Yes, Virginia, Faculty Productivity is Quantifiable

Katerina Bodovski

Faculty productivity in higher education is a recurring theme of this blog. It is well established that Virginia colleges and universities pay the highest salaries to faculty members who teach the least, spending their time instead on research, writing, and administrative tasks. My hypothesis, hardly original, is that this trend is getting worse — worse, that is, for the students and taxpayers who pay the bills for higher-ed.

I started my inquiry into the causes of runaway college costs knowing little more than the average citizen, and I’m still going up the learning curve. The following observation, while new to me, might strike some as remarkably naive. But it turns out that the ratio of teaching to non-teaching activities for faculty members is spelled out in contracts. In theory, then, faculty productivity should be readily quantifiable and the hypothesis of declining productivity should be subject to verification or disproof.

In a column published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State University professor Katerina Bodovski describes how she collapsed on the job from overwork. She writes:

My job description stipulates that I should spend 60 percent of my time on research, 30 percent on teaching, and 10 percent on service.

Bodovski is an associate professor, not even a tenured full professor, but her contract calls for her to spend less than one-third of her time teaching. I find that astonishing.

The cause of her physical exhaustion was that the teaching and committee work consumed her life. In the fall semester, she writes, she taught two graduate courses, ran one of her department’s three “programs” (it’s not clear what the program did), served on two committees, completed six manuscript reviews for leading journals, advised six graduate students, and served on 15 graduate committees, providing feedback and writing letters of recommendation. Last fall she wrote close to 40 letters. “Add to that the steady stream of emails I must read and respond to every day.”

I have two reactions. One is that, yeah, she sounds really busy. She’s working a lot more than 40 hours a week. My other reaction is, waaaah. Many people work 60 hours a week, especially when they’re young and working their way up the career ladder. I married one such person. Working your ass off is pretty much a requirement in American society for getting ahead.

Of greater relevance than Bodovsky’s personal plight is this: Are the burdens that Bodovski describes more onerous than they were, say, thirty years ago? Are faculty members expected to engage in more committee work? How much of that work is truly essential, and how much of it consists of academic navel-gazing? Are the teaching duties more onerous? How does the teaching and advising load compare to that of associate professors 30 years ago?

I presume that Virginia’s colleges and universities are structured similarly to Penn State. Pick an institution, any institution. It would be interesting to examine the contracts of all tenure-track faculty and determine how they are directed to apportion their time (even if the contracts do not fully reflect actual practice). How do teaching commitments vary between assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors? And how have those commitment changes over the years? How has faculty productivity evolved over the years?This data is obtainable and quantifiable. Someone should be obtaining and quantifying it.

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13 responses to “Yes, Virginia, Faculty Productivity is Quantifiable

  1. so yeah… working your ass off is really nothing new… and while you’re on the topic – different folks have different capacities for accomplishing their job..i.e. some folks do manage their time, their priorities and are far more productive than those who may not be doing that or still learning to balance the work requirements.

    Is this problem with one person or is it with their entire staff that are “over-worked”…

    but in terms of people on the outside looking on the inside and trying to decide “productivity”.. would you know any more or any less if you looked at a VDOT engineer or a doctor delivering MedicAid, etc?

    Would you know, for instance, how “productive” your spouse is? How do you know the reason she has to work his ass off is that she’s not very organized or gets distracted too easily? How would she compare on the productivity issue to her peers?

    I’m not questioning the productivity of your spouse – only if you would have much of an idea looking at ANY occupation position and be able to determine on a person or even a staff or an industry basis what is or is not “productive”?

    it just seems like a fools errand in some respects.

    Would you accuse, for instance, VDOT of spending too much money on “engineering”and not enough on .. maintenance or operations? And would you then feel confident that you could hold VDOT “accountable” for their “unaffordable” roads?

    These days- there are a lot of folks who question our institutions.. doubt them, don’t trust them. I GET that. But then those folks seem to think they can be “experts” by “reading” and getting “enough” data to “look at”.

    I’m not so convinced entirely myself. Not to say we should not pay attention and ask questions.. but maybe being an ordinary guy – questioning an entire industry on it’s productivity? hmmm

  2. Jim, why you would be so surprised at this “revelation” astounds me. Sometimes I wonder if your read your own blog. This is what the whole damn problem is about! Why they are at a near riot at Va. Tech, for one of many examples. Why the whole bloody system is sick and falling apart. I gotta laugh. It’s like your wife disagrees with everything you say. Then a stranger walks in and says what you been saying for years, and she thinks he or her is brilliant.

    • Reed, the revelation is that the allocation of time between teaching, research and service work is specified in contracts. Did you know that?

      The point of my post is that our hypothesis of declining faculty productivity is quantifiable.

  3. Absolutely I knew it. For only one of many examples, adjuncts typically have no right to do research, but by contract can only teach specific courses that typically they are not allowed to create themselves, in contrast to many tenured and non tenured professors and doctorate and post doc instructors, who can teach their own junk for their own amusement, while others must teach courses they have no interest in or enthusiasm for. So there are whole hierarchies of job functions and methods and taboos, that are written into each professor’s or instructors contract.

