Guest Column: The Case for Higher Ed Accountability

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The Texas Public Policy Foundation has urged transparency and accountability in higher education, especially in the areas of research and teaching. The presidents of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University have countered by citing excellent examples of research. We have no quarrel with that.

Rather, it’s rather what they don’t say that's also critical. Let’s hear, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

Our universities have shifted priorities to research first, students second. “The ultimate source of this cultural shift,” writes Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard University, “is the replacement of education by research as the university’s principal function.”

It is commonplace now for professors to teach only two classes, or six hours a week, per semester, with release time from the classroom to conduct research. And what are we getting? A recent study issued by the American Enterprise Institute reveals, for example, that from 1980 to 2006, 21,674 scholarly articles were published on Shakespeare. Do we need the 21,675th?

Yet Derek Bok, the president of Harvard for 20 years, reports that “fewer than half of all professors publish as much as one article per year.” Researchers counter that they are pursuing several years of research to a produce a magnum opus. But Lewis says that “academic presses now publish books selling fewer than 300 copies.”

 

Dr. Richard Vedder, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, recently assigned his research assistant to choose at random 40 professors at Texas A&M to discover their yearly salaries. The 20 high-paid professors made, on average, over $200,000 each. By contrast, Gov. Rick Perry makes $150,000.

Former Dartmouth College President John Kemeny said that the most important question parents should ask in determining where to send their children is who teaches the freshmen. At research universities, it is generally not professors. Bok reports, “By the 1990s, more than 95 percent of all compulsory writing classes in Ph.D.-granting English departments were taught by adjuncts or by graduate students.”  He adds, “Most graduate students lack the experience to deal with the challenges of a basic composition course. ... Freshmen in the writing course often lose out.”

But it’s not just freshmen. Says Bok, “Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should.”

Accountability should also relate to teaching. Now retired from academia, I teach as an adjunct at Lone Star College. Every year, a senior faculty member sits in on my class to evaluate my teaching ability, providing me and the administration with a written evaluation. Students also fill out evaluation forms at semester’s end. All professors, even tenured, should be subjected to these evaluation procedures. There are, quite simply, indolent professors.

Football coaches, who work with bodies, are subject to intense accountability. Professors, who work with minds, are not. Go figure.

Finally we get to the most important question: How is research actually practiced throughout all academic disciples in a research university? My suspicion is that no one fully knows and that the assumption is that all research is valuable ... and “who are you to tell me otherwise?”

John Silber, a former dean at UT and president of Boston University, recently told The Texas Tribune that many products of research “aren’t worth anything.” Similarly, Lewis quotes a humanities editor as saying that “the demands of productivity are leading to the production of much more nonsense.” Bok says that the “real reason” he wrote his book Our Underachieving Colleges is that “most of the problems are not being seriously addressed on campuses today, nor will they be until they are correctly identified and clearly understood by those responsible for the quality of teaching and learning in our colleges.”

Taxpayers and students make considerable financial investments in Texas universities. As such, they deserve excellence in both teaching and research.  Full transparency and accountability are needed to ensure that neither of those priorities is shortchanged.

The seminal question becomes: How do universities implement transparency and accountability? The directive must issue from regents or trustees. They are entrusted with the statutory authority and fiduciary responsibility to govern the university and to set policy. They must ask the right questions.

What is the value of any research endeavor to students or to wider societal needs? Some process of evaluation must be established. If researchers wish to pursue matters that do not serve students or wider societal needs, they are certainly free to do so, but such should be so without release time from the classroom.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is a former vice president of Hillsdale College in Michigan.

 

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