Let’s Collect Higher-Ed Employee Productivity Data

Adjunct professors are the lumpenproletariat of the academic world, a subordinate class of faculty that gets paid less and enjoys less job security than full-time instructors and tenure-track faculty. Their plight is so bad that they are beginning to organize unions at colleges and universities around the country.

Some adjunct faculty have full-time jobs and teach on the side. They teach because they want to, and no one feels sorry for them. But others try to make a living by stringing together up to five courses per semester paying on average about $3,000 each, the equivalent of minimum wage after factoring in time for class preparation, office hours, and grading.

“Adjuncts function as a financial pressure-relief valve for universities, allowing tuition dollars to flow to other priorities — administration, recruiting, athletics, student clubs and services — while keeping down the student-faculty ratio, heavily weighted in college rankings,” writes Paul H. Tice, an investment manager and adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in the Wall Street Journal.

Tice offers three suggestions for putting adjunct faculty on more equal terms with tenured faculty, who spend a small fraction of their time teaching and more of their time conducting research (some of which, in my observation, constitutes what most people think of as real research and some of which consists of churning out articles for obscure academic publications that nobody reads).

First, teacher compensation should be decoupled from tenure-related titles and status considerations — as in the typical investment bank, where vice presidents often get paid more than managing directors.

Second, all university instructors, tenured or not, should be forced to compete for students and curriculum airtime, then paid equally on a subscriber model based on student demand.

Third, 40% to 50% of every tuition dollar should be paid out in the form of teacher wages and benefits — the current figure is roughly 30% — with larger classes paying more given the incremental work involved.

I don’t know if I agree with these proposals, but I think they are a good place to start the conversation.

If the politics of higher-ed in Virginia in the 2018 session follows the playbook of the 2017 session, disgruntled lawmakers will proffer an array of bills that cap tuition increases, limit out-of-state enrollment or impose other heavy-handed measures that interfere with the ability of Virginia’s decentralized colleges and universities to govern themselves. Unfortunately, such across-the-board proposals to improve middle-class access to Virginia institutions — a laudable goal — fail to address the underlying problem of low productivity and runaway costs. At least Tice’s agenda addresses the cost issue head-on.

Tice provides a remarkable statistic — that only 30% of every tuition dollar goes to teacher wages and benefits. I don’t know where he gets it, and I don’t know if it applies to Virginia colleges and universities, but it is extraordinary if it is true. That shamefully low percentage suggests that higher-ed institutions are run for the benefit of administrative staff and tenured faculty, not the students.

Here are productivity data that should be reported to the Board of Trustees of every Virginia institution and made available to students, parents, lawmakers and the general public:

  • What is the ratio of faculty to administrative staff?
  • Within the faculty, what is the ratio of adjunct faculty, non-tenured instructors, graduate students, and tenure-track faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors)?
  • How many classes per semester does each faculty category teach on average? How many students per semester does each faculty category teach on average?

Low teaching loads may be judged acceptable for professors who conduct research funded by outside organizations — typically by faculty in engineering, medicine and the hard sciences. Low teaching loads are less forgivable for professors in the social sciences and humanities whose salaries are funded entirely through tuition payments.

If legislators want to see lower costs and tuition at Virginia institutions, they should drop the blunt instruments of caps and mandates issued from Richmond. Instead, they should demand greater transparency. In particular, they should insist that colleges report, and boards discuss, the productivity of their administrative staff and faculty. If the data is made available, we should trust boards to do the right thing. Only if the boards consistently fail to act should politicians presume to impose arbitrary mandates.

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13 responses to “Let’s Collect Higher-Ed Employee Productivity Data

  1. Typically I read 8 hours a day, and the majority of this reading is the product of University professors’ research. I am in awe of much of their work. I respect the great majority of their work that I chose to read, and am also a great beneficiary of that work. In the sciences, it’s kept me alive physically, would not be walking out it, and it has kept me alive intellectually, don’t know where I would be without it, surely in a far less satisfying place. I have strong bias toward fine University research.

