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TX shows way for desirable LA higher education changes

As debate continues in Louisiana over how to make higher education deliver more efficiently in order to reduce budgetary pressures, Texas forges ahead with ideas with which Louisiana needs to take a good, long look.

Two approaches nationally drive the call for reform in higher education resource allocation, the linking of university performance to student outcome and greater transparency. Louisiana has more aggressively entertained the former with the implementation of the GRAD Act, but has not really engaged in the latter.

Not like Texas, and in particular Texas A&M University. While Louisiana State University Baton Rouge might have the defeated the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl, A&M puts the Tiger administrators to shame with its willingness not just to put some financial figures in the public domain, but for giving them some context and to use them in management decisions. For example, while in Louisiana it’s possible for the public to get access to public college faculty members’ salaries, in Texas schools must post online, in an easily-accessible way the budget of each academic department, the curriculum vitae of each instructor, full descriptions and reading lists for each course and student evaluations of each faculty member – and A&M has taken the further step of computing cost-benefit analyses for each faculty member in order to reward high performers with bonuses.

A&M’s pioneering effort wasn’t without problems. Originally, it also published salaries and cost per student for individual faculty members but the effort was rife with errors and provided inadequate context – for example, while by the numbers somebody pulling six figures who taught few students may have seemed far less efficient than another who taught a thousand at a much lower salary, the latter may have little chance to teach as effectively if given very large classes. As a result, A&M eventually pulled the report from public view.

Still, it was a step in the right direction and certainly the idea to use the data privately to reward productivity is solid. As always, the devil is in the details in terms of the definition of “productivity.” Using the above example, the likely reason one faculty member makes much more than another is a record of voluminous research (usually defined as number of publications and papers presented, with some subjective analysis of their quality factored in). And while research production is good for teaching ability because it further informs an instructor, often there is little correlation between teaching ability and research production, if in fact this is not a negative relationship. Further, courses offered may reflect more arcane research interests than in necessary offerings in a discipline. Yet this archetype reaps the highest rewards in academia, the exact opposite of the primary purpose for its existence: where the best teachers (meaning those whose students learn the most and the most useful information in a fashion that sharpens their critical thinking skills) should be expected to teach more students and receive the highest salaries.

As such, to some degree Louisiana should emulate Texas and A&M. Thus, even though it’ll be all busy dealing with redistricting and budgeting this spring, the Legislature would be wise to pass legislation that:

· Requires putting online (within three links of the home page is the Texas standard) the budget of each academic department, the curriculum vitae of each instructor, the salary of each instructor, the number of students taught by each in the previous year, the average salary cost (including fringe benefits) per student for each, the average grade point average for each class taught by each in the previous year, full descriptions and reading lists for each course from the previous year, and student evaluations of each faculty member from the previous year (with an explanation of the methods/instruments involved)

· Mandates each department require an assessment of its graduates of its majors offered, outline how that assessment is conducted, produce the aggregate scores of the assessments, compute the number of graduates in each major, and publish these previous years data online as well

· Put online, for the previous year, overall university profiles of faculty salaries, by mean and mean per quartile, numbers of tenured, tenure-track, non-tenure-track, and adjunct faculty, list all administrative and staff positions with brief job descriptions and their salaries, the budget of each non-academic department, and ratio figures of administrative/staff costs to faculty costs, and ratio of the number of staff/administrators to full-time faculty equivalents

Not only would this produce information that can be used for innovative productivity enhancement plans as A&M is attempting and assist in budgeting and strategic planning, it also would increase transparency so students and their families can weigh the deployment of their (and maybe taxpayer) dollars in higher education decisions. As Louisiana’s public continues to become more skeptical about the utility of higher education spending in the state, these changes can restore its confidence in this area and lead to more efficient allocation of resources.

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