Monday, May 30, 2011

From the Washington Post.

College Inc

Study: One-fifth of faculty does most of the work

Twenty percent of faculty at the University of Texas-Austin teach 57 percent of the student credit hours, according to a new study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity that attempts to build a case for inefficiency and waste in academia.
If the “bottom” 80 percent were as productive as the top 20 percent, the study concludes, the flagship Texas public university could cut its tuition in half. Or, the state could reduce its funding to the university by as much as 75 percent.
The study is likely to provoke outrage among those who suspect that college faculty positions are comparatively cushy, if it gains traction. And it’s likely to irk faculty associations, whose leaders contend that professors are a very hard-working and dedicated group, on the whole.


  1. I skimmed the report and let me see if I have this right. To be considered "productive" proffies need to teach a lot of student credit hours, and bring a lot of research dollars? Therefore the best way to be "productive" is to
    - teach large lecture classes with minimum feedback (2 scantron exams per semester, max)
    - make the lectures breezy and the exams easy (gotta keep them student evaluations up)
    - do the most expensive research you can, with the least efficient use of your grant as possible.

    These same authors will no doubt write their next reports on
    - how students haven't learned to think or write in those large classes, and
    - how grant applications all seem to be asking for money in excess of need (while avoiding inexpensive fields of research)


  2. I, too, skimmed, so I may be missing some details, but my impression is very similar to R&/or G's: their measures would favor proffies who run large lecture classes and large-overhead research projects. I'm not sure quite how, if at all, they're figuring in the TAs, lab assistants, administrative assistants, etc. who actually do much of the work for which these proffies are getting credit (and for which the individual proffies might well give credit where credit is due were they asked directly; I'm not denigrating this model of being a professor, just pointing out that it's one particular model, available/appropriate only to those in certain disciplines). Basically, they're working from a model of the professor as supervisor/at-least-middle manager, but not giving even lip service to crediting what I believe would be called, in the business world, the professor's "team." As long as that team is paid for by outside funds (or can be paid cheaply from within the university, in the case of student labor), all is well.

    Even with my 4/4 load, I probably wouldn't rate as very productive, since I teach a total of 90-100 students each semester. Mind you, I read 20+ pages of formal written prose, sometimes in multiple drafts, from each of those students, and spend many hours, in and out of the classroom, providing informal feedback on intermediate steps, but that's not "productive" because I'm focusing relatively intensively on relatively few students. Nor if I were, by some miracle, to keep up an active research program, would I be considered "productive" in that area, since my research doesn't bring in dollars to the university.

    And a tenure-track humanities professor on a 2/2 who spent a lot of time teaching undergrad and graduate seminars and supervising individual projects, or who mentored a whole flock of graduate TAs through the experience of planning and teaching their own sections of a course (rather than lecturing with the TAs running discussion sections), while also churning out books and articles at a steady pace, would count as even less productive than I.

    I ran into someone in the UT system recently, and he said that all the data that are currently being gathered (the same on which this report was based, I'm pretty sure) are ultimately being boiled down to a single rating number to be attached to each professor. Ridiculous -- and scary.

  3. Actually, I'm curious about this because at UT many (if not most) of the large lecture classes are taught by a grad student instructor who leads their own team of teaching assistants. Does that make them faculty? I couldn't figure it out in the brief scan I did of the report. The only way they hook in grad students to do that is by having top scholars who teach tiny seminars. So the most "productive" people (if they're counting AI's) are only there because of the "un-productive" people.

  4. I have to say, I'm really disappointed with the Post for publishing such an uncritical account of this report, even in a blog. I know it's common for publications to pick up and publish press releases more or less verbatim, but I expect better of the Post and its writers.

    I think Strelnikov might need to add a couple of DC stops to his summer tour. I hope he (and Archie, if he's now along for the ride) wasn't planning on getting a lot of research accomplished in the next few months.

  5. To be fair, DeVise is a blogger for the Post's education page.

  6. So basically, even though I'm working 16-hour days (including weekends: teaching 3-3-3;
    assigning and grading four essays a quarter, not counting quizzes and daily homework;
    conferencing with my ducklings on EACH of those essays;
    grading non-stop;
    serving on three committees;
    coordinating a program with no release time;
    publishing two articles and doing two conference presentations a year...
    teaching students how to think critically and represent themselves credibly on paper...
    ...according to this report, I am not productive...

    Yeah, this is total BS.

  7. @Darla: actually de Vise's beat is described as "the business behind the school," which may be part of the problem. Still, I'd expect him to have enough idea of how colleges actually work to notice some of the flaws in this thing. It isn't hard; there are holes a mile wide and deep in the methodology, and hence in the conclusions.

    @Cynic: indeed.

  8. I didn't feel that I was wrong, but I'll defer to your comment.

    Some bios I've read say this about what he is:

    Daniel de Vise is a higher education reporter at the Washington Post and author of the College Inc. blog. He has also worked as a journalist for 20 years, including stints at the Boca Raton News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, San Diego Union Tribune, and Miami Herald. He is a graduate of Wesleyan and Northwestern Universities.

    I'm sorry if I misrepresented his role or his blog.

  9. @Darla: sorry; I worded that more combatively than I meant it. "A blogger for the Post's education page" is, indeed, a perfectly accurate description of De Vise, as far as I can see (and you've done more research than I have). But the information you turned up makes me wonder all the more why he didn't do a bit more homework before posting a summary of a study with some very questionable premises that shows no awareness that I can see that the study might, in fact, be flawed. Maybe the blog format is different, but most blogs I see are more like opinion columns -- riffing in some way on any studies they mention -- than straight news stories. De Vise does a bit of that, opining about who will be upset by the study, but he doesn't seem to think about the study itself much at all; he just takes its results as equivalent to fact, which strikes me as the sort of approach to research I associate with my undergraduates, not a reporter with 20 years of experience under his belt.

    Or maybe I'm just angered enough by the study not to be reading carefully enough myself.

  10. A point of history: A favorite prof was a specialist in Comm and preached the dearth of journalists who actually understand science and research in general. This is why, unless a news outlet hired a nurse or doctor, health reporting is often next to useless because reporters often has little more than a cursory understanding of how that sort of research works and what it means.

    Unless someone digs up his past, it might be safe to assume de Vise is not trained well enough in academic research to be able to spot big gaping holes in a supposedly scientific study. Lord knows some fully trained academics often can't either.

    I am also puzzled by the fact that the actual Executive Report of the study uses the word "preliminary" throughout. Why even report on something that could be meaningless once a more thorough study is conducted? I checked, and de Vise does not even mention the "preliminary" nature of the study's results. Typical disingenuous reportage.


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