The firing of a controversial aide to the University of Texas system has triggered a full-blown debate over the productivity of teachers and whether “star” professors who teach few classes are really worth the cost to the public. Rick O’Donnell, dismissed on April 19 after only 49 days on the job as special adviser to the public university system’s regents, had argued forcefully that public universities should devote their resources to teaching undergraduates rather than academic research. On May 5, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the University of Texas-Austin, the flagship of the 15-campus UT system, released an 821-page 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 university cautioned that the data were preliminary and likely contained some errors. Nonetheless, acting on the presumption that the spreadsheet was generally accurate, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who heads the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, quickly issued an analysis of the spreadsheet from which he drew some startling conclusions: measured by student credit hours taught (the credit value of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in them), the top 20 percent of faculty shoulder 50 percent of the teaching load, while the bottom 20 percent teach only 2 percent of student credit hours.
Furthermore, only about 20 percent of faculty–more or less the same people who are most productive in terms of credit hours—pay for themselves in terms of outside research grants, Vedder asserted. He saw most of the rest as a net drain on university resources. Vedder also concluded that non-tenure-track faculty—graduate assistants and others–teach a majority of undergraduate student hours and a large fraction of graduate-student hours. He surmised that if the entire UT-Austin faculty taught as many student hours as its top quintile, the campus could ultimately reduce its total number of faculty so drastically that it could reduce student tuition by "63 percent, from $9,816 per year [for Texas residents] to only $3,632."
Some numbers don't check out
Vedder’s analysis came under immediate and probably well-justified fire: he had jumbled together full-time and part-time instructors, so that graduate assistants teaching a single section or administrators taking on a single course to keep active in teaching counted the same as full-time faculty; he had ignored the fact that some courses, such as freshman composition, cannot be taught to hundreds of students in the lecture format that boost credit hours; and he counted as "productive" research only the kind of research that generates major external grants—typically scientific research. The historian who garners a few thousand dollars from the Mellon Foundation to peruse an obscure archive during the summer doesn’t count as very productive under Vedder’s metric. And what about the professor of ancient Greek? Wouldn’t he have to teach Greek from morning to evening in order to generate as many "productive" credit hours as a psychology professor with a 350-student introductory class? "Probably," was Vedder’s crisp reply when I posed that question to him in a telephone interview. "It’s a matter of what students and taxpayers can afford to pay for." (UT released an updated and more fine-grained set of data for the entire UT system in late June, and Vedder said he is currently seeking funding for a more thorough analysis of it.)
O’Donnell and Vedder might be accused of having different axes to grind, but a turn in the debate came on July 6: the Chronicle of Higher Education, which can hardly be called a conservative entity, published the results of a survey of chief financial officers of universities it had conducted in conjunction with Moody’s Corp. In response to a question as to what strategy the CFOs would pick to reduce costs or raise revenues if they did not have to worry about the consequences among constituents, a decided plurality of the CFOs—38 percent—said they would increase faculty teaching loads. Another 27 percent said they would eliminate tenure, and 7 percent opted for instituting a mandatory retirement age. Since slacking off by professors with tenure is a common complaint among younger faculty members, the Chronicle survey essentially indicated that a full 72 percent of university CFOs wanted professors to teach more and work harder.
The O’Donnell fracas also drew attention to another issue: whether during troubled economic times, states such as Texas can really afford to heavily subsidize prestigious, research-focused universities such as the UT’s flagship institution, the 50,000-student University of Texas-Austin, and its technology-focused cousin in the Texas public system, the 49,000-student Texas A&M University in College Station. According to UT-Austin’s own website, UT-Austin’s annual budget has increased nearly fivefold during the past 25 years, from $503 million in 1985 to $2.26 billion in 2010, far outstripping the effects of inflation. It has also become more tuition-dependent. In 1985 tuition and student fees ($27 million) accounted for only 5 percent of UT-Austin’s total revenues, but by 2010 that number had jumped to 24 percent, or $544 million. It is common to blame UT-Austin’s increased tuition-dependency on a stingy legislature that has gradually withdrawn state support—except that state allocations to support the Austin campus have actually increased by about 40 percent over the years, from $237 million in 1985 to $318 million in 2010—and it may be unfair to ask Texas taxpayers to cover every new budget-boosting expense that the university chooses to incur.
