Everything That Counts Cannot Necessarily be Counted

I indicated in my April 4 post that I was worried.  I keep finding more reasons to worry about higher education in this country.  Recently the University of Texas System Board of Regents has focused on measuring faculty productivity.  They want to measure faculty productivity in a way that is similar to a numerical cost-benefit analysis.  This focus on measurement follows a growing belief in our country that colleges should be thought of as businesses whose customers are students.  As an offshoot, the regents of Texas A&M University have created a faculty rating system that measures how much money each faculty member brings in through teaching and then subtracts the salary and benefits costs of that faculty member.  Each faculty member can then be classified as “red” or  “black” depending on whether they are an individual profit center or a net financial loss.  Some have argued that they should add faculty grants received to the “profit” side, but to my mind this makes it even worse by artificially separating two essential components of scholarly activity—components that are entangled, and should be. The attitude that generated this naïve cost-benefit analysis is not Texas-specific.  It is a growing national attitude, and that is what worries me.

Faculty productivity cannot be measured by the number of students that pass through the classroom.  Higher education is so much more than that.  Students learn and continue to learn when motivated by good faculty; students don’t just learn in the classroom.  Good faculty create motivated learners and lifelong learners, exactly what we need for a productive society.  We do not need “Shovel-ready Students.” The business model assumes that everything that counts can be counted.  This is not true, as the title of this blog—a quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein—asserts.  The problem is not the insistence on measuring, but the assumption that if it can’t be measured it isn’t worth anything.  Of course, we need to assess how good a job our faculty are doing and how well we are educating our students, but simplistic cost-benefit analysis is not the way to do this.  If carried to an extreme, it would lead to a degradation of our educational system.  Higher education in this country—by any measure—has been enormously successful.  It is not an accident that other countries have and continue to admire and emulate our model.  This is not to say that we cannot improve the process.

I know our faculty at Wellesley are “productive” because I see their immediate effect on our students and their continuing effect on our alumnae.  It is a powerful effect that can never be approximated by counting noses in a classroom.  The cost of our faculty is easily determined and measured; the benefits they bring to Wellesley and society are not so easily quantified.