U. of Texas Says Faculty at Flagship Bring In Twice as Much Money as They Cost

November 13, 2011

Faculty members at the University of Texas's flagship campus here generate more than twice as much in revenue from research and teaching as they cost the state in salary and benefits, according to an analysis released on Sunday by the campus.

The report, "An Analysis of Faculty Instructional and Grant-Based Productivity at the University of Texas at Austin," was prepared by Marc A. Musick, associate dean for student affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Austin.

Mr. Musick, who is also a professor of sociology, described the 35-page report as a "careful and unbiased" analysis that barely scratches the surface of what professors do on a day-to-day basis.

"What the data show is that the faculty are extremely productive on average," he said during an interview here on Friday. "Professors generate more money in terms of research funding and teaching than they're paid, by a wide margin."

The report is the latest development in a continuing debate over faculty productivity and efficiency that at times has pitted university researchers against conservative critics who accuse universities of shortchanging students.

In May the University of Texas system released an 821-page spreadsheet, compiled at the request of system regents, that shows how much individual faculty members earn and how many courses and students they teach. Even though system officials cautioned that the material was in draft form, many faculty members immediately seized on mistakes in the report and said it should not have been publicly released. (The university had done so after a local newspaper filed an open-records request.) A few months later, the university released a set of slightly revised figures.

Groups that have questioned the value of much of the research that goes on in major universities pounced on that data. The Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, for example, concluded that 20 percent of the faculty at the Austin flagship taught 57 percent of the classes, and it argued that students would be better served if professors taught more.

A former adviser to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Rick O'Donnell, released his own analysis in July that labeled most faculty members at the state's flagship campuses as "dodgers" and "coasters" who rely on "sherpas" to carry the heavy teaching load. Mr. O'Donnell was fired in April after publicly accusing university and system officials of stonewalling when he requested data on faculty productivity.

Mr. Musick said previous analyses lumped together everyone who taught or advised students without distinguishing among graduate students, adjunct instructors, and tenured professors whose appointments carry varying degrees of teaching and research responsibilities.

Looking at the numbers without considering the instructors' ranks and appointments "leads to nonsensical results," the report notes.

Mr. Musick's report also examines semester hours that are weighted by the level and discipline of the course, which is the same way the state distributes its higher-education dollars. Courses that are more expensive or considered harder to teach, like upper-level laboratory and graduate-level courses, receive higher weights, and result in more money flowing to the university.

When ranks and weighted credit hours are considered, teaching activity is "fairly well-dispersed among the faculty," the study found.

'Perverse Incentives'

Critics zeroed in on the analysis's use of weighted semester hours.

Commenting on Sunday, Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said Texas isn’t alone in giving more weight, and more money, to graduate-level education. But Mr. Vedder, who is also a professor of economics at Ohio University, said such weighting creates “perverse incentives” to shortchange undergraduate education. "I think it is extraordinary that we decide we'll count a doctoral pharmacy student as being 29 times as important as a freshman majoring in history," he said, using an actual example from the Texas report.

Mr. O'Donnell, commenting by e-mail on Sunday after an initial review of Mr. Musick's report, said the main methodological difference between the university's analysis and his own was the emphasis on weighted credit hours.

"It's a bit like the banks during the financial scandal, when they wanted to claim assets had a higher price than 'mark to market' reality would show," Mr. O'Donnell wrote. "The higher-ed lobby believes producing Ph.D.'s is more important than teaching freshmen, so it applies a largely arbitrary formula to give extra weight to graduate courses, but that doesn't mean the faculty member in reality works harder or is more productive. They've put their thumb on the scale to favor the perceived productivity of the faculty's preferred activity—teaching a Ph.D. student."

Meanwhile, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of educators, alumni, and business leaders who have defended the university's priorities, issued a statement by Michael K. McLendon, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.

Mr. McLendon, who has linked with the coalition to study the mattter, said the Texas report "challenges myths that have been falsely alleged about the university's lack of a commitment to teaching. In fact, one of the most impressive findings of the report is that professors, rather than teaching assistants or adjuncts, at UT-Austin are responsible for the bulk of the teaching at this university."

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin whose controversial reform proposals have been at the center of much of the debate over faculty productivity, welcomed the report.

 “At a time when tuition has been rising for 20 years and middle-class families are stressed paying for higher education, it’s encouraging that UT is responding to concerns raised by taxpayers,” said Thomas K. Lindsay, the new director of the Center for Higher Education at the think tank. “If the foundation has played any role in expediting this, we’re grateful to have been a part of the process.” He said he would like to see an analysis of how the  Austin campus’s productivity measures compare with other public universities’.

Rebutting Misperceptions

Mr. Musick argues that faculty members work harder than statistical formulas can show. The university data "do not measure the many thousands of hours that faculty work each year to publish and keep abreast of their fields, supervise graduate and undergraduate students and their research, and serve on committees," he said.

Still, he said, his study's findings refute the widespread perception that professors at Texas and other major research universities spend most of their time holed up in their labs and advising graduate students while teaching assistants and adjunct professors do all of the undergraduate teaching.

Among his findings:

  • University of Texas faculty members produced about $558-million in revenue, combining teaching and external grants, while the compensation they received from state dollars amounted to $257-million during the 2009-10 academic year. The teaching revenue is calculated by the money the state allocates to universities per credit-hour of teaching.
  • Tenured and tenure-track faculty members make up 56.8 percent of the most-productive faculty members, measured by credit hours taught. Graduate students and nontenured faculty members represent 77.2 percent of those teaching the fewest semester credit hours.
  • The highest-paid faculty members generate the most money for the university. Those earning annual salaries of $175,000 or more cost the state $107-million but brought in $218-million in research grants and money from the state.
  • About 88 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in colleges with undergraduate students teach at least one undergraduate course.

The report goes on to caution that "although this data set can be of some use for understanding the university, it cannot be used in isolation without leading to wildly erroneous conclusions about productivity."

Mr. Musick recommended that future reports reflect the full value of faculty productivity, and not just classes taught and research dollars brought in.

He also said they should also recognize that professors in fields like natural sciences and engineering have access to federal organizations that distribute billions of dollars in grants, and professors in the humanities or fine arts generally do not.

The report also suggested strengthening mentorship opportunities for junior faculty members, the only group who brought in less money from the state and from external research grants than they were paid.

The analysis further recommended that the university provide better support and incentives for securing grants, noting that only 43 percent of faculty members had external research support. And it said productivity should be measured over several years, and not just as a snapshot of a single year.

Just how all of these data will play into new productivity measures the university is required to post online remains to be seen.

In August the system's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, announced a sweeping plan that calls on universities to create a "dashboard" of faculty productivity data.

Regents have favored a report that details professor-by-professor metrics, while faculty leaders and William Powers Jr., president of the Austin campus, have advocated a more flexible system that avoids the inflammatory and often unreliable reports on which professors are pulling their weight.

Mr. Musick said that applying the data he studied to individual professors "would be a waste of time," given the limitations of what it measures and the errors it is bound to include. But universities already evaluate the productivity of individual faculty members, he said. "It's called promotion and tenure, and post-tenure review."