The two most prestigious institutions
In Texas’s sprawling system of public universities and community colleges, only UT-Austin and Texas A&M possess the prestigious "R1" ("Research University 1") classification conferred by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (the Carnegie Foundation has recently revised its classification system, but the "R1" nomenclature persists). And both belong to the 111-year-old Association of American Universities (AAU), whose 60-odd members include the crème de la crème of elite, massively endowed private universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, and also such highly regarded, academically selective public institutions as the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley. The AAU, whose criteria for membership include an emphasis on scholarly research and a large number of doctoral degrees awarded annually, operates as the unofficial keeper of R1 status, and it appears willing to eject members who no longer meet its standards, one of which is the attraction of a certain level of federal research dollars, which usually fund scientific projects. (Syracuse University voluntarily withdrew from the AAU in May in the face of certain ejection because its federal research funding had fallen off.)
Virtually all R1 universities afford tenured and tenure-track professors relatively light teaching loads—two classes per semester (one of which may be a small graduate seminar) is the norm—to allow them ample time for scholarly pursuits. That means, however, that someone must pay those professors not to teach. The maintenance of R1 status (and AAU membership) is highly competitive. R1 status is roughly coterminous with the "Tier One" designation in the U.S. News annual ranking of national universities. A Tier One classification virtually guarantees an institution’s "selectivity’ (the ratio of number of acceptances to number of applicants), which in turn helps secure its Tier One ranking in the future.
Perhaps even more significantly, university administrators insist that offering a light teaching load of one or two classes per semester is a non-negotiable precondition for wooing accomplished scholars away from other prestigious universities that also offer light teaching loads. Many scholars with distinguished reputations in their fields are also skilled teachers who love to teach–but it is safe to say that most of them would rather not have to demonstrate their love by presiding over four packed undergraduate classrooms per semester as their colleagues at lower-ranked public universities often do. "We view ourselves as competing for the top talent, the top Ph.D.s that Harvard and Berkeley are also competing for," said Randy Diehl, dean of UT-Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, in a telephone interview. Diehl added that the top academic names also tend to attract the best students, who in turn become prominent scholars: "Nobel laureates, for example, tend to form chains. They produce faculty who are also Nobel laureates." Although the 2,500 or so tenured and tenure-track professors at UT-Austin are theoretically supposed to have "3-3" teaching loads (three classes per semester), the standard load at smaller colleges where research is not such a high priority, tenure-line professors who are "engaged in research" at UT-Austin—which effectively means nearly all of them—get a release from that third course, Diehl explained. A small number of faculty members at UT-Austin are designated as "research professors" and do no teaching at all, but their research is funded by outside grants, so they essentially pay for themselves.
Can the whole faculty be paid to do research?
Nonetheless, about 500 full-time teachers at UT-Austin’s College of Liberal Arts do maintain 3-3 loads, but their job titles do not include the word "professor." Although all possess Ph.D. degrees, their job title is "lecturer" and they are hired strictly to teach, mostly in large lower-division courses designed for freshmen and sophomores in the UT-Austin undergraduate population. These are the kinds of courses that generate high credit-hour productivity by Vedder’s metric. (The lecturers occasionally handle upper-division and even graduate-level courses.) "Outstanding teaching" ability is the primary qualification for a lecturer’s position, Diehl said, but the salary levels suggest that outstanding teaching is not valued as highly as outstanding research skills. Salaries vary greatly by department, Diehl explained—teaching college-level economics pays far better than teaching college-level French—but a rough average starting salary for a lecturer at UT-Austin is $45,000 a year, compared with $70,000-$75,000 for an assistant professor, the lowest rung on the tenure ladder. (Lecturers who manage to publish impressive scholarship despite their teaching duties can hoist themselves onto the tenure track, although such moves are rare.) UT-Austin’s two-tier system, common at large universities, especially large public universities, is simply a matter of higher-education economics, Diehl explained; UT-Austin cannot afford to pay everyone on its faculty to do research.