    However, as has been discussed on this blog, I believe that many University professors, including many with unimpeachable credentials, believe that effective and productive university research is under serious threat today. That today’s overweening research ethic, combined with the overbearing dominance of research in the hard sciences (STEM) and related fields, in today’s larger institutions of higher education, threaten and have damaged the quality of teaching across the board in higher education. And that this combination has helped to largely collapse the quality and substance of today’s teaching of the Humanities, and that it has contributed mightily to the proliferation of junk research and junk courses “taught” in many of today’s academic institutions.

    Indeed, a significant and growing number of highly regarded professors feel that these all consuming trends in research funded by mass amounts of money by special interests, including a highly politicized Federal Government is on the way toward the serious corruption of science research itself in our nation. We’ve kicked this around for some time on this website.

    I suspect that some of these concerns are not given their due within this Post on building and enforcing productivity models for higher education.

    This would include, for example, adding the Capped material into:

    “Adjuncts function as a financial pressure-relief valve for universities, allowing tuition dollars to flow to other priorities — administration, recruiting, athletics, student clubs and services, AND RESEARCH OF ALL SORTS BY OTHERS WITHIN THE UNIVERSITY — while keeping down the student-faculty ratio, heavily weighted in college rankings,” writes Paul H. Tice, an investment manager and adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in the Wall Street Journal.”

    Your pick up some of the slack within this concern in your next paragraph. But I would reverse the assumption therein to read:

    “Tice offers three suggestions for putting adjunct faculty on more equal terms with tenured faculty, who spend a small fraction of their time teaching and more of their time conducting research (some of which, in my observation, constitutes what most people think of as real research and THE GREAT MAJORITY of which consists of churning out articles for obscure academic publications that nobody reads).”

    I suggest Mr. Tice’s second remedy is quite dangerous, namely that:

    “Second, all university instructors, tenured or not, should be forced to compete for students and curriculum airtime, then paid equally on a subscriber model based on student demand.”

    This student demand for junk courses and easy inflated grades is out of control today, and reeks great harm on the ability of professors to teach substance and to enforce real standards of learning and proof of learning. This profession of teaching is not a popularity contest, despite the fact the great professors of great courses are often popular.

    You say, “Tice provides a remarkable statistic — that only 30% of every tuition dollar goes to teacher wages and benefits. I don’t know where he gets it, and I don’t know if it applies to Virginia colleges and universities, but it is extraordinary if it is true.”

    Obviously this figure can vary, but I suspect that in many cases the figure is substantially below 30%. Most all tenured or tenured track professors in most research universities are not paid to teach, and teaching is considered quite demeaning within the ethic of most large universities. Indeed teaching harms the status of professors among their peers and administrators, and harms their chances for advancement. Hence most keep teaching to a a absolute minimum. Sad but true. Hence the demand for low wage Adjuncts, and other doctorate and post doctorate instructors on short term contracts.

    You say: “Low teaching loads may be judged acceptable for professors who conduct research funded by outside organizations — typically by faculty in engineering, medicine and the hard sciences.” Why? Unless this funding cover costs, which in the great majority of cases it does not, and often exposes the university to substantial risk while diverting critical resources.

    You say: “Low teaching loads are less forgivable for professors in the social sciences and humanities whose salaries are funded entirely through tuition payments.”

    I suggest that is an understatement. Traditionally these social sciences and humanities professors spent 50% of their time on research, 25% on Administrative and “other activities” and 25% on teaching and related student interaction. It is my sense that these percentages no longer apply in the research university’s typical scenario. The share devoted to teaching and mentoring students by tenure and tenure track is today far lower.

    I do not want to paint all professors in such a bleak light. There are many very fine tenured and tenured track professors, including star researchers and scholars in the fields who are great teachers. I am discussing trends.

    Far more action is required to reverse these trends that have been growing and deepening for over 40 years. Hence student achievement has plunged since 1970 and never recovered.