    Another example, many high powered researchers, and low powered researchers, are protected from teaching, or not allowed to teach. It is written into their contracts. Many others negotiate their teaching obligations way down, to say 6 or 9 teaching hours per week all semester, and get a semester long paid sabbatical every 5th semester. Many other tenured professors work these 6 or 9 hours a week and no one is sure how they spend the rest of their time, although I suspect this is declining in public research schools that now are run like businesses, or try to in any case.

    As regards professor Bodovski, I can only speculate. But, on one level, she may have experienced the mid life burn out most all of us have. Or perhaps she couldn’t stop this working to exhaustion because of a deep seated fear that she would be turned down for tenure if she did not exhaust herself and, after she got tenure, she couldn’t stop what had become obsessive compulsive behavior. But, in any case, the horror stories are endless. And much depends on whose running what departments. Some departments and leaders have long histories of abusing all subordinate teachers and researchers from doctoral students all the way up to tenured professors. But the biggest crime is that teaching in the lowest and most abused status, hence students suffer nearly criminal treatment and neglect while they or their parents pay all the bills for a lot of useless busywork driven by a lot of nonsense, or by a lot of money making by a few at expense of many, despite what so many of them say.

  4. The measure of productivity combined with effective strategies for its improvement are the core components of competent management. Businesses in every industry spend considerable time and energy to measure their productivity and benchmark that against competitors — because not doing so risks survival in every competitive endeavor.

    It is a source of ongoing tension both positive and negative in every institution which must compete because its improvement is almost always painful.

    Everyone who has managed groups of people knows that without the measurement and management of productivity, there is an inevitable entropy which drives organizations to become ever less “efficient” and “productive”.

    • I agree with this observation.

      It is often said that most public research universities are at a great competitive disadvantage vis a vis private industry research because these universities are “neither fish or fowl.”

      Thus, consider the first two paragraphs of my comments immediately above posted on Feb. 27 at 2:41 p.m., namely:

      ” … adjuncts typically have no right to do research, but by contract can only teach specific courses that typically they are not allowed to create themselves, in contrast to many tenured and non tenured professors and doctorate and post doc instructors, who can teach their own junk for their own amusement, while others must teach courses they have no interest in or enthusiasm for. So there are whole hierarchies of job functions and methods and taboos, that are written into each professor’s or instructors contract.

      Another example, many high powered researchers, and low powered researchers, are protected from teaching, or not allowed to teach. It is written into their contracts. Many others negotiate their teaching obligations way down, to say 6 or 9 teaching hours per week all semester, and get a semester long paid sabbatical every 5th semester. Many other tenured professors work these 6 or 9 hours a week and no one is sure how they spend the rest of their time, although I suspect this is declining in public research schools that now are run like businesses, or try to in any case.”

      What does this mean? For example:

      These complex hierarchies of job functions and methods and taboos that are written into each professor’s or instructor’s contract are refinements made over the past 40 years in an effort to get a teaching university structure to act like a highly efficient business corporation. In all but a few cases, however, these efforts have failed. Instead, these efforts have created highly dysfunctional institutions across the board, in teaching and research, and in costs versus benefits.

      At base, these efforts have failed because they disguise and twist, rather than transform, the public research university. A disguise is necessary because the university must create the fiction that their primary mission remains to teach students, when, in fact, this is not true. The reverse is true as the disguise of teaching must be maintained to generate revenue that is ever more critically needed to support the universities “real mission,” that is research that cannot support itself financially without the subsidy of student tuition revenue.

      Thus the whole institution gets twisted out of shape. Researchers and doctoral students pose falsely as excellent teaching professors when they are anything but. Meanwhile, great teaching professors lose status and respect.

      Why?

      Because, low wage contract workers are increasingly hired as mercenaries to replace great teaching professors, and thus do what great professors used to do at a far lower cost, namely teach students. This awkward set up causes enormous dislocation. It breeds chronic inefficiencies. It also generates unhappiness on the part of all involved, across the board.

      For example, administrative bureaucracies grow huge to manage these unwieldy structures of dysfunction while weighing them down instead.

      For another example, tenure now is controlled by administrators at Virginia Tech to assure business efficiency in servicing federal grants and business partners instead of teaching excellence that is being reduced to a bureaucratic function to raise tuition to support ever more research revenue that can’t be profitable but must be maintained to support high priced researchers and their infrastructures that do not teach students, but do maintain prestige under the standards of a fatally flawed ranking system.

      One could write a book on this subject.

      For now, consider professors like Dr. Bodovski who “really” want to teach but must spend the great majority of their time not teaching, but sitting on endless committee meetings trying to figure out new research projects that might win more revenue producing grants in a dwindling marketplace for grants. Or the millions of dollars recently spend out of UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund to support “committees of professors” trying to figure out how to win ever more Federal grants and business consulting contracts away from competitors like Virginia Tech, and how to divvy up the spoils between all the professors and their programs competing within UVA for the work.

