How Not to Measure Faculty Productivity

Randy Enos for The Chronicle

December 07, 2011

Measuring and managing faculty productivity has become one of the most significant and controversial policy issues in higher education, not only within universities but also within state governments.

A recent survey revealed that many chief financial officers in academe favor raising faculty teaching loads and eliminating tenure as key ways to better manage institutional resources. The governors of Texas and Florida have advocated for increased efforts to measure faculty productivity and to promote teaching at the expense of research. And this year Utah state lawmakers considered a bill that would eliminate tenure at the state's public universities and replace it with performance-based evaluation.

The most recent entry into the faculty productivity debates is a newly released report, "Literary Research: Costs and Impact," written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, and released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. The study's stated goal was to introduce empirical evidence to the discussions under way about faculty productivity in the humanities by examining the costs of research in four English departments and then juxtaposing those costs with the numbers of citations of works published by faculty members in those departments.

I agree that recent discussions about faculty productivity have been short of useful empirical data, but the center's study is deeply flawed and, therefore, contributes little to the debate. In fact, several of the mistaken assumptions made in the study are representative of misapprehensions repeated in other discussions on the subject.

Briefly, the study assumed that a third of a professor's salary is the amount the institution invests in that scholar's research. The study simply takes the department's salary budget, subtracts the salaries of lecturers, instructors, and creative writers, and excludes administrative and supplemental pay. A third of the remaining budget is deemed to be the department's total investment in research.

As might be expected, the study then determines that most of the works published by faculty members in the four departments were rarely cited in professional literature. The report's conclusion: Universities are squandering their money by supporting research that has "little consequence" when that money could be invested in teaching and other areas.

As with too many discussions of faculty productivity, the Bauerlein study does not look at the entire picture. If you are going to judge the relative worth of humanities research—or any research, for that matter—you have to examine the entire context.

An English department in a research university might employ 50 tenure-track faculty members—the most productive of whom have reduced course loads. But just adding up a third of their salaries gives you an incomplete picture. That same department might have 10 lecturers or instructors, all with expanded course loads. It may also have a large cadre of graduate teaching assistants, all teaching their own courses. If managed correctly by the department leadership and the dean, and monitored regularly by the provost, the collective course offerings of the department should be more than ample to cover its teaching obligations, which include the courses in its degree programs as well as its general-education requirements.

In a well-managed department at a research university, the faculty members typically have a variable course load, based on their research productivity. If the base-line standard load is teaching three courses a semester (as is the case at many universities), faculty members who are moderately productive in terms of their research might, in fact, have a "3-3 load" (teaching three courses each semester), while faculty members who are more productive in their scholarship would have a load of 2-3, 2-2, or less. Professors who have completely given up on research might be assigned a "4-4 load," or four courses each semester. The department's leadership has the obligation—often with the assistance of a faculty committee and established criteria—to make judgments about teaching assignments for a given academic year.

In effect, instructors, lecturers, graduate students, and nonresearch faculty members subsidize the reduced teaching schedule of productive, "research active" scholars. And, I might add, "research active" includes, in the case of English departments, those faculty members in creative writing, since their equivalent to research is the production of creative works. Arbitrarily omitting them from the assessment of departmental productivity, as Bauerlein did, further skews the evaluation.

What's more, a well-managed department will also continually monitor its curriculum to eliminate unnecessary course requirements and underperforming programs so as to ease the collective burden on the department. It will seek to keep its curricular commitments to the minimum necessary to serve its constituents well—but no more. Keeping unnecessary requirements and outdated programs on the books only adds to the collective workload.

The bottom line is that an efficient department is able to manage its curricular obligations while providing sufficient time for scholars to conduct their research and creative activities. Now Bauerlein might reply, "Yes, but if faculty were only teaching, then you could manage the entire enterprise for less money; you would no longer need to employ the lecturers and instructors." True. However, the assumption underlying that response and several of the recent discussions of faculty productivity is that the job of university professor is equivalent to the job of teacher, but that is simply not the case at a university.

As Bauerlein himself points out in his report, all you need to do is examine any university's faculty handbook or official tenure guidelines. You will find language that clearly specifies that, for promotion and tenure, faculty are expected to contribute to knowledge in their disciplines, usually in the form of publications or creative work. Bauerlein wants to dismiss the scholarship that is cited rarely, but that is shortsighted. A professor's research agenda—in the humanities or not—is typically a succession of studies in a given area. Works early in that succession might not receive as much attention as works completed later on in the process, but that does not make the earlier research "of little consequence." It may simply indicate that the earlier efforts are part of the larger project the researcher is working through.

Also, a simple citation count can be misleading. I can publish an article in which I make some outlandish claims, and that may well garner many citations as other scholars attempt to refute my statements. But someone else's article that attracts many fewer citations may actually be more useful to work in a particular subfield.

Besides, the research tradition in academe has always been to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Often a scholar has no obvious endpoint in mind when he or she embarks on a particular project but may unexpectedly make a monumental discovery.

We cannot predict ahead of time if someone's research project will be so important that it will win the Nobel Prize, or the Pulitzer Prize, so it would be counterproductive to determine in advance that scholars in any given area should not be conducting research and instead should be teaching more. That applies to every discipline, including those in the sciences.

Discussions of faculty productivity have got to become more sophisticated for this debate to lead to any sensible conclusions. Examinations of one aspect of productivity—independent of its larger context—are, well, of little consequence.

Gary A. Olson recently stepped down from the position of provost at Idaho State University. He is on leave until January. He is the editor, with John Presley, of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders," newly released in paperback (Paradigm). He can be contacted at