What Are Professors Worth?

A couple of days ago, my dean forwarded this Wall Street Journal article, “Putting a Price on Professors,” to me. It seems that some universities are attempting to quantify the monetary value of individual faculty members by using complicated spreadsheets to arrive at a figure based on number of students taught and grant money secured.

I understand the thinking behind these measures and am sympathetic towards it to a degree. There are public universities out there that have gorged on public money for decades and now are facing the reality that the gravy train may be coming to an end. They have to figure out a way to make cuts somehow in the face of budget crises and public outrage at the level of ignorance among college graduates. Surely there’s some low-hanging fruit out there in the form of faculty members who have light teaching loads and are producing marginal or frivolous scholarship (in other words, scholarship not valued by the university’s constituency). From the article: “They [critics] see a system in which some tenured professors teach just two or three classes a year, sometimes on obscure topics that mesh with their research but not necessarily with student needs. At the same time, more instruction is handled by part-time lecturers, who now make up at least 50% of the nation’s higher-education faculty—up from 30% in 1975, according to the American Association of University Professors.

Meanwhile, tuition is soaring; undergraduate costs at public four-year universities climbed 139% between 1990 and 2010, according to the nonprofit College Board.”

Ludwig von Mises showed in Bureaucracy how the absence of a price system in state-run enterprises made rational economic calculation impossible, and it is easy to see why a public university’s administrators would find this idea of coming up with a single number reflecting the professor’s value to be very attractive.

As usual, the devil is in the details. Because universities are not-for-profit enterprises, revenue from tuition or grants cannot be the sole consideration when trying to determine a faculty member’s value. The real question is to what extent the professor advances the mission of the institution. For many universities, this is a problematic question because they don’t understand or agree on what their mission is!

At Christian universities, hopefully we have a clearer idea of our mission and can make reasonable judgments about the contributions of all personnel towards it. Since our schools have always had to be extremely attentive to the bottom line, I doubt that we’ll have to undergo the bloodbath that seems to be looming in many other places. Even so, there are probably pockets of complacency that need to be shaken up, and regular performance reviews are one way of addressing them. However, I have my doubts that a system like the one described in this article can be the most effective one to evaluate individual faculty members.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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2 Responses to What Are Professors Worth?

  1. Timothy Terrell says:

    If the bureaucrats try to measure faculty “contributions” to the institution using these quantitative approaches, they will have results that I think would be similar to using SAT scores or some other testing to measure the performance of public schools. That is, faculty will respond to whatever the variable is that’s judged to be a proxy for their contributions. If it’s number of students taught, they’ll let it be known that they’re an “easy A” and require no work of students–their classes pack out. Then we get “grade inflation” to an even greater extent. It might be harder to “game the system” with grants, but there are other things that are important to the institution besides teaching loads and grant money. What about the relationship with alumni? The other service to the college? Cross-pollination with other faculty in informal discussions? Being available and friendly to donors?

    • Dr. J says:

      We’re on the same wavelength. The things you mention are all important factors in advancing the institution’s mission, and the danger of skewing performance to suit the metric is a huge issue.

      There was a typo in the paragraph on Mises above. Originally it read that the absence of a price system made calculation possible. Of course it should have read “impossible.” I corrected it just now.

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