O’Donnell misses the mark again

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Is your professor a sherpa? Or is she a pioneer, a coaster, a dodger or a star? Rick O’Donnell could tell you. Yesterday morning, O’Donnell — of “seven breakthrough solutions” fame — released a report based on data recently released by the UT and Texas A&M University Systems. In it, he placed each faculty member into one of five categories based on their teaching loads and the amount of research funding brought to their universities.

Stars are those faculty members who bring in large amounts of funding and teach large numbers of students. Pioneers bring in research money but do not teach as much, while sherpas bring in little research funding but bear heavy teaching loads. Coasters neither teach much nor generate much research funding. Dodgers are a special rung reserved for the worst of the coasters; those who have, to use O’Donnell’s description, “figured out how to dodge any but the most minimal of responsibilities.”

According to O’Donnell, UT has 30 stars, 54 pioneers and 856 sherpas. This leaves 3028 professors, some 76.4 percent of the total, as either coasters or dodgers.

O’Donnell cites this “productivity gap” between high- and low-performers as a key reason higher education costs are increasing so rapidly. If UT had no dodgers, he explains, and the teaching loads of these professors were redistributed to coasters — around 97 more students per year apiece should do it — UT could completely eliminate tuition and give $65 million back to the state of Texas on top of that. Such is the scope of the alleged waste.

He also cites a vast gulf between “big-time” researchers and the rest. At UT, he reports, 19 percent of faculty members accounted for 99 percent of external research funding in 2010.
Perhaps some of the data O’Donnell has presented is valuable. He certainly makes a compelling case for the existence of large disparities in faculty workloads, at least according to the metrics he chose.

But he paints in too-broad strokes a picture of scores of indolent faculty members who spend hours plotting ways to cheat the system supported by a few superstars who manage to keep the whole bloated thing afloat. It would be interesting to know whether that is true or not. Unfortunately, O’Donnell’s analysis lends little support to his rhetoric.

The report ultimately suffers from extreme generalization. He lumps all faculty members together, tenure and non-tenure track alike. Most professors teach, though not all. Yet many professors do not conduct research; they are not hired to do so. O’Donnell’s formula penalizes them for this and spits out a number that leads O’Donnell to conclude they are unproductive relative to their peers.

This conflation haunts his argument throughout the report. He pays little mind to the fact that tenure track and non-tenure track positions are fundamentally different. Within tracks, he also does not separate the chemists from the poets. O’Donnell compares the two as if they were producing the same widget-like “research” product.

Three marquee engineering professors could bring in research funding that would dwarf entire departments in the humanities. This is not necessarily because they are relatively more successful in their fields, but it could be because their research costs more money or is valued more highly by the private sector. It should go without saying this sort of valuation should not factor into discussions of what type of research is more valuable at a university.

To his credit, O’Donnell raises an important issue. There are certainly problems in the higher education labor structure. The tenure system’s incentive structure does present concerns about the potential for abuse. Adjunct professors and lecturers are paid significantly less than those on the tenure track. And ridding the system of free-riders to ensure our universities provide a quality education without undue waste is an admirable goal.

But his generalizations render his analysis meaningless at best. Its only redemption may be its potential to get administrators to start thinking about the problem. To the extent that there is a problem, it must be solved locally.

In this sense, O’Donnell’s alarmist “crisis of productivity” rhetoric may do more harm than good. State policy-makers should certainly hold public universities accountable for their spending habits. But by framing the problem as “waste” sucking Texas taxpayers dry, O’Donnell encourages politicians to act rashly.

Politicians face a different incentive structure than university administrators. They are rewarded at the polls for, among other things, short-term relief and are penalized for short-term pain inflicted as part of a longer-term plan.

Education is essentially long-term. So let politicians put general pressure on universities to improve their labor structures. But allow UT to solve its problems without the excessive micromanagement and “breakthrough solutions”-type edicts from the state that this type of alarmism is likely to elicit.

Daley is a biology and government senior.