Rick O'Donnell Releases Faculty Productivity Analysis

A new analysis of faculty productivity data from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University-College Station argues that the institutions' employment practices resemble “a Himalayan trek, where indigenous Sherpas carry the heavy loads so Western tourists can simply enjoy the view.”

The author of the study is Rick O’Donnell, the controversial former adviser to the University of Texas System whose previous writings questioning the value of academic research helped ignite a debate about the future of the state’s higher education systems.

After settling with the UT System last month following a threat of a lawsuit over the terms of his abrupt termination, O’Donnell told The Texas Tribune that he intended to remain involved in that debate in Texas. Clearly, he means it.

In his analysis, O’Donnell divides faculty into five categories: “dodgers,” “coasters,” “sherpas,” “pioneers” and “stars.”

In this system, coasters have low teaching loads and very little externally funded research. Dodgers are the most extreme segment of coasters. Sherpas have high teaching loads and low research funding. Pioneers have the inverse of that. And stars have both high teaching loads and high levels of research funding.

O’Donnell found most professors at UT and A&M to be either dodgers or coasters, which he says presents significant savings opportunities. If UT eliminated its 1,748 dodgers, who teach an average of 71 students per year at an average cost of $4,613 per student, O’Donnell calculates the 1,280 coasters — who currently teach an average of 112 students per year at an average cost of $3,044 per student — could each take on 97 more students, saving the university $573 million each year.

“That’s enough to completely eliminate tuition and still have $65 left over to refund the state taxpayer, who could use it to hire, for instance, 1,407 K-12 teachers,” O’Donnell writes, noting that the figures for A&M are similar.

If the dodgers and coasters at A&M were required to teach just half as much as sherpas, who at A&M teach roughly 286 students per year at an average cost of $431 per student, the university would have 578 dodgers left over with no students to teach. Without need for those dodgers, O’Donnell says, the university could save $216 million each year, the equivalent of a 70 percent tuition cut.

The findings were similar in another recently released study by Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, that focused only on UT’s data. According to his analysis, 20 percent of the UT faculty teach 57 percent of the semester credit hours. That same quintile also accounts for 18 percent of the externally funded research. He recommended that teaching loads be increased across the board by 150 students per faculty member per year.

Vedder’s study was criticized for being overly simplistic, failing to distinguish between adjunct and full-time faculty, and for including administrators who also teach, such as UT President Bill Powers.

O’Donnell said he took these into account in an effort to better capture the nuances in the different types of faculty. But his study and Vedder’s make the same fundamental point. “By even small increases in faculty teaching,” O’Donnell said, “they could both save tremendous amounts of money and have a lot more students engaged with senior faculty.”  

After reviewing O’Donnell’s study, Greg Fenves, dean of UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, said the biggest takeaway for him was the “interesting names of each category.”

Fenves cited two “major problems” with O’Donnell’s approach. He said it didn’t sufficiently distinguish between tenured and tenure-track faculty, who are held to a higher standard, and other faculty members. He also noted that the measure of research was external funding, which is an input, when the real concern, he said, is the output.

“If I had a faculty member bringing in $1 million each year, but not publishing any papers or graduating any students, I wouldn’t consider that very productive,” he said. 

In his report, O'Donnell contends that without the peer review process that accompanies external research funding, there are few internal measures to objectively measure "if the hundreds of millions of dollars of student- and taxpayer-financed faculty time each year that is spent on this research is leading to important discoveries that advance knowledge, improve society or human well-being, or improve teaching and learning."

UT measures research outputs in a number of ways, Fenves said, including peer-reviewed publications, conference participation and the ability to win competitive grants. “Data analysis is very important at the university,” he said. “We do measure what we do and are interested in improving it to accomplish our mission.”

Fenves said that, according to his own analysis of school of engineering data, 70 percent of semester credit hours at the undergraduate level are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty.

“There will no doubt be critics to my approach and some who would shoot the messenger,” O’Donnell anticipates in his report. He says his analysis is not meant to attack any individual professors and he made sure it was not solely focused on UT. “It’s really about the modern research university,” he said, though detailed faculty productivity data of the sort UT and A&M have released is still not common.

A previous analysis — the aforementioned white paper that questioned the value of academic research and was written for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative organization that has promoted a controversial set of “solutions” for higher education — was found to contain a number of errors. O’Donnell and the foundation said this was due to a production “snafu” that has since been addressed. O’Donnell does not expect any similar findings with regard to his latest release.

As for employment, O’Donnell, a former director of Colorado's higher education department, says he’s currently consulting for a number of clients in Texas and other states. This analysis, however, was done separately from those endeavors, without any external backing.

“I’m doing what I’ve always done,” he said, “which is trying to think deeply and thoughtfully on important public policy issues.”

Here's O'Donnell's report:

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