It was in this context that the Rick O’Donnell fracas played itself out, for it was O’Donnell who spearheaded the effort to obtain the UT-Austin data released in May just days after his forced departure. O’Donnell was a controversial figure from the start. He hailed from Colorado, where he had served from 2004-2006 as executive director of the state’s Department of Education under Republican Gov. Bill Moss and run unsuccessfully as a GOP candidate for Congress in 2006. In 2007 O’Donnell moved to Austin to take a job as president of the Acton Foundation for Entrepreneurial Excellence, a position that he held until shortly before his hiring by the UT regents. The Acton Foundation, named after Lord Acton, the famous historian and politician, was the creation of Jeff Sandefer, a successful oilman who had also taught a well-regarded program in entrepreneurship at UT-Austin’s business school but left in a huff in 2002 after the business school decided to become more research-oriented. He told a newspaper at the time that the school was "willing to trade off quite a bit of teaching quality" by hiring professors who were also scholars.
Sandefer then founded the Acton School of Business, affiliated with Hardin-Simmons University, an evangelical institution in Austin, which offers a one-year MBA program in entrepreneurship taught entirely by working business executives. The Acton Foundation owns Sandefer’s copyrighted curriculum, which it licenses to the business school. Sandefer and O’Donnell had an affinity in their critical stance toward the education establishment. As head of Colorado’s Education Department O’Donnell had pushed through the state legislature a voucher program for college students that was in part intended to provide higher-education funding directly to students rather than channeling it through institutions of higher learning. Sandefer, for his part, in 2008 authored a list of "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" designed to improve the teaching at Texas’s public colleges. They included a student voucher system much like the one that O’Donnell had implemented (with the money in this case to be subtracted from state appropriations for public universities), bonuses for "effective and efficient teachers," "learning contracts" with students, and a separation of universities’ research budgets from their teaching budgets "as separate efforts in higher education."
O"Donnell and the fears of the left
At the same time that O’Donnell went to work at Acton, he also became an unpaid senior fellow at the Center for Higher Education of the Texas Public Policy Institute (TPPC), a conservative think tank based in Austin where Sandefer was a board member. There, in 2008, O’Donnell produced a paper, published on the TPPC website, that questioned the value of university-based research per se—not only the theory-choked journal articles on "gender-mapping the post-colonialist body" that English departments churn out these days, but also the basic and applied scientific research that even most cost-conscious critics of higher-education bloat usually find unexceptionable, and which is almost always paid for by federal grants anyway. O’Donnell’s paper deemed such research to be a waste of taxpayers’ money and argued the private enterprise could step in if universities bowed out. "The key to preparing the next generation of Texans to lead productive and meaningful lives is not to pour billions of additional dollars into higher educational research, but to return our colleges and universities to their original mission—teaching students," O’Donnell’s paper declared. The paper contained a set of recommendations that paralleled some of Sandefer’s seven solutions: learning contracts and the separation of university research and teaching budgets. In a telephone interview O’Donnell insisted that neither his 2008 paper nor Sandefer’s seven solutions were meant to be viewed as concrete proposals for changing Texas’s public system. "They were intended to spark a discussion—they’re high-level pieces that don’t get into details."
The circumstances of O’Donnell’s hiring by the UT regents provided fodder for conspiracy theorists on the political and academic left, who seemed to fear that Sandefer and his Republican minions were positioning themselves for a campus takeover. Sandefer was a major contributor to Texas’s Republican Gov. Rick Perry, and in 1999, when Perry was lieutenant governor under George W. Bush, he had made Sandefer a member of a "Special Commission on Higher Education" that he had formed. Then, in 2008, Perry asked the UT regents to consider Sandefer’s seven solutions. Nothing seemed to come of that suggestion as far as the UT system was concerned, although Texas A&M began giving its professors cash bonuses for good student evaluations and in 2010 issued a controversial document that laid out the revenue generation of every professor relative to his or her salary, with the names of the negative revenue-generators printed in red.
