Friday, September 10, 2010

The price of teaching

I have always been wary of evaluating faculty members based on the amount of money they bring in. One of the casualties of American academic science in the latter half of the twentieth century was that it commodified research, and money became a much bigger part of the equation. Research groups started to bear a striking resemblance to corporate outfits. Undoubtedly there were benefits to this practice since it brought in valuable funding, but it also tended to put a price on the generation of knowledge, which seems inherently wrong.

Now it seems that Texas A & M is thinking of turning this kind of valuation into official policy. As Chemical & Engineering News reports, TAMU is planning to rate its faculty based on their "net worth". This would be calculated based on the faculty member's salary, the funding that he or she can generate, and teaching (how on earth are they going to financially evaluate that?)

Sorry, but I think this is hogwash, and others seem to agree with me. The "worth" of faculty members goes way beyond the funding they can procure. There may be professors who bring in modest amounts of money but who inspire generations of students through their teaching, who significantly contribute to the public perception of science through science communication, and who generally contribute to the academic environment in a department simply through their passion and strong advocacy of science. Even from the point of view of research, there are faculty members who publish relatively less, do research on the cheap, and yet steer their respective fields in new directions simply by generating interesting ideas. Very few of these qualities lend themselves to spreadsheet analysis.

In fact, I will go a step further. If a faculty member does little more than inspire generations of students to pursue careers in science research, education and policy, there is no metric that can financially measure the worth of such contributions. Simply put, such contributions may well be priceless. That should easily satisfy Texas A & M's criteria for high-value "assets".

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

There has been a trend toward the metricization of all sorts of evaluations of people and processes, and my observation is that it serves only to help people who don't like to think too often or too deeply. In manufacturing, I've seen amazingly short-sighted decisions made based on metrics that had been established as important, but which failed to represent the side effects and longer-term consequences of improving those numbers.

No simple formula or algorithm can take the place of the hard work of thinking and making choices and taking risks based on logic and (gulp) experience and wisdom. And I watch managers drool over anything that looks like it makes decisions more automatic.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

Anon: Thanks for the insightful words, especially about manufacturing. I completely agree that no algorithm can take the place of real thinking.

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Puneri said...

The problem with the whole academia is the system of publish or perish. I know someone who got fed up with American system and decided to move back to Europe for a career in academia. I do agree that we need to evaluate the worth of faculty members but quantifying "how many students were inspired by you" is a challenge. I am interested to see how they will be doing that.

1:44 PM  

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