Monday, August 1, 2011

Innovation Drought in Texas

By Keith McDowell

You gotta luv Texas! Only in the midst of a record drought would the Texas Tea Party movement find a new use for divining rods. And this time the mysterious new water source is guaranteed to bring an end to our troubles. It’s all so simple say the dowsers. All we have to do is drink from the fountain – just don’t bother to check the purity of the water.

Folks, we’re not talking about the lack of rain or the parched farm and grazing land in Texas – a true crisis for the State. We’re talking about the latest version of the Texas two-step: a new dance routine designed to reinvent research universities in Texas. The stage for the dance was set by Governor Rick Perry in 2008 when he supported and requested the adoption by university-system regents of “seven breakthrough solutions” advocated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) – a plan hopefully being slowly cooked to death on the hot Texas asphalt. That endeavor was soon followed by a new brainstorm from Perry – the $10,000 university diploma. We’ll blame that one on Perry for spending too much time in the Texas sun enhancing his tan.

More recently, the water witches have been at work fabricating a new bogeyman to be cured by their divining rods. Yep! Believe it or not, we have a drought in faculty productivity at American research universities. Or so say Rick O’Donnell, Richard Vedder, and others associated with TPPF and related organizations in recent reports deconstructing data provided by the university systems of Texas. Let me be clear! They have a right in America to publish such reports and to hold whatever views they want, no matter how distorted or ill-advised. But the rest of us have to get out of the Texas heat, cool down, review the reports, and weigh the consequences for our State and our Nation.

So what constitutes faculty productivity according to O’Donnell and Vedder? It’s a mixture of teaching and research. Okay, that makes sense. But teaching is measured by the number of credit hours taught by a given faculty member – or some refinement of that number. And research is measured by the external grant dollars procured by a given faculty member. In a simple two-dimensional plot of such data, “stars” are the high performance faculty in terms of productivity with lots of grant money and lots of credit hours taught. “Dodgers” on the other hand teach few students and bring in no grant dollars. And there are other categories of performer on the so-called productivity grid.

“Sherpas” carry the heavy teaching load but bring in no grant dollars. “Pioneers” blaze the research trail with lots of grant money, but a low credit-hour count – guilty according to some of opting out of teaching by buying “release time.” And then there are the great unwashed – did I mention it’s a drought – “coasters” who teach slightly over a hundred students a year and average several hundred thousand dollars in external funding per year. For the record, I was a “coaster,” even though I worked long hours, published many research articles, was an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow, and was honored with a Chancellor’s Council Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2000. But then, theoretical chemical physics just wasn’t a hot spot for grant dollars.

How accurate is O’Donnell’s deconstruction of faculty productivity? I’ll make it easy for you. It is pure phony baloney laced with amusing titles for the faculty groupings and spiced up by the appearance of being data driven. But sadly, a great deal of valuable time and effort is being spent and is going to be spent as the discussion degrades into a Texas style pissing contest to refine the data definitions of the productivity grid and to recast the faculty characterizations that are so wrong and so completely misleading.

Others responsible for the safekeeping of the American research university will take on the task of refuting O’Donnell as the difference between inputs, outputs, and outcomes rule the day. But as a retired faculty member from UT Arlington and a former vice chancellor at UT System, I’m compelled to digress for a moment and comment briefly on two important hidden assumptions that underpin O’Donnell’s productivity deconstruction as examples of how irresponsible O’Donnell’s deconstruction truly is and how easily refuted. Unfortunately, a full explanation of each point would far outstrip the confines of this article.

Credit hours are fungible: On the contrary, credit hours come in “chunks” and cannot be easily redistributed to achieve O’Donnell’s notion of efficiency. For example, each year at UT Arlington, I taught a one-semester graduate course on the thermodynamics of materials. In a given year there was always a cohort of ten to fifteen graduate students ready to take the course – no more, no less. It was a number that could not be changed to make me more “productive.” The same is also true for freshman undergraduates! I regularly taught the honors freshman chemistry course at UT Arlington. Although the course was not capped in terms of the number of students, it attracted about thirty students on average. Most students simply didn’t want to undertake the extra workload to obtain honors credit. Again, it was a “chunk” of indivisible credit hours for a program absolutely essential to a first-rate university.

