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accountability debates in academia

I thought about making the title of this post, “the coming war in academia,” but I decided that would be too over-the-top. Nevertheless, there is a battle emerging in the state of Texas over the best way to measure the academic performance of professors. The public universities are in the trenches of this debate because they are partially funded by taxpayers who are starting to ask what good comes from public education.  If the state is going to spend millions of taxpayer money on public universities, the argument goes, there should be some tangible benefits that come from this investment. And the benefits, they would argue, should be produced in a more cost-effective way. From the public’s perspective, what we see instead of cost savings are rising tuition rates and unemployed graduates.

The solution? Increase professors’ accountability by making them justify their employment costs. If you can’t show improvements in test scores or other performance metrics, then make them show that they’re profitable for the institution. The most stark example of this practice comes from Texas A&M. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s reporting:

[P]erhaps the most far-reaching initiative is the cost-benefit balance sheet at Texas A&M, the oldest public university in the state. Each faculty member is assessed on criteria including the number of classes that they teach, the tuition that they bring in and research grants that they generate.One metric divides their salary by the number of students that they teach. The range is striking. Some nontenured lecturers earn less than $100 for each student they instruct. Other professors are teaching such small classes that their compensation works out to more than $10,000—in a few cases, more than $20,000—per student.

Mr. Criscione, the assistant professor studying parasites, came out at $23,563 per student. He says that is because he was setting up his lab and applying for grants most of that year, as is standard for new hires in the biology department, so he supervised just two students.

Faculty on the huge flagship campus, which serves 39,000 undergraduates here in east-central Texas, say some of the data on the spreadsheet are inaccurate, including inflated salaries and missing grants. They also say it’s unfair to judge their productivity by class size when they often can’t pick what they teach but are assigned by their department heads.

And they point out that the data do not take into account the many hours spent preparing lectures, advising students, serving on curriculum review committees or making other contributions to the college community. “A 50-minute lecture takes me two days to prepare,” says Mr. Criscione. “There are 24 lectures in a semester, so you do the math.”

Is this the inevitable result of the customer-centric model of the university? Combine that with the rising tide of dissatisfaction with state governments’ use of resources, and you have a perfect storm for this sort of thing.  I think in the long run state budget crises will be resolved and taxpayers will become less angry, but in the short term public universities are under enormous pressure to show accountability. These short term pressures may have lasting effects on academia and may significantly alter public education in the U.S.

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Written by brayden king

October 28, 2010 at 10:47 pm

3 Responses

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  1. “A 50 minute lecture takes two days to prepare”? Sorry to send up a flare here, but that is insane.

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    Jenn Lena

    October 29, 2010 at 12:49 am

  2. […] it seems that the solution may need to come from larger public investments in education, which is a double-edged sword in itself.  For the foreseeable future, it appears that we’ll need to revel in the non-monetary […]

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  3. If universities were serious about compensating professors based on profitability, they’d actually need to pay social sciences and humanities faculty more than physical/natural/health sciences faculty–as students pay the same tuition per credit hour but the costs of instruction are much lower for social science and humanities courses. See Delta Cost Project report on the University of Florida: http://www.deltacostproject.org/resources/pdf/johnson3-09_WP.pdf

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    Mikaila

    October 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm


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