Saturday, April 30, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part IV

This is the fourth part of my commentary on the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough Solutions" and their application to Texas A&M. (The first three parts are here, here, and here.) This post deals with Solution 3, which proposes to separate teaching and research in state universities funding and operations.

The stated goal of Solution 3 is:
Breakthrough Solution #3 establishes separate budgeting and reward systems for teaching and research, making it possible to reward exceptional individuals in each area.

Recognizing and rewarding extraordinary performance will not only attract the best and brightest students, teachers and researchers, but also encourage more transparency and accountability by eliminating inefficiencies and hidden crosssubsidies.
However, the Solution is actually much broader than it seems at first. The aim of the proposal is not simply to create separate ledgers for teaching and research at state universities. Its goal is to separate teaching from research by separating those who teach from those who research.

Here is how the Solution is to be carried out:
This reform would establish separate budgets and reward systems for teaching and research faculty, while preserving the option for faculty who are excellent teachers and productive researchers to
continue to do both.

1. Separate budgets and reward systems will be created to pay teachers to teach and to pay researchers to conduct valuable research.

Teachers will be paid based on the number of students taught with a significant bonus based on customer (student) satisfaction. Limits on the number of A’s and B’s will discourage grade inflation. Researchers will be paid based on the sponsored research dollars they attract from government, business and private donors.

2. Faculty with tenure would have the option of shifting to the new, more lucrative reward system but would not be required to do so.

No currently-tenured faculty member will have their annual compensation reduced as a result of the new compensation plan.

3. Departmental and college budgets would be based on the number of students taught and sponsored research dollars.

Departmental and college budgets will be based on the number of students taught and sponsored research funding attracted, with a significant bonus based on student satisfaction. Administrative funds will be set as a certain percentage of the total budget. Total university-wide budgets will be expected to remain at or near current levels, at least until efficiency gains appear.

4. Encourage a culture shift to performance pay.

Parking and offices will be assigned based on performance. Only faculty electing to participate under the new system would be eligible to serve in institution leadership positions.
The proposal really has two parts. The first part  is oriented around bifurcating the faculty into "teachers" and "researchers" and then paying teachers by the head and rewarding researchers based on the amount of sponsored research dollars won. The second part deals with changing academic culture, for lack of a better term, by linking compensation (monetary and otherwise) more clearly to tangible outputs.

I have previously discussed the pitfalls of focusing on head counts to evaluate teaching "productivity." I still think the built-in preference for teaching large numbers of students is awful:
Big (profitable) lecture courses have their place in higher education.  The instructor can transmit information and ideas to large numbers of students and be around as a resource to answer questions, advise, deal with current events, etc.  However, the size of those courses makes it impossible to provide much attention to individual students or their work.  Teaching a smaller course, I can meet with each student individually outside of class to discuss the readings and lectures, go over term paper ideas, review outlines and read drafts of written work, go over old exams, discuss prospective tests, etc.  That is physically impossible in a larger class.

The point is, larger classes offer higher numbers of less dense faculty-student interaction; smaller courses offer a smaller number of more dense interactions.  At the level of the student, much more teaching is packed into the average small course than the average large course. Lumping the high density teaching and low density teaching together in a faculty cost analysis is unreasonable and relies on an illusion created by the fact that the university charges students the same tuition for large courses and small courses.  We overcharge for big courses on a student-hour basis and undercharge for small courses.  In essence, the big courses subsidize the small courses.  If we unbundled the two, charging a lower rate for big courses and a higher rate for smaller courses, then the "value" of faculty who principally teach smaller courses would look much more like the "value" of faculty who principally teach large courses than it does with the lumped pricing structure in place.
I don't have much to add on that front.

My specific concern about Solution 3 is that its implicit assumption that teaching can and should be separated from research is incorrect.

Scholarly research in a university setting serves at least three purposes: generating new knowledge, facilitating and structuring professors' engagement with their field, and providing signals about faculty quality. A university that supports faculty research will, in general, provide higher quality education to its students than a university that does not as a function of these three benefits of the research endeavor. First, students at research universities have the opportunity to learn about cutting edge research---new finding and insights that won't work their way through academic books and journals for many months or years (or more) to come. Second, active scholars must be constantly engaged with their fields of study to keep their own scholarship relevant. Students reap positive externalities from this engagement by learning from those who are constantly critically reviewing and building upon the latest theories and evidence in their area of expertise. Lastly, research productivity is a signal about one's command of his or her field. On average, a productive scholar has a greater command of his or her area of expertise than someone who merely consumes and attempts to retransmit the work of others. By basing tenure and promotion decisions on research productivity and impact, universities are retaining and elevating those who have the most to offer as teachers.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation's representatives and publications, however, make academic research sound like a bunch of worthless busywork. TPPF Senior Fellow Ronald Trowbridge's recent column in the Texas Tribune  is typical in this respect:
A recent study issued by the American Enterprise Institute reveals, for example, that from 1980 to 2006, 21,674 scholarly articles were published on Shakespeare. Do we need the 21,675th?
So, do we really need the 21,675th article about Shakespeare?

21,674 articles over 26 years is an average of roughly 833 articles per year. Though some scholars of William Shakespeare's work are surely more productive than others, let's say that, on average, each is producing one article every two years, i.e. there are something like 1,600 people that we might reasonably classify as active Shakespeare scholars. That sounds like a lot of people, but consider that there are roughly 4,600 colleges and universities (including community colleges and specialized institutions) in the United States according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. If those 1,600 scholars of Shakespeare are spread out evenly, about two thirds of colleges and universities in this country will have no one on their faculties who could reasonably be considered an active scholar of William Shakespeare.

