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Guest Column: Another Look at the Productivity of UT Teachers

The report on UT teachers' productivity by Richard Vedder and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity is technically accurate — but substantively misleading. A deeper analysis raises troubling questions about how Vedder would change UT.

by Joseph Daniel Ura
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A report on teaching productivity at the University of Texas at Austin by Richard Vedder and his colleagues at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) concludes that there is a “sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members” at UT. Strikingly, they find that the top 20 percent of “faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours” while the bottom 20 percent teach “only 2% of all student credit hours.” On this basis, Dr. Vedder and his coauthors argue that substantial financial savings are available to UT by increasing the average teaching loads of faculty and eliminating a large number of positions held by “the least productive” faculty members. This recommendation was repeated Dr. Vedder in an editorial in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, calling for “the faculty to teach, on average, about 150-160 students a year.”

The CCAP report is technically accurate but substantively misleading. In particular, the CCAP provides a muddled picture of teaching at UT by describing the distribution of teaching duties for the university’s entire faculty together, lumping together data on full-time faculty with data on part-time faculty and data from graduate colleges and programs with data from colleges and programs that mainly serve undergraduates. As a result, the CCAP report creates a false impression of inequity in the assignment of teaching duties at UT and overstates the feasibility of reducing faculty costs without undermining the quality of UT’s academic programs.

First, much of the skew in teaching duties observed by the CCAP report authors is simply a function of the fact that UT employs a large number of part-time faculty. Nearly a third (33 percent) of UT’s faculty are appointed at 50 percent effort or less.  (The percentage of effort employed is defined as a “faculty member's percent of time in relation to a full or normal workload, summed and averaged across … fall 2009 and spring 2010” and reported in the UT data as “Average Percent Appointment.”) As one might expect, the part-time instructors and professors teach fewer students and credit hours, on average, than full-time faculty.

Table 1: Employment Status and Relative Teaching Output

Faculty Appointment Percent Effort

Productivity Cohort0-25%26-50%51-75%76-100%
Most Productive 1.1 7.9 5.8 85.2
Second Quintile 1.7 17.5 4.2 76.7
Third Quintile 5.0 23.2 3.1 68.7
Fourth Quintile 12.7 30.0 4.5 52.7
Least Productive 39.4 24.5 3.7 32.4
% All Faculty 12.0 20.6 4.3 63.1

Indeed, as Table 1 shows, nearly two-thirds of the bottom quintile is faculty appointments of 50 percent or less. Many of the remaining faculty members in the bottom teaching productivity quintile are assigned to other, nonteaching duties in the university such as student services and academic support. All in all, nearly 75 percent of the least productive fifth of UT faculty are part-time employees (50 percent or less) or are explicitly assigned to other, nonteaching duties in the university for at least 50 percent of their appointment. Though the preliminary data provided by UT provide little insight into the reasons for the modest teaching assignments of the remaining 25 percent of the bottom quintile, it is clear that the bottom fifth of faculty at UT in terms of student credit hour productivity are not principally full-time faculty members shirking their teaching obligations.

Table 2: Mean and Median Total Credit Hours (TCH) by Employment Status

Employment StatusMean TCHMedian TCH% Faculty% TCH
100-76% Appointment 388.1 254.5 63.1 77.9
51-75% Appointment 405.7 228.9 4.3 5.6
26-50% Appointment 199.7 138.0 20.6 13.0
0-25% Appointment 78.3 45.0 12.0 3.5

The relationship between employment status and teaching productivity is further evident in the average (mean and median) student credit hours produced by members of each employment status cohort (Table 2). Full-time faculty and more-than-half-time faculty typically teach substantially more student credit hours than faculty members appointed for half time or less.

Additionally, the differences in the mean and median values of the total student hours taught by various groups of faculty suggest that some of the variance in the number of student credit hours taught by faculty members follows from a distribution of teaching duties in which some faculty members are assigned introductory courses (which may enroll hundreds of students in any given section) while others lead advanced undergraduate courses (which often only enroll 35 or fewer students) or graduate courses (which may have as few as 5 students).

A three-hour introductory course with 300 students will produce 900 credit hours, while a three-hour advanced course with 30 students will produce only 90. Yet, it is a serious mistake to presume that the former represents ten times as much work or educational value as the latter. The instructor of an introductory course may convey basic material to a large number of students, but the instructor of the small course provides careful, individual attention to students’ intellectual development and academic skills. Conclusions of substantial skewness in teaching duties at UT rely, in part, on a false equivalence between the quality of student credit hours in large introductory courses and small advanced courses. This impression is exacerbated in the analysis of a single year of data, which is unlikely to reflect faculty members’ rotation between introductory and advanced or graduate courses over time.

Breaking down average teaching productivity by faculty appointment type (percentage effort) and college provides a more useful picture of teaching at UT than simply looking at the distribution of teaching duties across all faculty and programs. The table below reports the average (mean) number of students taught per year (presuming 3.0 credit hours per student) by faculty in each of UT’s colleges by appointment type. The table separates colleges in which a majority of credit hours are earned by graduate students from those in which a majority of credit hours are earned by undergraduate students. The table also reports the average teaching load for faculty in each college weighted by the appointment types of its faculty.