  2. I am fairly confident that the data you are seeking exists, Jim, and it may simply be a question of organizing it or prying it out of their hands. In general I think adjuncts should be like my wife, an experienced professional willing to impart that experience as a supplement to the full-time faculty. Using adjuncts as full time faculty is just an excuse to avoid full salaries and benefits for people who should be titled “instructor” or “associate professor.” Likewise the overuse of graduate students as instructors, although learning to teach should always be one of their goals.

    Reed has some good points and I also recoiled at the idea of trying to maximize the class load of research professors, or people teaching very specialized skills. Just how many students to you want a super-star surgical instructor to have, especially since he or she is also seeing patients? Paying for student volume alone is stupid, and you would not like where those incentives take you.

    I don’t think the cost problem is the faculty, I really do not. I think the problem is layers upon layers of administration and overhead and capital investment that has little to no benefit to students.

    • I agree generally with your comments. This includes, without limitation, your very important last paragraph.

      But as to teachers (professors) and curriculum, I believe we need far more teaching and far less research. We need many more fully empowered and appreciated great teachers in our universities to fulfill the primary mission of our public institutions of higher learning, that is to teach our youth. We already have these kinds of great people in relative abundance, but we fail to recognize, appreciate, empower and support them.

      In contrast to the supply of great teachers, all societies are in short supply of teachers who match the creative and world changing spark of Socrates, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Let us not pretend that we alone, for the first time in human history, have solved this shortage of world class exceptional genus, and lets stop wasting vast sums of monies on the assumption that we have. We did not make Socrates, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, they found and made us and our world, in spite of our best efforts to ignore or stop them.

      So now, instead of pretending that we are Gods, lets practice humility, and admit to our natural limitations. Lets rebuild our undergraduate Arts and Sciences (Humanities). Lets restore integrity and perspective into our universities’ research. Lets rebuilt, and renew and reinforce rigorous standards within our curriculum and its teaching, and its learning, and its testing. This should includesfar more rigorous demands on and expectations from our students in their academic pursuits. Particularly so it as regards their required amounts of reading and writing, and verbal and logical expression (including mathematics and core cultural literacy), and its testing.

      And lets build and enforce honest admissions and retention standards for our universities, standards that are appropriate to our students real success in real and honest learning programs in higher education. Lets stop issuing pretend college and university degrees which today are the norm not the exception. And, at the very same time, lets built rewarding and demanding alternatives for those who are not mean for college, and give them the respect, attention, dignity, and chances for success that they too deserve.

      Perhaps more important of all, lets keep politics the hell out of education. Political bias has no place in higher education whether in be in science or the liberal arts, or business, or law, or medicine. Political bias poisons education. The proper education of our youth must confine politics in their education to the study of its evils, necessity, tools, methods and promise as an essential part of a students cultural literary and literacy as a productive citizen, NOT as a professor’s or institutions way to close the students mind or mold him or her into a tool to promote some professor or institutions political agenda. Expel Professors from the academy who violate this rule. Stop the funding of all public institutions of higher learning that violate this rule.

  3. Like a lot of things.. every “business” is organized in ways that people who are not in that business may not understand – and for them to , without much knowledge and experience – just what they perceive on the outside looking in – for those folks to start proscribing changes and “reforms” is fraught with problems.

    I’m not saying it should not be done .. institutions like Higher Ed should be under scrutiny precisely because they cannot seem to control costs and they actively and relentlessly will not “cooperate” with releases of information (K-12 is similar.. try to find out where local discretionary money is spent).

    But geeze… on one hand .. Higher Ed is castigated for costs and then on the other hand they are condemned for trying to reduce instructor costs.

    It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.. and no wonder they’re not inclined to share data … one side or the other will use it to further demean them… and tear them down.

    On Steve’s last point.. a few years back, folks might remember a similar complaint was lodged against k-12 … i.e. too much money NOT for instruction .. and I think a law was actually passed requiring them to disclose costs categorically.

