Commentary: Me and about 200 other NMSU administrators recently attended a day long University retreat held at the Farm and Ranch Museum. Announced at this retreat were new performance metrics to be used by NMSU upper administration to evaluate academic departments. As a department head, this caught my attention as the new measures will likely be used to evaluate me!
Three of the new metrics are a measure of faculty productivity. These are instructional dollars per student credit hour, research dollars per tenure system faculty member, and dollars per hour of service.
Departments will be measured on these standards by comparing them to similar departments at other Universities. So, the NMSU history department is compared to history department at other universities; the management department to other management departments; and so on. This make sense as a history department does not need the same sort of research grants as required by, say, chemistry. Historians don’t need x-ray chrysography machines, for example.
A fourth measure to be used to evaluate departments is something called the productivity index, which is a measure of revenue generated per dollar of budget. It is the ratio of the total of base budget, tuition revenue, external research funding, extension funding, and other revenue to base budget.
A problem can be that people will respond too well to the new metrics. The purpose of a university is to educate and create knowledge. But the University administration proposes to measure productivity using dollars, not educational outcomes and not research impact. Employees motivated to achieve specified targets can forget the organization’s true goals and instead focus on metrics as goals in themselves. The result can be perverse outcomes.
Take the instruction dollars per credit hour met. An obvious way to reduce costs is to hire less qualified individuals to teach. It would reduce costs, but the consequence would be a deterioration in educational outcomes. We have to depend on the President and other upper administrators to use common sense in applying productivity measures in determining faculty compensation.
There are processes in place that will help. NMSU accreditation body, the Higher Learning Commission or HLC, requires programs to access learning outcomes. Similarly, the HLC requires that faculty meet minimum standards to be allowed to teach in the classroom.
Among the purposes of NMSU’s new metrics is to incentivize faculty to pursue external funding. This will help NMSU to achieve R1 status. R1 universities are those universities considered to be highest in research output. NMSU was R1 until recently and is on the edge of R1 status now. One important step in achieving R1 is generating more external dollars that can be used to fund graduate students and post docs.
But beyond being R1 status, generating more external dollars will generate jobs and those jobs will bring dollars into the local economy. NMSU is Las Cruces’ largest employer. An expanding NMSU is critical to the local economy. Las Crucens should be rooting for NMSU’s new emphasis on productivity metrics to help the University move forward.
Christopher A. Erickson, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at NMSU. This is his third year as interim department head of the Department of Economics, Applied Statistics and International Business. The opinions expressed may not be shared by the regents and administration of NMSU. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.