Sunday, October 24, 2010

Value of Professors

In Saturday's WSJ, there is a lengthy piece about measuring the value added of professors at public schools. The author focused on Texas schools, especially Texas A&M. Apparently, A&M developed an income statement approach based on tuition generated by the individual prof less costs incurred by the prof, and then the difference was value added. Since the school is public, I don't see any problem with this. Tax payers, present and future, have a right to know how their confiscated funds are being deployed.

While there appears to be quite a lot of problems with the approach taken here, which I'll get to shortly, I must say that the concept of calculating individual value added is a good one. This is something every person should do when engaged in work for others: ask "what is my value-added here?" For professors, this is something that revolves around the primary tasks of teaching and research, along with "service."

Value added for teaching, for me, means this: whatever the students could get from reading/working on their own is my baseline. My teaching has to go beyond that level for me to be considered to be "teaching" at all. The further beyond you go, the better you are doing. Good teaching, like good anything, is hard work. Same goes for research, but by and large, students at the undergraduate level don't care about our research and their the ones paying the bulk of the tab, in gross. So on a day-to-day, I mostly think about value added in teaching.

So, an exercise to focus on profs value added I think is important. Now to the technical problems with the method of A&M. I'm sure they counted and added up the numbers correctly, so I don't mean technical in that sense. Rather, I mean technical in the sense that I don't think they have the measurements conceptually straight to begin with. Specifically, the don't seem to be able to differentiate between investment and consumption - one builds stock, the other is just flow.

For example, they find that a senior science prof has value added of near $250,000 per year, whereas a rookie prof has value added of around -$50,000. The senior prof has established, the rookie spent most of the year building a lab, applying for grants, and so forth. His negative value added constitutes investments, whereas the senior prof is earning the net profit from earlier investments. I didn't see anything in the paper that suggested this conceptual differentiation was occurring. I hope that, since this is apparently A&M's first stab at this issue, they'll get better with time. Probably there is some worthwhile reading there, if I can get my hands on the full report, too. You never get all the details in a newspaper article.

The upside I see here, that I mentioned before but will close with, is that such exercises cause us to focus on the value added potential that exists. So will I lament the fact that such-and-so professor can't teach "Medieval Folk Literature of Romania" to three people every year? Without question I will not. Such rarefied material is fine at a private university. But if folks want to insist on public universities and that an education is a public good then the education itself has to result in productive skills.

By the way, I don't buy into the whole public good b.s. I don't think we should have public universities. But that's another post for another day.


  1. Aside from the issue of whether or not their should be public universities, let me address the question of the humanities professor teaching '"Medieval Folk Literature of Romania" to three people every year'. First, it is unlikely that such a class would in fact be taught every year, of course. Typically, it would be atught once in a two or four year cycle, to ensure the graduate students who would be interested in such a class would get their opportunity to take it. Second, teaching such a class is in fact part of the scholarly work a professor does -- the readings and discussions help the professor think through their work and thus contributes to their scholarly production. Third, such a class will be the kind of class that departments use to reward their professors for teaching Literature I. If your department won't let him teach that class, some other department will, and they will attract him and get the benefit of having such a scholar on their faculty. Having such scholars improves one's department's status, which attracts more students, even those who are not particularly intersted in taking "Medieval Folk Literature of Romania", but who may be interested in folk studies/literature. Finally, there is in fact little or no real cost to teaching a class like "Medieval Folk Literature of Romania". The professor is going to be paid whatever he's going to be paid, whether he teaches two or three or four classes a semester. If he would have taught three classes, but is willing to teach four if he can teach "Medieval Folk Literature of Romania", then the only real cost is electricity for the room he teaches in, which is likely covered by the tuition of the students who sign up for it. This suggests that an economic analysis of such marginal classes would argue for keeping them, as it has little real cost, but creates benefit in creating a more prestigous department, thus attracting more students to the department. A more prestigous department also creates a more prestigous university, which attracts even more students. So marginal classes are not so clearly uneconomical as they at first appear to be.

  2. Troy,

    You've got some good points there, and part of my as yet unwritten response will be to address this in a public university setting.

    But, I thought you might enjoy this:, from the Canadian perspective. Our unis are hybrids of public/private financing.

  3. Just read your recommended posting. Very interesting. It seems logical to me that funding should follow the students, as he discusses. It seems to me, then, that things like composition courses, for example, could subsidize "boutique" courses in a sense, precisely because the professors would in fact have the incentives I suggested they have. Either way, the more market-based allocation they came up with is far better than the one they had, to be sure.

    Too bad one cannot have truy supply-and-demand pricing of classes. It seems to me that the necessity of required classes would make that untenable at best (could you imagine what the pricing would be if the English department, say, could price Composition I anything they wanted, and it was an absolutely required course? -- talk about monopoly pricing!). I do wonder what could be worked out along these lines, though, so that there was a pricing mechanism, required courses, and an ability to provide highly specialized courses as well.