State productivity study upsets college professors

By Robert Becker
Tribune higher education reporter

December 26, 2003

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."

The board initiative has angered faculty and administrators, who characterize as "willful ignorance" the state's efforts to meddle with the inner workings of research universities.

"Either they don't have the slightest idea how higher education works on the research level--or they do know what it does, and they have set out to destroy it," said Stanley Fish, outgoing dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In tough fiscal times, faculty often appear an easy target for cash-strapped lawmakers, who like to take budgetary aim at teachers who may spend only a small part of their workweek in the classroom.

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."

Similar effort in the '90s

In the early 1990s, the board launched a similar effort to assess "quality," "productivity" and "priorities" at state universities. The agency targeted 120 programs for elimination based largely on enrollment trends, forcing universities to eliminate or consolidate nearly 250 programs.

University faculty and administrators like Fish, who announced that he will step down at the end of the academic year, caution that universities--particularly those with significant research programs--are unique enterprises that defy standard comparisons.

Part of the problem, Fish said, is that state officials have not addressed fundamental questions about the form that higher education in the state should take.

"Has the state faced directly what kind of university we want in this state--both here in Chicago and Urbana--and are we willing to support it?" said Fish, who has held posts at Duke and Johns Hopkins. "I don't think that question has ever been fairly faced in Illinois."

Faculty also say the activities of professors can't be judged by traditional standards.

"There's a misconception that if we teach nine hours a week, that's all we do," said Allan Karnes, a professor and director of the School of Accountancy at Southern Illinois University. "And that's just not the case."

The American Association of University Professors has long held that "no single formula for an equitable faculty workload can be devised for all of American higher education."

The association argues that, "What is fair and works well in the community college may be inappropriate for the university, and the arrangement thought necessary in the technical institute may be irrelevant in the liberal arts college."

Robert Kreiser, senior program officer at the association, said faculty workload "is a very complicated issue."

"One way of dealing with those who hold the purse strings is to make them more aware of what faculty do in fact do," Kreiser said.

In Illinois, initial efforts to begin such a discussion have been marked by frustration on both sides. In response to a challenge from Kaplan, the education board's faculty advisory council submitted a report on measuring faculty productivity Dec. 9. The report, which will be used as background material by the review committee, noted that faculty, especially those at research institutions, "are often between a rock and a hard place."

The report stated that not only are researchers expected to be stellar investigators in their field, but also "the public, legislators and higher-education officials in the state expect them to spend all or a major portion of their time in the classroom."

Kaplan said faculty members have "circled the wagons" on the topic of productivity.

"I expected a real academic discourse between us--the board and the faculty," said Kaplan, who practices law in Chicago. "But it's anything but that."

Not out to quash research

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.

Karnes, who serves on the board's faculty advisory council, said he understands that Kaplan is trying to address a budget crisis and that legislators view faculty productivity as a means of stretching dollars further. But Karnes said faculty are routinely evaluated--by their institution for tenure or by their peers in order to publish in scholarly journals.

"There are already a lot of different measures," Karnes said. "You hate to throw a guy out who is going to be a Nobel prize winner, and you can do that if you take too short a view."

"The fantasy is to think you can maintain the research faculty and everything it brings with it, and put new demands that make the production of research more and more difficult--you can't do it that way," Fish said.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune