Another View of Faculty Productivity

August 4, 2011

Crazy claims about faculty productivity are bouncing around like ping pong balls.  Public research universities in Texas are getting more than their fair share of attention from agenda-driven politicians because their professors are not spending enough time in class.  They’ve even invented a classification system based on this one-dimensional view of academic life:

  • dodgers
  • coasters
  • Sherpa
  • pioneers
  • stars

I don’t think I’d want to be a coaster, but to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be a Sherpa, either.

CCAP’s Richard Vedder has looked at the same data through a conservative economic lens and concluded that significant costs savings can be found by adjusting teaching loads — upwards, of course. Like CCAP I think there needs to be more emphasis on undergraduates, but just lopping off a part of an institutional mission is not the way to do it.  Unless, of course, you are of the opinion that everything outside the classroom is overrated in American universities.

Maybe I travel in different circles, but the faculty workday appears to me to be an already overstuffed suitcase.  Anyone who wants to cram in another sock needs to take a look at what’s already there. Mission creep, bureaucratic bloat, crushing compliance requirements, and the willful bliss with which research universities give away research time have filled every nook and cranny.

I talked a few weeks ago about how research is given away, and it’s a topic that always draws phone calls and email.  But let’s take a look at the same data that CCAP uses.  The John William Pope Center recently published a national analysis of teaching loads.  It should come as no surprise that they have gone down over the last twenty years, but more interesting is the trend.

The decreases virtually track the increased workload by program officers at Federal funding agencies. But since staff spending at agencies like NSF has been stagnant for twenty years, program officer workloads really just measure proposal submissions.

Why the decrease at Carnegie Research and Doctoral institutions?  According to an NSF study the tendency in most NSF program offices is to deliberately underfund project proposals.  Over half of the researchers surveyed reported that their budgets had been cut by 5% or more and that their grant duration had been slashed by 10% or more.  There is little room for padding an NSF budget, so these are real cuts in funds that are needed to successfully complete a research plan. One more sock stuffed into the productivity suitcase.

What does a winning proposal cost?  The same study reported:

…PIs’ estimate of the time it took for them and other people—for example,
graduate assistants, budget administrators, and secretaries (not including time spent by
institutional personnel)—to prepare their FY 2001 NSF grant submission was, on average, 157
hours, or about 19.5 days. It should be noted this is the time for just one proposal that was

Since the NSF success rate is currently around 25%, that’s about 80 days just to prepare a winning proposal.  Add to that the time needed to conduct the research that goes into every proposal submission, and you get a rough idea of what needs to be funded just to make research pay for itself.  This is lost productivity, and it shows up in reduced faculty teaching loads.

The trends at Comprehensive, Liberal Arts, and Community Colleges measure something slightly different: each of these institutions sees climbing the Carnegie hierarchy as important to their missions.  For example, NSF awarded $350M to community colleges last year.  The lions’ share of these funds went to worthy projects to train technicians, broaden participation in the sciences and support research experiences for returning veterans.  Individual awards for some of these programs start at $200,000 and solicitations for larger, center-scale proposals are encouraged. Like their research cousins, Community Colleges reduce classroom productivity to compete for federal research awards. An institution with an undergraduate research mission can easily get drawn into a system they cannot afford. And the data supports the claim.  For the period covered by the Pope Center report, proposal submissions from these institutions have increased almost in lockstep with lost classroom productivity.

Measuring technical productivity is not a job for the faint of heart. You have to take into account all uses of time, and outcomes that are often unpredictable events influenced by factors beyond an organization’s control. Modeling productivity is complex and frequently contentious, but I have yet to find anyone who seriously proposes measuring engineering productivity by the amount of time spent at a single activity.  Outside higher ed.

There is an easier explanation for the disturbing downward trend in teaching loads. It is mission creep.  There is really only one way out, and it has nothing to do with cramming more into a Texas-sized suitcase.  How about if everything from sponsored research to intercollegiate athletics had to pay its own way?  The academic suitcase is full of stuff already.  Let’s figure out where to put everything else one sock at a time.


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