Meanwhile Perry appointed several new UT regents, including San Antonio real estate developer Gene Powell, who was elected chairman of the regents’ board in February 2011 (another Perry appointee was energy mogul Alex Cranberg, a longtime friend of Sandefer). One of Powell’s first acts was to select another Perry-appointed regent, Brenda Pejovich, a colleague of Sandefer’s on the TPPF board, to chair a committee on "university excellence and productivity." It was Pejovich’s committee that requested the faculty-productivity data from UT-Austin.
Another was to hire O’Donnell, at a salary of $200,000 a year, to report directly to the regents. Internal e-mails obtained by the Texas Tribune website seemed to indicate that O’Donnell had been tapped for the job before it was even created, and that high-level UT system administrators, including Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, had not been fully apprised of O’Donnell’s hiring. O’Donnell’s $200,000 salary, to be paid out at a time when UT campuses were instituting budget cuts, rankled many, and even some supporters of the proposition that UT-Austin ought to focus on teaching Texans rather than chasing Nobel Prize winners maintained that Powell and the other regents had acted clumsily. "The regents tried to sneak [O’Donnell] in there quietly," said a UT-Austin professor who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications under the name Publius Audax. "They should have done it openly—had a conference with O’Donnell, consulted with the chancellor. Instead, they thought they could do it on the sly, and that no one would notice." Powell could not be reached for comment, but O’Donnell said, "I don’t think it was the case that it was a stealth operation. The chairman of the board and the chancellor are quite close, and anyway, the regents don’t have to have approval for whom they hire."
O’Donnell’s 2008 paper for the TPPF and its anti-research rhetoric came to light as the press probed his career. Then an analysis by the San Antonio Express showed that O'Donnell's paper contained at least a dozen errors, including erroneous statistics and misattributed citations. In his telephone interview O’Donnell attributed the errors to "a production snafu" and called the negative publicity surrounding its errors "a red herring." "The paper was a collaborative effort," he said. "Interns touched it. It was edited by many hands." O’Donnell maintained that he personally did not oppose university-based research and, while head of Colorado’s education department, had advocated increased state funding for scientific projects on campus. Nonetheless, the TPPF pulled the paper from its website, and Powell tightened the parameters of O’Donnell’s job: he was to report to Cigarroa, not the regents, and his position would terminate as of Aug. 31.
Then a letter surfaced that O’Donnell had written to another regent, Wallace Hall, accusing top UT system administrators of blocking his efforts to obtain data showing that large portions of student tuition and taxpayer dollars were being wasted on professors who do little teaching. He accused UT administrators of launching a "well-orchestrated public relations campaign" against him. At that point Cigarroa terminated his employment. On June 24, after O’Donnell had threatened to sue UT, the system agreed to pay him a $70,000 settlement. O’Donnell, perhaps characteristically, refused to let that be the end of it, however, telling the Austin Statesman-American that Cigarroa had encouraged a "brutal campaign" against his efforts and those of members of the board of regents to wrest productivity data from the university system, a campaign that included trying to mobilize UT donors and alumni. At that point even Powell seemed to regret that he had offered O’Donnell a job in the first place. He issued a press release calling O’Donnell’s statements "unfortunate" and declaring that "the Board of Regents has an excellent relationship with Chancellor Cigarroa and fully supports his
Some are Coasters, some are Sherpas
O’Donnell was not yet finished with Texas public universities, however. On July 19 he issued a paper containing his own analysis of the corrected data for UT-Austin, using Vedder’s productivity metrics of number of student credit hours and dollar amount of external research funding. He then divided the 4,068 UT-Austin faculty members he surveyed into colorfully titled categories, ranging from "Dodgers" and "Coasters" at the bottom among the least productive through "Sherpas," the cheap non-tenure-track faculty who carry heavy teaching loads up the academic Himalayas so that tenure-trackers can relax, and, at the very top the "Stars" who both teach large courses and receive large grants. Out of the 4,068 faculty members at UT-Austin whose teaching loads and research dollars O’Donnell surveyed, 3,028 turned out to be Dodgers or Coasters.