Of course, the reality is much more skewed. Some scholars are producing much more than one article every two years and some universities have much more than one active Shakespeare scholar. All of a sudden, the statistic of 21,674 Shakespeare articles translates into a handful of institutions, representing the tiniest fraction of higher education in the United States. Indeed, of the 4,600 American colleges and universities only 108 (2.3%) are classified by the Carnegie Foundation as "Research Universities--Very High Research Activity." That means, in general, if you want to go to college and take a class on the work of William Shakespeare from someone who is a scholar of Shakespeare---someone whose job is to intensely read, analyze, understand, and explicate his work, and someone who does that job well enough to produce original research on Shakespeare of sufficient insight and quality as to survive the peer review process and become published---you have about 100 choices of institutions to attend, including the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station.

Do we need the 21,675th article about Shakespeare? Maybe; maybe not. Who knows when genius will strike and someone will be able to share the next great revelation about Shakespeare? That's why we call it research, because we don't know how it will turn out.

However, I do know that we---as a state, nation, and civilization---need people who *understand* Shakespeare and care to teach his work to our best and brightest, just as we need people who understand American government, ancient philosophy, social psychology, engineering, physics, mathematics, and all manner of human knowledge and wisdom. I also know that understanding comes from research; not only from research, and not definitely from research, but uniquely and often enough to justify scholarly research as a companion to university teaching.

Of course, colleges focused more exclusively on teaching have some advantages. Faculty may devote themselves and their time more completely to teaching. Courses are taught more often. And, as a result, the things that are taught are sometimes taught more artfully than those at a more research-intensive institution. Faculty also often have more time to devote to advising students.

It is silly to ask which is better. The American university system and the state of Texas need both to fulfill the diverse needs of their students and citizens. Some students are best served by a research university and others are best served by a teaching college. We need Lone Star College, Sam Houston State University, the University of North Texas, and Texas A&M University to meet the demands of students ranging from remedial, technical, and vocational courses through supervised student research.

As TPPF and others have pointed out, though, research and its positive externalities come at a price. It is more expensive to operate a research university than a teaching college. A research university professor must divide his or her time between scholarship and teaching, which means fewer classes taught (though not necessarily fewer students per class) per faculty member than at an institution at which faculty only teach. Also, market wages for successful scholars are higher than those who are not active researchers. It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether the benefits of a research university are large enough to justify its marginal costs to the state.

One way to look at the problem is a direct economic impact analysis. Texas A&M University's President R. Bowen Loftin has written an editorial published in several prominent newspapers across the state state pointing out the positive return on the state spending for Texas A&M. Likewise, economist Richard Florida and his colleagues have documented the close association between research universities and regional economic development. This association is based on universities ability to develop and catalyze technological development, to attract and retain talent (both in terms of matriculating students and parents who move to have access to high-quality public universities for their children), and to promote tolerance and diversity. In this respects, the benefits to Texas for operating internationally prominent research universities are clear and dramatic.

Another way is to evaluate the quality of the value added to our students. Though, as I have discussed elsewhere in this series, there is much room for improvement in measuring learning at Texas A&M, most indications are that this university does an excellent job of preparing its students for careers, citizenship, and public service:
For example, the Wall Street Journal ranks Texas A&M as the second best university in the nation in terms of preparing students for employment (based on a survey of professional recruiters), and  Washington Monthly ranks Texas A&M second in the nation in terms of the university's service to the nation and the community (based on students' participation in ROTC, the Peace Corps, and community service)---not to mention Texas A&M's strong performance in reputation-based rankings like those reported by the NRC and US News and World Report.
A final way to look at the problem is less systematic, but perhaps more powerful. It is hopelessly subjective and even a bit hokey, but quite simply, Texans deserve a chance to send their children to great public research universities. The University of Texas and Texas A&M draw people to Texas and keep people here. They are both mechanisms and symbols of opportunity and progress. As long as UT-Austin, Texas A&M, and the other research intensive public universities in Texas exist in something like there present form, I have a practical vision of how to help them achieve whatever they want right here in this state. If those institutions go away, that vision---and the the attachments that go with it---go away.

I know what a second-rate university system does. I left Tennessee after high school, in part, because the academic reputation of the University of Tennessee was so mediocre. I haven't lived in Tennessee since. Many of the best and brightest of my high school class also went to college out-of-state, and most have yet to return. It's not that UT-Knoxville was or is bad in any particular way---it just wasn't great, and great states with great futures have great universities.

Separating research from teaching at the state's flagship universities will undermine undergraduate education and ruin at least two of the great institutions that are helping Texas lead the nation and the world into the new century.

The second element of Solution 3---creating a culture of performance and responsibility among university faculty---is completely welcome. The bit about offices and parking spaces is a bit silly---there is almost no difference between the good faculty offices and the bad faculty offices, and it is rarely worth it to haul half a ton of books fifty feet down the hall to nab an extra 20 square feet. However, attaching bonuses or pay raises to measurable learning outcomes, specific scholarly products, etc. is not a bad idea. People respond to incentives, and money on the table is the best kind of incentive. I have some concerns about how teaching quality is measured, for example, but those are practical, nor principled, objections, and I am open to a wide-ranging discussion about what dimensions of "performance" would be most valued, how those things should be be measured, and how to structure compensation packages to encourage them.

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