Wednesday, May 25, 2011

80% of UT-Austin Faculty Are Not Bums

Yesterday, I wrote about a report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) which asserts that the distribution of teaching duties at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) are substantially skewed. Its authors write:
The data reveal a profoundly sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members. The top quintile (20 percent) of the faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours. Conversely, the bottom quintile teaches only 2% of all student credit hours...
Since the power went out in my office this morning, and I have set-up for a working lunch at McDonald’s my ADD demanded that I revisit the issue by actually downloading the UT faculty data and having a look at the numbers myself.

A quick analysis---dollar menu fries at hand---of the preliminary data reported by UT indicates that report’s conclusions are a bit misleading. In particular, the CCAP analysis makes few allowances for the part-time status of many faculty members at UT and likely differences in the sizes of introductory and advanced courses in assessing teaching productivity. It similarly errs in the evaluation of research productivity. Indeed, observations about the likely distribution of faculty employment status, teaching loads, and class sizes cast serious doubt on the advisability and feasibility of potential savings advocated by CCAP through a restructuring of assigned teaching duties at UT.

First, a substantial portion of the faculty at UT are appointed on a part-time basis. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of UT’s faculty were employed on less than a full-time basis (i.e. employed at less than 100% effort) by the university in the 2009-2010 academic year. About a third (33%) were employed half-time (50% effort) or less, and 12% were employed at 25% of full-time effort or less. As one might suspect, these part-time faculty members are substantially over-represented among the ranks of individuals with relatively small cumulative teaching responsibilities.  (Here, the percentage of effort employed is a “Faculty member's percent of time in relation to a full or normal workload, summed and averaged across long semesters [fall 2009 and spring 2010)]” reported in the UT data as “Average Percent Appointment.”)

The following table (Table 1) illustrates the relationship between employment status and relative teaching output in terms of total student credit hours. Each row represents a quintile (or fifth) of the 4,200 professors and other instructors for whom UT reported teaching data. Each quintile includes 840 faculty members. The columns provide information on faculty employment status as a percentage of full-time effort. Reading down the first column of statistics, for example, indicates the percentage of each productivity quintile that is appointed for 25% or less of a normal, fulltime workload (essentially quarter-time or less employees).

Nearly two-fifths (39%) of the least productive quintile of faculty members are employed at 25% effort or less. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the least productive quintile are employed at 50% effort or less. Conversely, the most productive faculty are overwhelmingly those who hold full-time (75-100% effort) appointments. More than 85% of the most productive faculty have full-time appointments. Likewise, nearly three-quarters (73%) of faculty with full-time (at least 75% effort) are in the top three productivity quintiles.

[It is also worth noting here that nearly all tenured (95%) and tenure-track (92%) professors have fulltime (at least 75%) appointments and that the large majority of professors with full-time appointments are tenured or tenure-track professor (62%). The remaining faculty members with full-time appointments are likely to be full-time lecturers---individuals with terminal degrees in their field (e.g. a Ph.D.) who effectively work for the university as full-time teachers rather than splitting time between teaching, research, and service.]

The relationship between employment status and teaching productivity is further evident in the average (mean and median) student credit hours produced by members of each employment status cohort. These are reported in Table 2. Full-time faculty and half-time faculty (who I suspect, but do not know, generally have the same teaching load as full-time faculty without similar research or service obligations) typically teach comparable numbers of student credit hours. Faculty members appointed for less than half-time, however, typically produce substantially fewer total student credit hours. These figures make it clear that much of the discrepancy in teaching duties identified in the CCAP report is simply a function of lumping full-time faculty together with part-time faculty.

The differences in the mean and median values of the total student hours taught by various groups of faculty suggest a further explanation for the discrepancies identified by the CCAP report: a skewed distribution of class sizes. This skewness is likely to arise from a pattern of teaching assignments in which some faculty members teach introductory courses---which,  many fields, often enroll hundreds of students in any given section--- while others teach more intensive, advanced courses---which, in contrast, often only enroll 35 or fewer students. So, a three hour introductory course with 300 students will produce 900 credit hours, while a three hour advanced course with 30 students will produce only 90.

Yet, it is a serious mistake to presume that the former represents ten times as much work or educational value as the latter. Surely, the instructor of an introductory course may effectively convey basic information on a given subject to a large number of students, but it would be impossible for him or her to supervise laboratory sessions or independent research projects, carefully evaluate extensive written work, or otherwise closely monitor and engage such a large group of students. Though UT’s data provide no indicator of the level of undergraduate instruction represented by its count of student credit hours, it is exceedingly likely that conclusions of substantial skewness in teaching duties rely, in part, on a false equivalence between individual student credit hours in large introductory courses and small advanced courses. This false impression is exacerbated in the analysis of a single year of data, which is unlikely to reflect faculty members’ normal rotation between introductory and advanced courses over time.

