Expanding the dialogue on productivity

Larisa Manescu

The topic of the productivity of University professors is often a contentious one in the higher education community. Recently, the UT System Board of Regents approved a proposal to tighten evaluations of tenured professors, effective immediately, to provide an incentive for continued productivity. The details of the new rules include adding the categories of “exceeds expectations” and “meets expectations” to the rating nomenclature that currently only includes “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory.” Additionally, the board’s move calls for strengthened annual reviews, increasingly thorough six-year reviews and a “remediation” process for professors judged to be unsatisfactory. Although the details of the reformed review system, including what “remediation” would involve, have yet to be specified, it may provide a holistic alternative to past aggregated data, which cannot stand alone in representing the range of professor value.

In the past six months, different advisers to the University have collected data with the purpose of accurately illustrating professor productivity. At the request of the UT Board of Regents last November, Marc Musick, associate dean for student affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, compiled salary figures, teaching loads and research grants into a 39-page analysis that concluded: “The 1,988 tenured and tenure track professors at UT work very hard for their students and provide an incredible return on investment for the state.” This conclusion ran counter to earlier claims from an analysis by former UT system adviser Rick O’Donnell. He wrote that the majority of UT and A&M faculty members are “dodgers” and “coasters,” meaning that they carry relatively low teaching loads and bring in little external research funding.

According to an Austin American-Statesman article comparing the two reports, “the widely divergent conclusions are due primarily to the different methods the researchers used to cut and count the raw numbers.” Since different investigators may value the data differently or even present the figures to show desirable but not fully representative results, the intensified individual evaluation proposed by the regents may prove to be a revealing and valuable alternative. For example, the concept of aggregating numbers in reports causes “freeloading” professors to be ultimately lost in the averages, whereas individual evaluation would specifically locate and attempt to reform those professors.

The proposal seems like a progressive idea, especially since professors generally work without close supervision and bear little public scrutiny. Although the freedom and independence of professors should be respected, it is reasonable to demand transparency within the system. The new review should highlight and reward the individual efforts of professors that are already pulling their own loads and mean that underachievers could no longer slip through the cracks.

However, the proposal troubles Alan Friedman, professor of English and chair of the Faculty Council. “Annual reviews will have to be taken far more seriously” because two successive unsatisfactory ratings can lead to possible termination, Friedman told the Austin American-Statesman earlier this month. “That’s a radical change,” he added.

However, Friedman’s anxiety may be misplaced. The fundamental objective of the tightened review is to reward high performance and target low performance. Based on the new rules, a reputable, well-established professor that is consistently productive would not have to be concerned about receiving deficient ratings in the first place.

However, the ease with which the regents have used their power and influence to make independent decisions in the past is troubling and undemocratic. That the primary voice of dissent is the chair of the Faculty Council, a representative of the body of professors that this change would affect, stresses the necessity of further discussion between the Faculty Council and the regents before any permanent changes are made.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations freshman.