instrumental use of facts, like the instrumental construction of a mechanics for the development of facts, is an exercise that is quite distinct from the "facts" themselves.  It is to that discussion that Professor Vedder and his co-authors have contributed.  It is not yet clear that the consequential analysis cuts only in one direction.  But it is clear that the status quo of faculty university relations, and the consensus of appropriate levels of activity are likely both to be challenged and modified. Whether this change will affect quality as well as productivity, and the direction of the vectors of change will unlikely to be determined in time to affect the individuals and groups who will advocate for change, and that disjunction between accountability and consequence makes change advocacy all the more tempting.  It is to that contest that important stakeholders will now direct their attention--applying political, cultural, economic and other policy presumptions into which they will conscript the "facts" extracted from the behaviors and work cultures at the University of Texas at Austin.   


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