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The Productivity Dilemma

The Productivity Dilemma
 

It looks like a key issue this year in Virginia will focus on faculty productivity. A few legislators are gearing up to question whether tenured faculty, in particular, work hard enough and whether changes might occur that would cut costs and, of course, relieve pressure on the General Assembly to add funding for higher education. (Note: even new funding will not compensate for cuts over the past several years, and we need to avoid facile comments about how education costs rise so rapidly when in fact the key problem has been reductions on the state end.)  Productivity discussions are not new, of course.  And we know from Texas and other areas that the debate is already vigorously engaged in other places.

The most obvious initial reaction to claims by probing legislators is going to be defensive. Our faculty, by and large, work very hard. Formal teaching loads capture only a portion of what they do. Many legislators have only the foggiest notion of standard academic work obligations, so we’ll work to improve their grasp. And I think we can do a better job in our own reporting, for example figuring out how to take clearer account on the individualized and co-curricular instruction faculty provide through reading courses, dissertation direction, consulting with student groups and the like.

We also need to improve knowledge about the competitive climate for faculty recruitment and retention. A recent hearing featured a claim that, given the economic downturn, it should be easier to get faculty on the cheap. In the many, apart from a very few fields where new PhDs are overabundant, this simply isn’t so. Much tampering with things like course loads will quickly result in personnel problems, and our critics need to understand this.

How persuasive the defensive effort will prove to be is, of course, anyone’s guess. It’s not always easy to explain the complexities of academic workload, and some critics are probably so bent on avoiding fiscal pressure that they’ll be pretty immune to data.

At the same time, it would be constructive to try to work with some of our legislative guardians beyond the purely defensive-administrative effort. Why not offer, for example, to include a simple productivity evaluation as part of the annual assessment of faculty we already undertake — just an effort report on course loads, other work with students, essential committee assignments and, obviously, research. I would hope that most faculty would be willing to accept an in-house comment in the name of transparency and equity, particularly if it helps assure appropriate levels of higher ed support in return. Why not talk a bit more widely — we’ve already begun the conversation — about the types of courses where enrollment could expand just a bit without educational damage — for after all, it’s ultimately students handled, not course load, that really measure this aspect of productivity?

In current conditions, a modicum of flexibility in dialogue may prove impossible — critics are too critical, academics too nervous about conceding any point. But there is, at least in principle, the possibility for a more fruitful approach, where mutual goals can be acknowledged and some modifications to the status quo considered. The opportunity is, however, at the very least, quite challenging.