25.8.06

COMPETING IN THE PROFESSION? Richard Vedder, an emeritus professor of Economics at Ohio University, reports that his colleagues voted to go from a 2+2+2 course per quarter teaching schedule to a 2+2+1 schedule, ostensibly to obtain more research visibility. He's skeptical.
My prediction is the departmental output of articles may rise from 15 to 16 or 17 a year - roughly 10 percent. Is it worth $100,000, bigger classes, and more closing out of students in classes to publish perhaps two more papers per year, each one of which will probably be read by a best a few dozen readers? Is anyone doing a cost-benefit analysis of the advantages of this move? The answer, of course, is no. Universities simply do what they want, namely the things they like (writing papers which help get faculty promoted and tenured), rather than the things the public that is paying the bills thinks is most important, teaching students. No one is accountable, the decisions are hidden from the public, and the returns on many of those decisions are very low in relation to the costs.
His analysis, like that in his book, is incomplete. Is it the number of articles, or the quality of the articles? Will the Economics faculty use the reassigned time to polish their work so as to make it more attractive to Journal of Political Economy or Economic Inquiry or Economics Letters, or will they simply be ensuring that Rivista Internazionale Numere Due di Bovini will be able to meet its production schedules? If the latter, perhaps the decision will inefficiently allocate resources. But what's special about the former journals? Publish in the former journals and your department moves up in the disciplinary league tables. Why does that matter? Because the league tables color the impression observers have of the prestige of a university. So what? People engage in positional arms races to get into universities with a lot of prestige.

Ultimately, then, the responsibility is on the public to quit spending money on getting their kids into "prestige" universities with brilliant research faculties that spend no time with undergraduates, particularly not with freshmen, and on the public to quit recruiting their entry-level employees from those universities. But until there are changes in those behaviors, it is not an error on the part of the Ohio faculty of Economics to offer working conditions more like those prevailing at the "prestige" campuses. Ohio might secure a recruiting advantage thereby, and some Ohio faculty might publish work that attracts the attention of a department higher up the academic food chain.

It might well be the case that a student will do just as well out of Ohio as out of Harvard, and the research mania is nothing more than expense-preference behavior on the part of university employees. Professor Vedder, however, does not suggest how his colleagues might act to exploit that reality rather than becoming more like Harvard.

He will be appearing on a Fox News special report on college costs, currently scheduled to air Sunday at 7 pm (Central; 8 pm on the east coast, that's some clout preempting Col. North.) We'll see how precise his reasoning is.

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