Similarly, the seemingly inequitable distribution of teaching duties discussed by the CCAP report are further explained by some faculty’s attention to graduate studies.  About one-fifth (21%) of the faculty at UT taught only graduate and/or professional students in the 2009-2010 academic year. These faculty members produce about 60 student credit hours per year, on average, teaching class sections of about 12 students each. The plurality of these faculty members serve in the Law School (23%) and the College of Pharmacy (15%), which exclusively or predominantly offer graduate-level courses, which, by their nature, serve smaller sets of students engaged in advanced, intensive coursework.

The small amount of preliminary data provided by the University of Texas do not provide much basis for more fine-grained analysis of the distribution of teaching duties at the university. The data, for example, do not differentiate between credit hours taught in introductory courses and those taught in advanced courses, nor do they provide indicators of class sizes or identify independent study courses, etc., in which a faculty member assumes (usually uncompensated) extra teaching responsibilities to supervise individual student research projects. Despite these limitations, though, it seems to me that the CCAP analysis is not the most obvious interpretation of the teaching data that are available.

The CCAP’s report is similarly misguided in its interpretation of UT’s faculty’s success in obtaining research funding. It is true that only 28% of all of UT’s faculty have won external research funding since 2006. However, a somewhat healthier 40% of fulltime (75% effort or more) faculty have been awarded research funds in that period. Among full-time faculty, these 40% of grantees are relatively evenly spread out among the top four quintiles of teaching productivity.

The CCAP’s report correctly notes substantial skewness in the size of the external research grants won. However, the report makes no mention of the reasonable difference in the necessity and availability of external research awards across disciplines. The average total external research awards made to faculty members in UT’s College of Natural Science and College of Pharmacy between 2006 and 2010 exceed $1 million. These grants typically support the establishment and maintenance of laboratory facilities and the purchase of costly equipment. Averaqe total grants to faculty in the College of Fine Arts, in contrast, are about $58,655 in the same period. Obviously, though, these grants support much less resource-dependent projects. The disparity in grant size is a function of the financial needs of the research being conducted and does not speak to the quality, industry, or value of individual faculty.

Looking at UT as a whole, as I read these data, the large majority of student hours at the University of Texas are taught by full-time faculty (at least 75% effort)---many of whom have won external grants to support their research and (though the data do not address the issue) many more of whom are nationally and internationally known scholars in their fields of expertise. Indeed, though full-time faculty are only about 62% of the instructors at UT, they “produced” nearly 78% of all student credit hours earned in the 2009-2010 academic year. Many of the remaining credit hours are taught by part-time faculty in graduate programs in law, pharmacy, and other professional fields who are often employed full-time in the private sector. Making some reasonable accounting for differences in total student credit hours produced by introductory undergraduate courses, advanced undergraduate courses, and graduate courses, it is very likely that the core research faculty at UT (i.e. those with tenured or tenure track positions) are undertaking substantial teaching duties, particularly in undergraduate programs.

Moreover, the data seem, to me, to argue strongly against the cost saving measures proposed in the CCAP report. SImply mandating that less productive faculty in terms of total student hours taught take on credit hour burdens commiserate with the most productive teaching faculty implies substantially expanding the size of advanced and graduate course enrollments and/or essentially turning many part-time instructors into full-time faculty. Leaving aside the questions of 1.) whether important fields of study like advanced mathematics can support large classes, 2.) the classroom facilities at UT could support a substantially larger number of high-enrollment classes, and 3.) the costs in terms of lost faculty research, the prospect of larger advanced and graduate courses stands to dilute the quality of teaching in those classes and up-end the ability of many valuable part-time instructors to teach at UT. While nontrivial cost savings could be achieved through the measures proposed by the CCAP, such reforms are likely to come at the expense of the scope and quality of education offered by the University of Texas or other similarly situated institutions. That may be a tradeoff the people of Texas are willing to make, but reducing faculty costs at UT are the the free lunch represented in the CCAP report.

Lastly, for what it's worth, I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections, feedback, etc. about this post. Higher education reform is a serious subject that deserves more serious attention than I was able to give it today. I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions I have made, and I look forward to refining this analysis moving ahead  as time permits.

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