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Academic Accountability, Texas Style

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Wall Street Journal expanded their Saturday arts and culture coverage earlier in the month, splitting the old weekend section in two. Review has a vastly-enlarged pullout books section plus coverage of science, commerce, politics, language, technology, art, and ideas. Off Duty treats food and wine, travel, fashion and design. Yesterday’s Review section led off with a two-page cover story on measuring accountability of faculty members at public universities. Texas is leading the way.

Carol Johnson took the podium of a lecture hall one recent morning to walk 79 students enrolled in an introductory biology course through diffusion, osmosis and the phospholipid bilayer of cell membranes.

A senior lecturer, Ms. Johnson has taught this class for years. Only recently, though, have administrators sought to quantify whether she is giving the taxpayers of Texas their money’s worth.

Chester Dunning, a history professor, has won several teaching awards. According to a report by the chancellor, he also loses money for the university, though his department is in the black overall.

A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

Ms. Johnson came out very much in the black; in the period analyzed—fiscal year 2009—she netted the public university $279,617. Some of her colleagues weren’t nearly so profitable. Newly hired assistant professor Charles Criscione, for instance, spent much of the year setting up a lab to research parasite genetics and ended up $45,305 in the red.

This is extraordinary, attaching a dollar amount to each faculty member in order to measure the member’s worth. As noted in the next sentence, faculty members called the sheet “misleading, simplistic and crass.” That sounds about right. Yet, as further discussed in the article, there has for years been a growing insistence by state legislators and other constituencies that public universities account for their productivity, in parallel with shrinkage of support for state universities, as measured either in real dollars or, more dramatically, in percentage of state expenditures.

Any effort at numerical measurement of faculty worth is inevitably going to be misleading and simplistic. On the teaching side, how does one measure a faculty member’s impact on students in the long term? Student teaching evaluations have many failings, but at the least, they are short term, not allowing students to look back and recognize the strength or weakness of a course based on how it helped them with later courses, careers, or well lived lives. In the context of a major research university such as mine, it is tempting to measure research productivity in terms of grant funds received. This has some value, but it has the weakness of putting the cart before the horse. Measuring research by the funds generated is like measuring a restaurant by how expensive its food is. Well, that may not be the best analogy, but the underlying point is that you can’t measure quality by cost alone. I don’t deny that some attempt must be made to measure quality. A single number isn’t likely to do it though.

In any case, if one were to measure research quality by grant funds, one would have to take into account disciplinary norms, and university administrators do exactly that. Which is fine for subjects with significant research funding, such as physical and biological sciences. At the other extreme, how does one measure the quality and impact of creative work in arts and humanities? Some people won’t have a problem answering this: to them, it’s a waste, not worth support from state (or federal) governments. I would happily argue against this view, but not here. Instead, let me conclude with the closing paragraphs of the WSJ article.

The concept of a productivity spreadsheet came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that Gov. Rick Perry invited to a state university summit in May 2008. The group suggested several reforms with a common theme: Let taxpayers see what’s going on at every public institution—and let them decide what’s worth subsidizing.

Bill Peacock, a vice president at the foundation, acknowledges that this approach could mean a radical reshaping of academia, with far more emphasis on filling students with practical information and less on intellectual pursuits, especially in the liberal arts.

That’s OK by him. “Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Mr. Peacock says, should decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”

When the choice is put that bluntly, Chester Dunning, a history professor at Texas A&M, wonders if he’d pass muster. Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

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