  5. Whether or not something is “productive” or not – is different from the priorities.

    If the PRIORITIES of higher ed .. are, in fact, to put emphasis on research and other things in addition to instruction – that’s not really a “productivity” issue.

    That’s a disagreement about what their priorities should be or not. Whether or not they are “productive” for their chosen priorities is a different kettle of fish and I still stand by my view that people who are not themselves involved with higher ed – or were .. really don’t know how to judge productivity for ANY field that they themselves don’t have experience or are knowledgeable about.

    The “productivity” thing is just another way to frame criticism of higher ed for not providing “affordable” education – not really a legitimate critique of their “productivity”.

    To actually do that – you’d have to agree on what their intended work-products are… and how they go about ‘delivering’ them.. in an “efficient” way.

    To cut to the chase here – each University is comparing itself on cost (and other things) to it’s peers … and if it is more or less in line with the others on costs – giving and taking adjustments for highly desirable things that people want – and are willing to pay more for – …. then what the critics here are essentially saying is that most ALL higher ed has a “productivity” problem when, in fact, Higher Ed clearly has different priorities than it’s critics….

    Higher Ed sees the “affordability” thing very differently than the critics and it’s hard to convince Higher Ed that the “cost” is an issue – if they still have more people beating down their doors to get in – than nut – “productivity” is not the issue.

    This is more like someone saying that the auto manufacturers don’t offer “affordable” cars .. or perhaps even better.. housing is not “affordable” and … it’s someone’s fault… because if we were “productive” .. homes would be more affordable…

  6. As a professor of 36 years, I can attest (at least in my own experience) to the rising pressure to publish. And yes, this has been reflected in my contract. When I started I taught 8 course sections a year. Now I teach 5. The extra time is intended to be used for research. But quantifying the value of that in a meaningful way is difficult. One could add up the number of peer reviewed journal articles published. But that is faulty because the quality hasn’t been factored in. One very high quality publication (“A-level” journal) is worth five or ten times as many “B-level” journal articles–and that’s a totally subjective call. But even that doesn’t tell you what you want to know. Perhaps that A-level journal article is read by 5 other experts in your narrow subfield while the B-level journal article is widely disseminated. So perhaps it is future citations of the article that should count. All of these methods are used to evaluate productivity within academia, but it’s still hard to get at the key issue: is all this research justifiable in some way as making society better? Or is it waste? One could answer both ways. There is no doubt to me that my research has enriched my own liberal arts teaching career, helping keep me up to date in my field and motivated to show up to work every day. And that has the potential to enrich students, so there are positive spillovers into the classroom in many cases. But I’ll certainly concede that at major research factories the positive spillovers are mainly to the graduate students, not to the undergraduates. Bottom line: don’t go to a big research factory as an undergrad!

    • Jon, you raise good questions about how to measure faculty productivity.

      If we could get hold of all faculty contracts (probably an impossibility), we could measure how many classes on average university faculty teaches per year. But that doesn’t tell us how effective they are at teaching. It wouldn’t tell us everything we want to know, but it would tell us more than we know now.

      As for measuring research productivity, that’s a real rat’s nest. The number of academic journals has proliferated in recent years as faculty look for new outlets for their research. As you say, some of these publications are highly regarded, others are not. Then there’s the idea of tracking citations. But, as Reed Fawell reminded me the other day, some professors have learned to game that measure through various means. Human nature is what it is. So, the task of measuring productivity is difficult. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  7. As an addendum to my earlier post, the wrong measurements can be worse then no measurements.

    Most who measure productivity couple it with other measurements–E..g. quality as in defect-free widgets per shift, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, hours of community service, etc .

    It’s for the producers of the research to determine what they are “selling” and the appropriate measurements, the validity of which would be determined by their “customer’s” response. If a purpose is to improve the classroom experience, criteria could be devised to measure that. Or, it it’s saleable patents which bring megabucks to the University or it’s acquiring the most academic stars, that too can be measured.

    Typically, institutions, like the people of whom they are composed, do not track and manage “productivity” until they have to. Usually that won’t happen until there isn’t enough money to go around or they perceive they are failing to capture “customers” in meaningful numbers or experience some other source of pain greater than the pain of measuring and responding.

    However, Universities are clearly measuring what they currently consider the factors that represent their “productivity” and advertising those profusely–applications, out-of-state students, African-americans, new buildings, etc. At this point it doesn’t appear that the value or “quality” of the research, the cost/student or the “quality” of the student’s classroom experience are critical aspects of their view of productivity.

  8. For some hard, quantifiable proof that Mr. Wight, who commented above, knows whereof he speaks about his research informing his teaching, I recommend his book, “Ethics in Economics-An Introduction Into Moral Frameworks”— an excellent read for anyone who has wondered what Economics is really about.

    https://www.amazon.com/Ethics-Economics-Introduction-Moral-Frameworks/dp/0804794537

  9. Reed, please write that book.

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