Faculty Productivity Considered

Guest blogger Johann Neem is Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University and author of the book "Creating a Nation of Joiners" (2008).

“Faculty Productivity Considered”

In a recent post “Campus CFO’s are Right” (1) on The Chronicle of Higher Education website, education reformer and critic Richard Vedder slams faculty for their low productivity, and urges that faculty be required to be in their office from 9am to 5pm, and to teach more classes.

Vedder seems to have lost touch with the creative economy of the 21st century, drawing instead from the 19th-century theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He seems to think that creative work can be produced on an industrial model. He makes several mistakes here.

First, he assumes that there is a productivity problem. There is no reason to think this. Studies in fact show that faculty often work over time to meet their teaching and scholarly goals. Moreover, productivity cannot be measured by the number of classes taught, but by the effectiveness of the classroom experience. Efficiency requires doing the same for less, not doing less for less.

Second, he assumes that creative work can be standardized and made predictable. In fact, the most creative businesses have sought to develop college campus-like environments. The entire culture of Silicon Valley, including large corporations like Microsoft, has been oriented around fostering creativity by allowing employees greater flexibility. Thus, businesses build campuses, order pizza, and even provide couches and common areas. They allow their employees to work all night, or all day. The best corporations know that creative work is not done on a factory model, but instead by setting clear goals and allowing workers to meet them in their own way.

Despite Vedder’s accusations, colleges have been at the forefront of productivity. The best businesses have emulated colleges. Vedder’s solutions would undermine productivity rather than increase it.

Vedder offers two objections to this claim. First, he argues, that most scholarly research is trivial. That is his judgment. In fact, the purpose of scholarly research is not to gain a high number of readers, but to influence our understanding of the world. If scholars read it, and if they use it to pursue new knowledge, it matters little whether most of it reaches the general public. What matters is whether it is used in ways that help the public. And here, there are many examples. Small research innovations in science can be combined to produce new innovations of greater reach, whether as commodities like a fuel-efficient car, or simply deeper understandings of the nature of atoms.

The same is true in the humanities and social sciences. Scholarly work is translated to the broader public through teaching, through textbooks, and through the work of popularizers and synthesizers. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, relies heavily on social science research for his best-selling books. The same is true for historians David McCullough and Gordon Wood. What matters, then, is not whether a particular article or book has sold thousands of copies, but whether it is a contribution to our understanding of the world. And if it is, in time it will be used.

Vedder’s second objection is that most faculty never publish an article each year. Of course, again he is making some mistakes. Scholarly research takes time. In history, a single article can take years of research—much of it, of necessity, outside the office. By forcing more publishing more quickly, Vedder will ensure the triviality he fears.

More important, most faculty publish little because most American colleges are focused on teaching and have high teaching loads. Vedder uses the low teaching loads at a handful of American research institutions like UT-Austin to account for the low scholarly productivity of faculty at teaching institutions. He is simply stereotyping and mixing categories.

One must wonder, then, what motivates Vedder. Perhaps he simply dislikes faculty because they have the ability to exercise control over their working conditions. Perhaps he supports the trend reallocating authority in American work life from workers—whether faculty or unionized employees—to managers.

But I think that there is a deeper issue. Vedder cannot fathom the fact that faculty teach and write because they want to share knowledge with the world. If they wanted to make money, they would have gone to business school, law school, or architectural school and then worked in the kinds of offices Vedder admires. But what makes faculty so productive is that they are motivated by other ends, that they are mission oriented. Most corporations struggle to develop this sense of mission in their employees in order to increase productivity; colleges have it handed to them. Their faculty are willing to work harder for less money than other professionals because they are committed to a calling.

Vedder’s perspective is not that of someone seeking to improve teaching and scholarship. Rather it is of someone who thinks that faculty must be controlled and put in their place. It seems that Vedder cannot imagine a world in which people believe in their work, and thus he seeks to impose incentives and rules that would fundamentally alter the source of faculty creativity and hard work.

Editor’s note:

(1) Ironically, you can get to Vedder’s article by TYPING the address in the URL: http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/campus-cfos-are-right/29787

Victor Borden has a very interesting and informative article “The Accountability/Improvement Paradox” in Inside Higher Ed (April 30, 2010) http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/04/30/borden

Please send your update about the current situation of higher education in your state or your commentary on national trends affecting public higher education to teri.yamada@gmail.com.




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