Table 3: Average Estimated Number of Students Taught by College and Appointment Level

Faculty % Appointment (100%=Normal, Full-Time Appointment)

College100-76%75-51%50-26%25-0%Weighted Average
Majority Undergraduate Credit Hours          
Business 177.2 294.5 142.3 50.2 212.7
Natural Sciences 209.8 127 96.8 26.7 176.9
Communications 171.2 75.2 75 28.7 169.5
Liberal Arts 136 184.5 59.4 31.9 140.3
Engineering 123.2 144.3 82.6 32.9 136.8
Education 106.6 77.7 67.5 25.2 115.9
Architecture 96.6 78.5 29.9 22.5 88.5
Fine Arts 65 86.9 67.8 12.6 85.9
Nursing 63.9 26.5 23.8 8.5 59.4
Majority Graduate Credit Hours          
Information 58.5 -- 118.8 66.3 191.2
Pharmacy 81.4 55.9 63.8 18.4 184
Social Work 81.2 64.9 40.9 22.3 93.6
Law 89.9 12.5 23.7 12.8 80.3
Public Affairs 52.2 30.5 16.4 16.2 59.1
Undergrad Colleges 135.5 143.3 68.8 30.4 143.8
Grad Colleges 78.8 38.6 42.3 20.6 110.6
All Colleges 129.4 135.2 66.6 26.1 139.5

Though these are precisely the same data analyzed by the CCAP report, dissecting the data by faculty appointment type and college provides a very different view of teaching at UT.

First, CCAP’s aggregate analysis of UT’s data masks the existence of much high volume teaching already in place at UT. Indeed, several of colleges at UT already exceed the productivity guidelines suggested by Dr. Vedder’s Wall Street Journal editorial. Faculty in the colleges of Business, Communication, Natural Sciences, and Pharmacy all teach a weighted average of more than 150 students each year. Also, faculty in the colleges of Liberal Arts and Engineering are within 10 percent of a 150 student per year target (weighted average), as is the university as a whole. Thus, in colleges for which economies of scale may be reasonably leveraged to provide instruction to large numbers of students, average faculty teaching productivity is quite high.

In contrast, lower teaching loads are centered in colleges that principally serve graduate students or require the close supervision of students in clinical, practical, or performance settings.  Half of the colleges with weighted average faculty teaching loads of less than 100 students per year — the colleges of Law, Public Affairs, and Social Work- — are exclusively or predominantly oriented towards graduate and professional studies. Among low-teaching load colleges that principally serve undergraduate students, the academic programs offered by the colleges of Architecture, Nursing, and Fine Arts almost certainly deal with subject matter that simply requires closer supervision of students than we might expect in other undergraduate colleges on average.

Inequalities in the assignment of nominal teaching duties across UT’s faculty is, therefore, seemingly driven by faculty members’ appointment types, class sizes, and fields of expertise. Making modest efforts to account for these factors shows a much more reasonable current distribution of teaching duties across UT’s faculty than the CCAP report would suggest. This alternative analysis of the UT data argues against the feasibility and wisdom of attempting to generate financial savings from the redistribution of teaching work loads as proposed by the CCAP report and repeated in Dr. Vedder’s Wall Street Journal editorial.

First, eliminating the least productive quintile of teachers at UT means purging many part-time faculty positions. These instructors are often working professionals who provide valuable supplements to the scholarly expertise of tenured and tenure-track faculty. Dismissing them for “low productivity” without accounting for their part-time status or the programs in which they teach is short-sighted and threatens the quality of many academic programs.

Second, expanding class sizes to achieve arbitrary teaching productivity targets threatens the viability of academic programs that rely on close attention to and supervision of students, such as professional programs in law and public policy, undergraduate programs in nursing and laboratory sciences, and doctoral programs in nearly every area of the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

Finally, increasing teaching loads will undermine the university’s research mission, which has the twin objectives of generating new knowledge and promoting expert teaching. Forty percent of UT’s tenured and tenure-track faculty have received external research support in the past five years, and many more are nationally and internationally prominent experts in their fields of expertise. Increasing teaching loads will, by definition, crowd out at least some of this scholarly work. This will constrain the body of knowledge produced by UT’s faculty and limit the extent to which the university’s teaching is informed by cutting-edge research.

Tuition and fees for most in-state undergraduate students at UT will be less than $10,000 next year compared with about $12,000 at the University of Michigan and $33,000 at Rice University in Houston. Ultimately, the reforms proposed by CCAP may generate additional savings for UT’s students and the state of Texas. These savings are not without a price, though. Eliminating part-time faculty positions, expanding class sizes, and increasing full-time faculty members’ teaching loads will come at the expense of the scope and quality of the academic programs offer by the University of Texas — turning UT from a top-tier research university into just another second-rate institution. That may be a tradeoff the people of Texas are willing to make, but reducing faculty costs at UT is not a free lunch.

Joseph Daniel Ura is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University in College Station.

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