Dollars are fungible: The notion that research grant dollars are fungible and count toward the average cost to teach one student is complete nonsense. As with many other sources of revenue at universities, grant dollars are restricted in their use and are audited to insure such compliance.

Enough said on the specific details of O’Donnell’s grid and his claim to a productivity drought. What’s the real motivation behind this furor? What is it that drives people to produce such seriously flawed reports? I call it the Texas two-step: an old fashioned jostling where a dance routine provides the flash that covers up the deadly bang. The flash whirls and twirls around the putative goal of saving money for taxpayers and the parents of college students through tea-party driven efficiency. It’s the smokescreen of embracing the protestant work ethic and pretending to rid the world of those faceless and feckless bureaucrats and administrators who consume our dollars while producing little of value – no matter that teachers, firemen, union workers, and other members of the middle-class get swept aside in the cause of “more for less.” It’s the creed of personal greed trumping the common good.

And then we have the deadly bang! The hidden goal of shutting down the imagined nesting and breeding place of liberal and left-wing America: the great American research university. Folks! That’s what it’s really all about. Let’s call it for what it is. Sadly, a small but extremely vocal group of Americans backed by enormous wealth have chosen for various reasons to eliminate the American research university. Appeals to reason or thoughtful and correct analysis are to no avail. It’s not about truth and the advancement of America. It’s about a political agenda coupled to an extremist ideology. And for the record, I’m a moderate independent who balances being a social liberal with being an economic conservative.

Will we pay a price for the Texas two-step? The congressional farce masquerading as a debate on raising the debt limit demonstrates what we can expect. Bringing an end to research universities as we know them will destroy the American engines of innovation. It will cripple, if not defeat, efforts to built and accelerate regional innovation ecosystems and communities of innovation.  Entrepreneurs searching for ideas to nucleate new startup companies and create jobs will find only a desert filled with efficient automatons who teach large sections of students at the lowest possible unit price and grant writers who excel at attracting the lowest-common-denominator dollar far from the risky frontier. It won’t be the putative liberal who disappears from our universities, but our best and brightest who no longer find academe to be an attractive career. In short, Texas will have an innovation drought!

The path advocated by O’Donnell and others, such as it is, is manifestly in the wrong direction. Productivity in our universities – a concept that I wholeheartedly support and believe should be and is being measured – is not about the efficient manufacture of student widgets. It’s not about the simplistic breaking apart of teaching and research into budget categories to achieve some perceived one-dimensional cost containment. Instead, university productivity is about bringing teaching, research, and service together in a holistic manner through the engagement of students in both the research and the entrepreneurial frontiers of our Nation. It’s about the engagement of the research university across the full spectrum of activities in a community of innovation. Therein lies our true future.

Am I angry? You bet! We as a Nation must stand up to those extremists who would waste our time on crazy notions of turning our research universities into cheap diploma mills where degrees are bought and sold as a commodity and consumer product with no measure of quality through standards, or to those extremists who would convert the great American engine of innovation into a mere research assembly line geared to procure the most grant dollars while eradicating the great scholarly activity that has made us who we are. We the people are better than such silliness. Our children deserve our best, not our worst. It’s time to invest in America, not bring the Nation down by base appeals to rank and intolerant ideology or appeals to personal greed through no taxes and no government. I believe in responsible government and balanced budgets. And like many, I have hope that comity and clear thinking enlivened by responsible debate will once again rule the land. If not, global competition will overtake our great Nation and the droughts that we are now enduring in Texas will leave behind only a dried-up wasteland. We can do better. We must do better!

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