    But it’s was and is sort of a skim-the-surface ignorant argument.

    Once the back and forth got serious.. Schools were telling folks that things like HVACs have to be maintained.. water systems.. school bus.. drivers and maintenance.. support personnel like guidance counselors.. security.. school nurses.. librarians….. etc.. the education mission requires a LOT of non-instructor support personnel BEYOND administration.

    Yes – the argument SHOULD be made about how much … and comparative data is one way to go about that.. i.e. if most all schools have similar cost data for some function… are folks who are not involved in the education business qualified to question .. essentially something they know very little about to start with?

    Bacon seems to think that “transparency” is how we hold institutions accountable.. I actually agree.. but lay people looking at stuff they really have little knowledge of .. is a gross misuse of that data… and these days that conundrum reminds me of this:

  4. Tice’s third point – payout for teaching should be higher than today’s 30% – illustrates a financial bias that should worry us: the inclination of these institutions to build physical structures and facilities before investing in teaching staff. Why is this? Is it because the criteria are less controversial and it’s easier to manage the one time act of construction, rather than the ongoing supervision of good teachers? Is it satisfying the demands of various factions within the institution who measure their success in terms of facilities they control? Look at the research labs, the stadiums and tennis courts, the dorms and dining halls – so many of these are associated with institutional income, but how many directly support the primary mission of teaching? And this tendency is only amplified by alumni gifts all too often tied to edifice-building with naming rights rather than endowment support for academic programs.

    One well-informed friend blames our banks, who lend money far more readily for capital construction projects that can be associated with more “customers” and an incremental boost in university income – research grants and student tuition and fees – as opposed to teaching, which is merely the baseline activity, and less amenable to scaling. Indeed man of those loans come with lists of conditions that have nothing to do with teaching.

    The only people who can fight this financial bias towards facilities is: educators determined to do so. And groups like SCHEV, who can give those educators both backbone and credibility.

  5. Acbar –

    You touch on an important point. Over and over, the books on education written by concerned professors speak of “mission drift.” How our great universities have lost their focus on their primary mission and obligation, teaching and educating students.

    This is a terrible problem. This mission of teaching our youth is always critically important. This teaching of our youth is even more critically essential in a free and open society with a representative government, answering to its citizens.

    Thus I suggest that teaching and war fighting are the two most important jobs in our society. Without great warriors and teachers working effectively, we will lose our free society. The great warrior protects our free society from outside destruction and domination that surely will come eventually, unless that great and good war fighter steps forward to prevent our destruction.

    Similarly, our society, its freedoms and representative government, will just as surely collapse, this time from the inside, without well educated and effective citizens throughout all classes of our society, citizens keen to work on our society’s behalf, and work to that end throughout all of the parts of our society.

    But to have the benefit of a society that is chock full of such citizens (incl. perhaps most importantly the great and good warrior), all of this requires great and highly effective and empowered teachers. Such teachers, to succeed, MUST be appreciated, supported, and empowered by all of us. This is key. Without great and fully empowered teachers, we all will perish.

    Insofar as concerns higher education –

    The dedication of its faculty, and the quality of faculty teaching, is the only true and lasting test of a great university. It is the only lasting and essential standard by which a great university’s reputation should should rise or fall, or be claimed legitimate.

    For, absent great teaching, all else within a university – its buildings, its food, its campus, its sports, its research, its congeniality, its alleged reputation, or whatever else – in the end means nothing. Indeed, it is worse than that. Absent great teaching, all institutions of higher learning, are naked frauds that quite literally steal our future, and the future of our children. And should be considered so by us. That it how important their mission is to us.

    And this holds true for all institutions of learning, from top to bottom.

  6. Wait! Did someone say the purpose of the university is education? ‘Tis to laugh!

    We’re missing the great circle of (academic) life here.

    What do parents buy for their children with their tuition?
    1. A brand name on a resume.
    2. A network of worthy peers who will be helpful in the future.
    3. A network of influential alumni who will be really helpful in the future.

