The Public Good, Productivity and Faculty Work: Individual Effort and Social Value

July 2016
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Time devoted to producing measurable products that reflect a return on public investment often becomes the most salient factor in assessments of academic productivity and efficiency.


As the academic workforce becomes increasingly part time, contingent, and unbundled, American higher education puts the quality of student experience and education at risk by failing to recognize faculty’s voluntary contributions to the public good. This oversight persists even as vast new data sources provide more information about how faculty spend their time. Economic models and their measures—if not developed with a full appreciation of the nature of faculty work and the public purposes of education—may accelerate the move toward a fractured academic workforce because what “counts” no longer depends on faculty discretion but, instead, on contracted work for discrete tasks, such as teaching a specific course or attaining a measurable research result.

Key Insights
Calls for greater productivity of higher education institutions, achieved through economic modeling and narrow measures on return on investment, puts at risk the value-added, discretionary contributions of faculty.
The information institutions frequently collect and value are only partially congruent with the activities individual faculty engage in and report upon.
Poorly informed views of faculty activities lead policymakers, the media and a skeptical public to believe that academic workers and faculty are interchangeable, and what matters are graduates’ credentials, and not the means by which they are attained.
The traditional faculty is disintegrating as a result of diminished public investments in a period of increased expectations, with a largely unnoticed and inadvertent loss of educational quality and, likewise, the possible reduced capacity of graduates.
In the midst of disruptive innovations changing the American system of education, a comprehensive restructuring of the academic workforce has the potential to enhance the public good by drawing more deliberately on individual faculty effort.
Faculty need to do more to explain their work and create a realistic and compelling narrative of their contribution to the public good—perhaps as a bridge between evolving discussions about the changing academic workforce and economic modeling projects.

This paper is one of five in the TIAA Institute Higher Education Series: Understanding Academic Productivity. The TIAA Institute undertook this initiative in support of the National Association of College and University Business Officers’ Economic Models Project, which aims to provide colleges and universities with knowledge, ideas and tools to advance the difficult structural, cultural and political changes required for moving to more sustainable economic models.