O’Donnell’s latest analysis sounds tendentious, but something clearly is wrong. In an article accompanying the results of the CFO survey, the Chronicle of Higher Education published some vignettes from the lives of UT-system faculty. One was Pamela S. Gossin, a $72,000-a-year arts and humanities professor at UT-Dallas. Gossin reported that she lived a four-hour commute from her campus, in Norman, Oklahoma, and that she spent only two and a half working days in Dallas (from 11:30 a.m. on Monday to 4 p.m. on Wednesday). She insisted, however, that she worked a seven-day week, although what she listed as work included arranging a summer camp for her 12-year-old daughter (so as to free herself up for a research project) and reading a report on campus anti-Semitism from the American Association of University Professors.
One of the major reasons why faculty members, especially in the humanities, are so hostile to any suggestion that they could improve their productivity by teaching more classes is that they already deem themselves highly productive based on the shelves of research papers and scholarly books they turn out, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at a private R1, Emory University in Atlanta and a frequent blogger for Minding the Campus. "They have a deep psychological investment in what they’re doing," Bauerlein said. "They’ve spent their twenties and thirties writing that book, and it becomes part of their identity. They don’t realize that the world doesn’t need yet one more interpretation of ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ They’ve confused hyper-productivity with value." They are also egged on by their departments, which tend to demand ever longer publication records—two scholarly books instead of one, for example—as a condition of granting tenure or even onto the tenure track in the first place. The merry-go-round of frenetically publishing little-read articles won’t stop, said Bauerlein, until a highly prestigious R1 university—such as Harvard—changes the culture by deciding that one solid article is enough for tenure. "That’s the way it used to be," said Bauerlein. "Paul de Man never wrote a book, and he was at Yale. His books are just collections of his essays."
Rick O’Donnell may be gone from the UT system, but his focus on the productivity of expensive faculty has clearly struck a nerve. Randy Diehl, for example, posted on UT-Austin’s College of Liberal Arts website a lengthy riposte to Sandefer’s calling seven solutions—even though Sandefer and his solutions have not been a live issue for three years. Sandefer’s proposal—echoed by O’Donnell, Vedder, and Publius Audax—that professors justify their value by taking on huge teaching loads may be simplistic, but it may not be too much to ask them to justify their value in other ways. A list of UT-Austin employee salaries (including those of professors) recently released at the request of the Austin Statesman-American revealed that the campus’s highest-paid employee is Mack Brown, head coach of the football team, who makes $5.2 million a year, more than eight times as much as UT-Austin’s president, William Powers. And why not? Longhorns football pulls in $94 million a year. UT-Austin’s highest-paid professor is the Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg, with a $531,000 salary for teaching, at least this year, a single undergraduate class on the history of physics from the Greeks to string theory. Again, if Diehl is correct, Weinberg pays for himself by attracting first-rate physicists to his department. Why not expect the French professor who may attract only six students to his graduate seminar on Rimbaud to add his own version of value by leading a summer-abroad program in Paris instead of slaving over yet another journal article?
In my telephone interview with Diehl, he said, "Defending our R1 status is extremely important for the state of Texas. It’s important for our students to have access to that kind of education. California has nine R1 universities, and New York has seven. We have just three, and if we lost our two public universities, we would have only Rice, where the tuition is $50,000 a year. Ninety percent of our students are from Texas, and when they come here, they’re working with world-class scholars." That is an eloquent argument, but R1 status, the prestige it confers, and the professors whose lifestyle it supports are expensive. And without at lease a few reforms, the taxpayers who support public R1s may decide that they’re best left to the private sector after all.