Friday, December 26, 2003

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The Illinois gurus of faculty productivity

The Chicago Tribune reports that faculty working at Illinois state colleges and universities had better be productive this year:

The Illinois Board of Higher Education has launched a controversial examination of faculty productivity, a move that has riled professors at public universities throughout the state.

Having challenged university administrators to pare costs and increase their own productivity, board Chairman James Kaplan wants to take the same look at college faculty.

Accordingly, Kaplan has impaneled a committee that will begin early next year to review everything, from what kind of research projects faculty undertake to how much time they spend in the classroom.

Kaplan said that with the state's finances still in trouble, a close look at faculty productivity--even in traditionally sacrosanct areas like research--is warranted.

Kaplan said he does not intend to "stymie" research at public colleges and universities, but "there's got to be a tangible, measurable benefit for the people of the state of Illinois for a professor doing research."

A few thoughts on this:

1) I'm not sure if the fault lies with the Tribune's reporting or Kaplan's statements, but what's being debated here is not productivity -- which is the units of output generated divided by the units of inputs involved in the production process. What the Illinois Board of Higher Education appears to be concerned with is output (A slightly more charitable read is the board is simply holding inputs -- in the form of faculty salaries -- constant, and trying to figure out how to squeeze more output -- in the form of classes taught, etc.).

2) I wonder if Kaplan really understands the economics of higher education, and the role that research grants play in funding university budgets. From a state perspective, the benefits of research activity are not just the fruits of the research -- the benefits also come from the employment of research staff. Click here for a recent local story dealing with the relationship between research, teaching, and benefits to Illinois.

3) Reading some of Kaplan's quotes in the article, it's not clear if he knows anything about higher education -- or public relations:

Despite studies that show college faculty routinely work more than 50 hours a week, the paucity of classroom time and the sometimes esoteric nature of their research has officials like Kaplan expressing impatience with the culture that pervades parts of academia.

"I'm a practical guy, I am not an egghead," Kaplan said. "I can't sit and do these ephemeral things."....

Kaplan stressed he's not out to quash research programs or load professors up with unreasonable course loads.

"Nothing is farther from my mind [than] to focus on classroom time," Kaplan said. "We recognize the importance of public service and also of research."

And in a comment sure to set off a firestorm, Kaplan said faculty should attend professional conferences on their own time.

"I don't view going to a conference as a public service," he said.

As much as I like to poke fun at academic conferences, this last statement is idiotic. All professions have some form of continuing education so that they stay on top of their field. Conferences serve this function for most academic disciplines.

4) It's not easy working at a state university of college. The name itself is partially misleading, because it implies that the state shoulders most of the burden to pay for these institutions. In fact, according to this report, the percentage contribution of state taxes to the University of Illinois system's operating budget has declined from 46.6% in 1980 to an estimated 23.5% in 2004. Despite this fact, the state's control over the university system -- with its added layers of regulation and bureacucacy -- has not changed one iota.

UPDATE: AtlanticBlog and Cold Spring Shops have more on this.

posted by Dan on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM


“"I'm a practical guy, I am not an egghead," Kaplan said. "I can't sit and do these ephemeral things."....”

James Kaplan immediately reminds me of those who are illegitimately scornful of “eggheads.” Richard Hofstadter’s wrote about this phenomenon in his seminal --Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)--. This is the sort of bad anti-intellectualism which I unhesitatingly reject. Is there such a thing as good anti-intellectualism. Yup, there most certainly is! I also whole heartedly agree with William F. Buckley that it would be better to be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone than the faculty of Harvard University. One simply has to make the proper distinctions.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

Well, this I find depressing.

Look, Hip-Hooray for productivity checkers, as many's the tiime I've sat at my PC and whiled away at the web while waiting the results of this decision or that. But I think perhaps Mr. Kaplan is in the wrong line of work for productivity arguments. My contention goes something like this.

AMong other reasons, my friendship with Tom Foster (this boards TommyG) has to do with a shared past. Tom now 'totes the gun' as I did in my younger days, and one hopes that he'll use that expertise to one day follow on and direct 'things'.

Back when I was 'toting the gun', stomping about the back-marshes of this rock, I took it as a matter of course that my efforts on the 'all execution, no thinking' front were balanced by some 'egg-head' with a 'THD' thinking deep thoughts back in the good ol' e pluribus unum.

And I'd be just as angry to here that some 'efficiency expert' was stalking professors in the white towers, as I would when they showed up (and they did) with their clip-boards and started telling us that a squad of 9 could accomplish just as much as a squad of 11 (Mind you, I think it's down to 7 now). The social contract implicit in professional organizations - whether organized for breaking things, or fixing things - is that they police themselves. At least that is what was being taught at university when I attended.

Mr. Kaplan, if *your* professionals are not to be allowed to pursue knowledge for it's own sake, then who is?

posted by: Art Wellesley on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

Josef Pieper perspicaciously contended that “Leisure: (is) The Basis of Culture.” A persistently active person will rarely, if ever, achieve intellectual greatness. Choosing the life of the scholar requires one to possess something of the contemplative spirit. You definitely need to to “waste” time. And I might also add, you must enjoy being by yourself for long periods of time.

posted by: David Thomson on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

They could always hire professors in India, and have the classes provided by videoconference, or by prerecorded streaming video.

posted by: Jon H on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

Having spent 20 years as a business "practitioner" (as academics humorously call us)and now the last 5 years as an academician, I can say without a doubt....Let me say this a little more emphatically, I can say in no uncertain terms that the academic community is a sesspool of inefficiency and laziness. Kaplan has hit the motherlode of logic. And he will quickly realize that the process will involve changing the "diapers" of a whole community of screeching 2 year olds.

posted by: ken on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]


I'd say your post says a lot mroe about you than about Mr. Kaplan. Specifically, you seem to have a religious belief that "Universities" and "Professors" are good, without any examination of what they're actually accomplishing (i.e. "output).

American Universities are finally starting to reap what they've sown. This is a good thing. What is the benefit to the IL taxpayer of one more monograph on "Feminist images in Jane Autin's books", or whatever drivel the English Profs are publishing these days? If they're not teaching great works that speak to us across the generations, exactly what are they accomplishing that makes them worth the money we're spending on them?

There are a lot of things the government, and people in general, can spend money on. Bastions of thought and knowledge, dedicated to learning and understanding, would be quite valuable. Bastions of political correctness, group-think, and left wing indoctrination are not. Unfortunately, US Universtities today seem to be more of the later.

It's long been a source of amusement to read telling critiques of the current system of funding research, published by academics. Who then turn around and scream like gelded horses when anyone tries to address the issue. Which is what this sounds like.

posted by: Greg D on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

"Despite this fact, the state's control over the university system -- with its added layers of regulation and bureacucacy -- has not changed one iota."

It would seem that Kaplan and the Administration are buddy buddy. As most bureacucacys are.

Clean up the administration, put some good leaders in there, then let the new administration clean up the expences, teachers, ect.

posted by: Jim Coomes on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

Socio-orthographic note: posters who favor "efficiency" also seem to have trouble spelling. This is not to dispute that academe is a sesspool [sic] of, um, you know, waste.

But I expect that a meaningful evaluation (or, God help us, "metric") of academic productivity will take a bit more thought than Kaplan wants to give it. Of course academics have come up with plenty of these themselves. They're called rankings. Perhaps you could divide them by budget to provide a starting point?

posted by: Adjarian on 12.26.03 at 10:39 AM [permalink]

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