Leaders of UT-Austin Attack Productivity Analysis

Bill Powers speaks about budget cuts at The University of Texas on Tuesday, February 2nd.
Bill Powers speaks about budget cuts at The University of Texas on Tuesday, February 2nd.

Before the University of Texas System released an 821-page draft document showing faculty members’ salaries, research expenditures and total numbers of students taught, among other pieces of data, Dean Neikirk, the chair of the University of Texas at Austin Faculty Council, sent a note to his colleagues.

“It is likely that within a very short time various web pages will offer an ‘analysis’ of individual faculty ‘productivity,’” he warned. “Most, if not all, of this information was already available, but the ‘convenience’ of the release will no doubt invite a variety of interpretations.”

He was right. This week, the conservative, Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity released a study titled “Faculty Productivity and Costs at the University of Texas at Austin,” and its findings did not cast the university in a positive light. Administrators, meanwhile, say the analysis is premature.

Using the data released by the system, the study suggests that even a “moderate increase” in faculty emphasis on teaching at the flagship campus could generate significant savings. In fact, it asserts that if the 80 percent of faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach half as much as the 20 percent with the highest, tuition at the university could be cut in half.

Richard Vedder, the director of the center and the lead author on the study, said he was expecting to see disparities among professors’ productivity — a problem he said is typical at all large research universities — but not at the “breathtaking” level he found at UT-Austin. According to his analysis, 20 percent of the faculty teach 57 percent of the semester credit hours. That same quintile also accounts for 18 percent of research expenditures, which Vedder says contradicts the notion that an emphasis on teaching would harm the university’s research mission. 

He recommends that the university’s average teaching load should be 150 students per year, per faculty member. Though, he said, “It would mean a reduction in the number of faculty and couldn’t happen overnight.”

Leaders at UT and the UT System have not rushed to embrace Vedder's conclusion and point out that the data release was accompanied by a significant caveat from system spokesman Anthony de Bruyn: “The attached data spreadsheet in its current draft form are incomplete and have not yet been fully verified or cross referenced. In its present raw form it cannot yield accurate analysis, interpretations or conclusions.”

UT President Bill Powers and Regents Chairman Gene Powell have both noted this in questioning Vedder’s efforts. Powell said, “It is unfortunate that those individuals interested in analyzing the data have chosen to draw and publish conclusions based on the raw data prior to the data being verified or cross referenced."

Powell added, "The UT System is diligently working to verify all of the data, and once that verification is completed, the System will make the corrected data available to the public.”

Powers, who described the study as “inappropriate” and “not useful,” said, “The faculty at a top-tier university like ours are productive and efficient, but more important, they engage in the top quality instruction and research that make an institution great. That quality should be part of any measurement.”

In the conclusion of his study, Vedder conceded that the study may need to be extended and revised as corrections to the data are made. “If it has to be refined, refine it,” he told the Tribune. 

Even so, the study caught the attention of lawmakers. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said it underscores his line of questioning to universities, which seeks to get at the value of research.

“We always hear about the home runs or the grand slams,” he told the Tribune, “but we don’t always hear about the times they totally strike out.”

He said that universities needed to be open to change. “Pride comes before the fall,” Patrick said, “and I think that really applies to our universities and some people at our universities.”

Lawmakers and the communities at Texas universities have been engaged in a debate about a controversial set of "breakthrough solutions" proposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that prescribe a certain route to greater productivity and increased emphasis on teaching. Vedder is a senior fellow at the foundation, which is an honorary unpaid post. He says he had no contact with the organization before publishing his study, though he acknowledged that they would likely appreciate his conclusions.

“These findings bring to light very real opportunities to provide a better education to students at vastly lower costs while preserving UT-Austin’s ability to conduct world-class research,” said TPPF spokesman David Guenthner. “The data conclusively demonstrates that there is room for a greater emphasis on classroom instruction, while preserving UT-Austin’s prized Tier One status.”

Meanwhile, as the UT community deals with Vedder’s analysis, Texas A&M University is dealing with another unflattering study recently covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Based on money spent on research per paper published between 1989 and 2004, A&M ($128,269 per paper) was found to be the second least productive research university in the nation behind Johns Hopkins University ($185,811).

A&M's administration is no more impressed with this study than UT is with Vedder's.

“Measuring an institution’s "productivity" by tracking research expenditures per academic paper is inadequate,” responded Dr. Jeffrey R. Seemann, vice president for research at Texas A&M University and chief research officer for the Texas A&M University System. “To truly assess a research institution's productivity or return-on-investment, you have to look at the broad impact of research — including the long- and short-term economic, health, societal and educational benefits. This study does not take those important factors into account.”

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