How Do We Value Faculty?

How should the value of faculty be measured? How do we weigh the interests of academics, students, taxpayers, the community, and others in public education? Should “profit-and-loss” statements for individual faculty and departments be a factor?

Monopoly board

We’re talking money, so a Monopoly board is required. (BTW, what country is this board from? “Mayfair”? “Super Tax”?)

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported on efforts by Texas and other states to measure the value of faculty and academic departments at public universities. The Texas A&M system has gone so far as to create a massive spreadsheet detailing faculty members’ monetary value. Here’s how the Bryan-College Station Eagle describes the spreadsheet:

A several-inches thick document in the possession of A&M System officials contains three key pieces of information for every single faculty member in the 11-university system: their salary, how much external research funding they received and how much money they generated from teaching.

Photo credit: DavidDMuir via Flickr

As you might imagine, this is somewhat controversial. Back to the WSJ:

The balance sheet sparked an immediate uproar from faculty, who called it misleading, simplistic and crass—not to mention, riddled with errors. But the move here comes amid a national drive, backed by some on both the left and the right, to assess more rigorously what, exactly, public universities are doing with their students—and their tax dollars.

One of the common criticisms of budget-based systems for measuring academics is that research grants will rule the day. Humanities departments, for example, simply don’t receive the large research grants typical of science and engineering departments. The numbers pulled by the WSJ suggest that the humanities’ large number of tuition-paying students and low overhead costs might benefit them in this system (the WSJ shows Texas A&M’s English and history departments with a net profit of over $6 million, while aerospace engineering shows a deficit of $1.4 million). Writing in the Chronicle, Robert Watson argues that “The Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit”, based on numbers from California and other state systems.

However, Stanley Fish cautions against the humanities relying on these “bottom-line” numbers, because the humanities’ stream of income — tuition and state subsidies — is qualitatively different from grant income:

The key (and disastrous) variable, as Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, explains in a response to Watson in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the withdrawal by the states from the funding of higher education. Because the shrinking pool of state dollars does not cover salaries and other instructional costs and because the humanities “cannot count on heavy infusions of federal research dollars” as the sciences can (anywhere from $100 million to a billion), there is a shortfall the humanities have no way of making up. A chemistry professor whose salary is only partly financed by the state can go out and get federal dollars to pay the rest and more; a humanities professor can’t.

Like a poet writing a sonnet, Fish (a Milton scholar) introduces a volta in his argument: the justification for the humanities is that they need no justification.

Make a virtue of the fact that many programs of humanities research (and not only humanities research) have no discernible product, bring no measurable benefits, are not time-sensitive, may never reach fruition and (in some cases) are only understood by 500 people in the entire world. Explain what a university is and how its conventions of inquiry are not answerable to the demands we rightly make of industry. Turn an accusation — you guys don’t deliver anything we can recognize — into a banner and hold it aloft. (At least you’ll surprise them.)

My wife and I often use a similar argument when talking about arts education. We believe that justifications for the arts that are based on, say, theories about music education helping children learn math better, are fundamentally misguided. Yes, arts education has side benefits, but those are side benefits, not the primary justification. The justification for the arts is…the arts!

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that argument will work so well with politicians and administrators seeking a balanced budget.

How should the value of faculty be measured? How do we weigh the interests of academics, students, taxpayers, the community, and others in public education? Should “profit-and-loss” statements for individual faculty and departments be a factor?

For Further Reading

Stanley Fish, Crisis of the Humanities II, New York Times Opinionator Blog, October 18, 2010.

Vimal Patel, “A&M System grades faculty — by bottom line”, Bryan-College Station Eagle, September 1, 2010.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, “What Texas A&M’s Faculty Ratings Get Right — and Wrong”, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 7, 2010.

Stephanie Simon and Stephanie Banchero, “Putting a Price on Professors”, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2010.

Robert N. Watson, “Bottom line shows humanities really do make money”, UCLA Today, March 23, 2010.

Mark G. Yudof, “U. of California’s Problem Is Unreliable State Support” (Letter to the Editor), Chronicle of Higher Education, May 2, 2010.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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  • Kevin commented on October 26, 2010 Reply

    Every basic statistics course state that qualitative data should never be treated as quantitative. How does one measure the value of blue versus red? Consequently, the very question of how one measures the value of faculty is flawed and will lead to gross distortions of faculty work and our interactions with students. For instance, an intense mentoring relationship is not cost effective and produces a net monetary loss. Does that mean that such a relationship is not valuable. Maybe we should ask Plato about Socrates on that one.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on October 27, 2010 Reply

      Excellent point about mentoring. Two other problems I see:
      – Even if this kind of profit/loss exercise has value, using only a single year worth of data is next to useless.
      – In Texas A&M’s model, faculty are given credit for how many students they teach, but there are so many other factors that affect that number – Gen Ed requirements, enrollment numbers, whose turn it is to teach the 101 survey class. It’s not as though faculty are actively recruiting new students to come to the university and take their classes. (Though my understanding is that, in Augustine’s day, teachers were paid directly by their students, so to make a career as a teacher, you had to be an able recruiter as well as an entertaining lecturer.)

      Also, there’s another way to look at “unprofitable” departments. Instead of “blaming” the aerospace engineering department for losing money, what if the admissions department was challenged to recruit more aerospace engineering majors?

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