Is “Productivity” a Dirty Word on Campus?

If the 80 percent of faculty at the University of Texas-Austin with the lowest teaching loads were pushed to teach just half as much as the 20 percent of faculty who do most of the teaching, tuition could be cut by more than half. That’s the stark conclusion of a preliminary report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and it is understandably causing a stir in the academic world.

Here are some of the findings:

One, the “productivity” of professors ranges widely in terms of teaching and research.   One fifth of UT Austin faculty handle more than half (57 percent) of the total student credit hours.  At the same time, the “least productive 20 percent teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours.”

Two, the 20 percent who do most of the teaching also bring in 18 percent of the campus’s research funding, a fact that leads the authors, Richard Vedder, Christopher Matgouranis and Jonathan Robe, to state that heavy teaching duties do not “jeopardize their status as researchers.”

Three, the usual adjunct pattern holds: “Non-tenured track faculty teach a majority of undergraduate enrollments and a surprising 31 percent of graduate enrollments.”

Four, by adjusting teaching responsibilities, the university could bring tuition costs sharply downward.

The report is bound to raise heated policy questions regarding teaching loads and tenure/promotion criteria.  When Vedder and his colleagues present the findings and discover that faculty react with indignation and fury, they might be tempted to chalk it up to an entrenched interest simply out to shelter its perks.

This would be a mistake.  Yes, it’s true that when I mention the word “productivity” to colleagues they usually end up denouncing the entire topic without considering the problems that have led to accountability efforts.  But the response has a deeper source than self-interest or entitlement mentality.

It is this: when productivity measures are proposed, professors feel betrayed.  It isn’t fair, they think.  Productivity-pushers just aren’t aware of the realities of academic life, the pressures and strivings and hurdles.  Most of all, professors believe that they have undergone a gauntlet of accountability from their first days in graduate school, and the judgments and assessments of their value have continued nonstop since then.  They know accountability better than just about anybody else.

For humanities professors, it went like this.  Their teachers in graduate school graded their papers and presentations, sometimes nastily, sometimes whimsically.  The students they taught in freshman composition stared at them week after week with boredom and resentment.  When they wrote their dissertations, their advisors gave those pages a thumbs-up or thumbs- down.  The job market was a relentless series of rejections and promises.  As an assistant professor, they underwent a fourth-year review and then a tenure review that poked into every aspect of the record.  For years, they wondered what a possible enemy might make out of this or that item of scholarship or student course evaluation.  When they sent of their manuscripts for publication, editors sent it out to readers for a detailed peer review.

For them, professional life is ever and always the judgment of others.

And NOW, people want to add another kind of judgment to their work?  They have to be not just rigorous, conscientious, and intelligent, but also productive? 

The prospect can only appall them.  Accountability isn’t going to stop, but in the coming years as the movement spreads from campus to campus, we shall see how the faculty reaction will unfold. As proponents of accountability proceed, however, they would be wise to consider the background of the faculty.  Instead of arguing simply for productivity measures, they should consider studying existing measures of faculty work and collect opinions from professors about them.  My guess is that Vedder and others will find many, many among the professoriate who consider the reigning yardsticks absolutely ridiculous.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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