    How does a school get a good brand name?
    1. Big name professors
    2. Great football team
    3. High ranking in US News & World Report
    4. Wealthy alumni

    How do professors get a big name?
    1. Research grants
    2. Published papers

    Where does education fit in this?
    It doesn’t. That’s where the adjunct professors come in.

    Full disclosure: I taught economics as a graduate student teaching assistant back in the 70s. More recently, I was a ‘Professorial Lecturer’ at a local university, which I believe is several steps below Adjunct Professor.

    • Oh I do LIKE your practical approach here!

      What we do have is a difference of opinion about what Higher ED should or should not be – between the folks who operate Higher Ed and the hoi polloi critics.

      On Mission and on how to achieve that mission.

      I believe that any good University KNOWS what it’s customers want – no different that any business hoping to survive and thrive based on providing customers with what they want – at a price they’re willing to pay.

      Having lay people questioning it is healthy but it’s really comparable to a shopper in Walmart telling Walmart how they should operate.

      In some cases – that feedback may well be useful .. and adopted.

      but a lot of it is based on a lack of knowledge of how any business might operate… and survive and prosper.. from people inside the business whose very jobs are that ….

      Both Walmart and Higher Ed … KNOW what their customers want and what they will pay for it – and all they really need to do on the price is make sure it’s competitive with other sellers of that product.

      Telling higher ed that they spend too much on this or that is sorta like telling the local police or fire or EMS something along those lines. I’m not saying there are not opportunities for savings – only that such suggestions from the outside are not very informed .. they just don’t know how that operation in general operates compared to others and where there are costs that maybe should not be… etc.. i.e. You usually bring in an expert consultant to go over your operation and and once they understand it – make recommendations.

      Similar to what JLARC does…. in Va..

      Just having lay people with little or no experience in how Higher Ed as an industry functions.. say “there is too much “overhead” and administrative costs … is not really an informative thing.. unless the commenter is from that realm …

      I simply do not KNOW how much administration Higher Ed should have.. I don’t know how much they should be allocating to capital and operating costs. I don’t know what the average costs are – for the industry and because I don’t know that – I have no idea whether administrative costs for UVA are “out of line” or not… so just saying the reason their tuition is so “high” is because they spend too much on administration or operating costs… seems more like a parlor game than serious critiques.

      Again.. not opposed to the idea of more transparency and accountability.. but it has to have some legitimate basis to it.. beyond just folks opinions.

      • The point of increased transparency in higher ed is not to facilitate micro-managing by uninformed citizens, politicians and other outsiders, it’s to arm members of Boards of Visitors who aren’t getting the data from their administrations — and don’t know enough to ask for it.

        • even then – do we think that BOV types have the skills to determine productivity? And from what I am seeing.. it’ s people beyond the BOV that are ALSO wanting to see the data.. and then do weigh in on it themselves even if they really have no particular expertise and it’s mostly uninformed perspectives?

          Again – I support the basic premise of transparency and accountability – but I put more credence into the assessments of people who do have the proper skillsets to be competent at assessements.. JLARC – for instance.. and other comparative industry -type metrics..

          I just don’t think lay people can go do a drill-down on one particular institution in a fair and objective – and competent manner.

  7. Yes, good. You have described what some see as the problem.

    Now, let’s try to fit that problem into the consequences we see unfolding around us. This is harder for us to do that we might think. It’s the hard first step to an enhanced awareness of what is really going on around us today. And where the problem has taken in the past and is now decades later taking us.

    Or you can continue to relish all the things you now see and value.

  8. For a more detailed discussion of many of the important issues discussed in this Jan. 4, 2018 post “Let’s Collect Higher-Ed Employee Productivity Data” and all of the above comments thereto:

    Please See the February 24, 2017 post on this website “What’s Driving up the Cost of Attendance at Virginia Colleges?” and read all of the 23 comments to that discussion of similar issues. It should be found at:

    http://baconsrebellion.com/41359-2/

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