Friday, September 03, 2010

This won't end well, because it's blindingly idiotic.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, my Texas A&M colleagues up the road in College Station now get the privilege of being evaluated based on their bottom-line "financial value" to the university.  Take how much money the professor brings in (including some $ from tuition of the number of students taught), subtract their salary, and there you go.  This raises problematic points that should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.  First, I guess it sucks to be in the humanities and social sciences - you almost certainly have negative value in this ranking. Congratulations, you leeches who take salary and don't bring in big research funding!  Second, it firmly establishes that the service contributions of faculty to the university are worthless in this ranking scheme.  Third, it establishes that the only measure of your educational contribution is how many students you teach - purely quantity, so if you teach large intro classes you're somehow valuable, but if you teach smaller upper division courses, you're less valuable.  Gee, that's not simplistic at all.  Now, the article doesn't actually say how these rankings will be used, but I'm having a hard time imagining ways that this metric is a good idea.


Schlupp said...

Impressive. Truly impressive.

I take it that Texas A&M is going to give up its not-for-profit status and is going to pay normal taxes like any other company? Because all that talk about "bottom-line" clearly implies as much, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

At least they aren't getting rid of the tenure system or something silly like that. Also, how is this explicit use of fund/grant metric different from what already goes on with tenure status everywhere? This is explicit, but we all know it goes on in almost every university even if it isn't explicit.

You have to understand officials at A&M are under huge pressure from the conservatives and talk radio types to do something for "accountability" in higher education. My guess is that this metric will only be used in a limited manner -- they aren't that stupid.

Doug Natelson said...

Anon. - One reason I think this is particularly painfully dumb is that sets in stone a comparison of apples and oranges. In research-heavy fields, it is generally true that people who raise more grant money are often perceived as more valuable in a raw research sense. It's already dubious to use research dollars as a sole metric for the value of research scholarship - we all know that citations/impact on the field should matter, independent of dollars, right? However, it's absolutely insane to use research dollars as a metric for the value of scholarship in something like art history or music or philosophy. Yes, I do understand that the political pressures at work at A&M (and to a lesser degree UT) from the right wing here, and I sincerely hope you're right that the higher-ups aren't that stupid. Given what's happened with the state board of education under Perry, I don't have tremendous faith in that direction, though.

Massimo said...

Why am I not surprised... but we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that this is only happening in TX.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute Doug. You mean you thought universities didn't already factor in how much cash someone brings in? Why else would some professors have drastically out of proportion salaries?

Scott said...

Wouldn't it be better if A&M implemented a NCLB approach? I.e., give out standardized tests in arts and sciences and judge professors this way? Afterall, if the primary purpose of a university is education, then wouldn't an educational measure be most appropriate for determining which professors should be retained?

Oh and they *will* include how much money is generated from teaching ( So arts & history professors just need to encourage more students to take their classes and then they will be bringing in more money. This sounds like it kinda works: the popular teachers will have a higher "bottom-line" than the unpopular teachers.

I think the bottom-line on this discussion, though, is whether or not professors should be held accountable in some way. I.e., should unproductive and unpopular professors be allowed free range, or should they be held accountable and "booted" because they aren't producing papers, taking on graduate students, and are not teaching classes (because no one wants to have them as a teacher)? I say yes.

Doug Natelson said...

The point, anon.@11:17, is not that universities don't already have some means of evaluating faculty members. The point is, it's ridiculous to use a single numerical ranking based on research funds and number of students taught to, e.g., set salaries, because of enormous differences between fields. Sure, you could make an argument that all other things being equal, people who teach smaller classes are "less valuable" than those who teach large intro classes, but that would be incredibly shortsighted. SOMEONE has to teach the smaller classes, unless you want to make the argument that only large courses are worth the expense of an instructor.

Scott, assessment is already a huge buzzword on university campuses. It's really not a trivial thing to measure the effectiveness of teaching. The issue isn't whether or not students are learning; the issue is whether students are learning more than some baseline level that would have been achieved by, e.g., buying and reading the book on their own.

We can have a long discussion about accountability if you want to. I'm all in favor of some accountability, and I don't know a single faculty member anywhere who is opposed, provided you properly define the metrics. The free market already works on this - faculty in demand somewhere else tend to get raises and resources. In the matter at hand, the question is, do you consider research dollars and class size alone to be good proxies for scholarly productivity? I don't.

Scott said...

I'm guessing another important factor to add into the metric would be research production. (And another still may be teaching evaluations.) But of course this is also hard to quantify because in some fields it is customary to publish at a fast rate and in others at a slow rate. But there are metrics out there, such as measuring citations and normalizing by paper production and whatnot. (And I'm guessing these are used by some Universities.)

Would I be correct to assume that you'd say valuable research isn't synonymous with large research grants? But on the flip side, isn't a faculty member who is bringing in large amounts of money (and therefore paying a large numeric amount of overhead) more valuable to the University because the University can then expand and hire more people? Shouldn't this be valued?

I'm thinking this may come down to a fundamental distinction about the purpose of a University: is a University about education or research? If it's education then research dollars aren't important and if it's about research then most small classes (i.e., upper division and graduate) should be canceled. Clearly it's not one or the other but both.

Could there be a different metric for different departments? Would this be fair?