O’Donnell report categorizes UT professors by contribution

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A new report by former UT System employee Rick O’Donnell divides the University’s professors into categories based on their teaching loads versus the amount of external funding they bring in, fueling the controversy about higher education.

O’Donnell, who received a $70,000 settlement after threatening to sue to the UT System Board of Regents, authored the report in which professors fall into five categories: “Dodgers,” “coasters,” “sherpas,” “pioneers” and “stars.”

Most professors at the University fall under “dodgers” and “coasters” who are considered the least productive faculty, according to the report. “Sherpas” and “stars” bear the greatest teaching loads and bring in more external funding than “coasters” and “dodgers.” “Pioneers” have the lowest teaching load, with an average of 65 students per year, and “stars” teach the most students, with an average of 503 per year.

O’Donnell said the purpose of the new report is to spur discussion about higher education and help institutions become more productive by reducing cost and improving the quality of education. According to the report, UT has slightly more than 3,000 professors, of which 1,784 are “dodgers” whose teaching costs exceed the amount of money they bring back to the University.

“At UT Austin, there are 1,784 faculty members who consume 54 percent of instructional costs but teach only 27 percent of the student hours and generate no external funding,” according to the report.

O’Donnell said 20 percent of the University’s professors are bringing in 90 percent of the external research as shown by the faculty data released by the UT System in July. He said the University can save up to $573 million if it eliminates the “dodgers” and puts more emphasis on teaching rather than research.

“If you ask the public, 87 percent say the primary purpose of universities is to teach,” O’Donnell told The Daily Texan after the report came out.

Texas Coalition for Higher Education responded to O’Donnell’s report in a press release and said he does not offer a new perspective. The coalition started as a way to address growing criticism of research at tier one institutions. The controversy became public in the spring with growing interest in a report from the Center for College Affordability and Texas Public Policy Foundation’s and Gov. Rick Perry’s support of the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” — both suggest separating teaching and research budgets and eliminating “excessive” academic research.

“[The report] is a dance remix of a bad song,” said JJ Baskin, a UT alumnus who serves on the executive committee of the coalition. “It doesn’t appear that there is any new framework that’s helping to advance the discussion.”

Baskin said the report breaks down the professors’ productivity in numbers and degrades their value by leaving out a lot of context. He said most research is supported by endowments, as well as philanthropic efforts of the University and community investments. The report is misleading because it does not paint the full picture, he said.

“Frankly, it is insulting to the professors at UT to be categorized that way,” he said.

O’Donnell said some factors for productivity might be missing from his analysis because administrators have failed to show transparency in tracking research dollars. The information about where the money comes from and how it is used is not easily accessible to public, he said.

Vice President of Research Juan Sanchez said most research investment is from external funding. Research brought in $642 million to the University in 2010, mostly from federal grants and state and private agencies, Sanchez said. The threat to eliminate research undermines the future of students who would not be as prepared to enter the job market as they would be while doing research at the University, he said.

Grant Willson, chemical engineering and biochemistry professor, said he cannot imagine a university without research. He said he teaches a freshman seminar every semester, and it takes him about five hours to prepare presentations and handouts for each lecture. Additionally, he leads an interdisciplinary research group that studies organic materials. Most professors are as devoted to teaching as they are to research, he said.

“The combination of the two is quite interesting,” Willson said. “They will not succeed in making me feel guilty about doing research.”

Printed on 07/21/2011 as: Report divides UT professors into categories based on work