Data-driven attacks on profs signal cultural revolution?

“Public policy reformer” Rick O’Donnell, fired from the UT system, recently published a paper called Higher Education’s Faculty Productivity Gap: The Cost to Students, Parents & Taxpayers. This followed the public release of faculty data by the UT system, which in itself caused plenty of controversy, and a study called Faculty Productivity and Costs at the University of Texas at Austin, which claimed that an increase in professorial productivity of UT professors would save tons of money (published by the Center for College Affordability & Productivity). There’s a summary here at the Texas Tribune from July 20. O’Donnell’s report goes so far as to label professors as “coasters” or “dodgers”, depending on how many students they teach (note, not how well, but how many) and how much grant-funded research they do.

NPR reported on this debate, which is how I found out about it. And after thinking about it for awhile, and remembering my years as a hard-working Teaching Assistant at university and knowing how large my student load is now, I nevertheless have come to the conclusion that this sustained attack isn’t just about money or “productivity” (a bizarre concept for intellectual work), but about culture.

We are becoming a culture that thinks of “knowledge” as a commodity, and the college systems provide a wonderful locus for attack on intellectualism in general. Although we are not yet at extremes, it hearkens back to the Cultural Revolution in China, where the 7 May Cadre Schools were created to “re-educate” professors and intellectuals by having them perform manual labor on farms. These professors weren’t just a “capitalist elite”. They were seen as not doing “real work” — they were not productive. They too were “dodgers” and “coasters”, producing no identifiable product and rather representing the archaic system the communists wanted to tear down.

“Going to live and work in a production team to wage revolution, 1969” from Chineseposters.net

Yes, I realize that comparing a conservative-backed attack on liberal education might not seem to correspond to a communist attack on elitism, but the motives seem to be the same. Instead of moral jeremiads, physical violence and relocation, we have a simple “release of data” and “reform institutes” releasing “studies”. So the attacks are positivist rather than metaphysical, to use Comte’s epistomology. That doesn’t make them less hostile to intellectual values.

I am not saying that data has no place in higher education, or that workloads shouldn’t be examined. In fact, the issue revealed by the data to me is more one of workload than anything else — adjunct and younger professors may be carrying far more weight than is just or right, even if you only consider a college as a workplace. The cultural aspects that lead to such formulas (dodgers and coasters are obviously derogatory) could lead to some issues that ought to be examined beyond that of cost and productivity.

It may be starting in Texas, but in today’s climate of accountability, “data-driven” decision making, attacks on unions, criticism of school systems, the high cost of college, and questioning of the value of a college education, this is going to spread.

One thought on “Data-driven attacks on profs signal cultural revolution?

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one.

    The problem with quantifying everything is that you have to quantify it in terms of something and the easiest things to quantify will necessarily set what that something is (it’s easy to measure labor hours or contact time, so let’s do that). The problem is that not everything is going to be measured equally under a scale that necessarily prioritizes certain kinds of activities. Coming from the field of philosophy I run in to this kind of issue all the time (and I see this in all forms of humanities): what can you do with it? Meaning, how can you live off this, what do you produce? Which, of course, is asking the wrong question.

    The one thing I disagree with is that I think this is really the result of a culture of productivity, so really it’s both culture and productivity at play.

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