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Metrics, Business Plans, and the Vanishing Public Good by Gaye Tuchman

By Gaye Tuchman


For at least 30 years, professional work has been changing. Even such once-elite professionals as doctors, lawyers, and professors have become subject to significant control. Single-practitioner medical practices have given way to group practices subject to the rules of insurance plans; lawyers join mammoth firms where paralegals time the steps from their desks to the copy machine to bill by the minute; professors routinely submit several sorts of yearly reports detailing their scholarship, teaching, service, and community outreach; and, in a new development, some universities, such as nine units in the University of Texas system, have released productivity measures for individual professors to reveal whether they are have added value to the university and so are worth their salt. How many students did a professor teach? How many grants applied for and received? How many publications of what type and where were they published? How many widgets per hour?

One can read such measurements of productivity in many ways. Sometimes metrics inspire humor. A doctor friend notes that insurance plans give him demerits if a specified percentage of his diabetic patients fail to get their annual eye check-ups or let their glucose levels zoom out of control. Recalling that his grandmother worked in the garment industry, he jokes, “From piecework to piecework in three generations.”Metrics can prompt embarrassment. At a community gathering, a paralegal blushes as she talks about timing her steps. Metrics are also a straightforward announcement of how much the working conditions of professionals are changing. Recognizing an attempt to control, even some scientists find a new emphasis on measuring productivity to be problematic.

Dean P. Neikirk, chair of the University of Texas at Austin's Faculty Council [and a professor of engineering], said, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “…It's not like any of this information is new… It's pretty much all publicly available. But analyzing anyone’s performance on simple metrics is a potentially dangerous thing to do.” 1

For example, simple metrics may not reveal how components of a scientist’s job are related to one another; to wit, professors who bring in the most research grants or the largest grants usually do the least teaching, because colleges and universities can turn a profit by keeping them out of the classroom. I won’t go into the details of how universities may prosper when their most acclaimed researchers do not teach. Rather, I want to stress how productivity data, now part of the academic plan of most research universities, are part and parcel of what top administrators in the higher-education industry define as “business as usual.” (“An academic plan is just a business plan,” the last president of my university told the faculty.) When universities’ top administrators release these metrics, they are telling taxpayers that their monies are being well spent.

“An academic plan is just a business plan,” the last president of my university told the faculty.

They are countering the argument that higher education is a private good—an item that primarily benefits those with degrees rather than the public. Over the past two decades, states have been decreasing higher education’s public subsidy and so, by their actions, have been declaring that students and their families should pay for college rather than receive a significant public subsidy. 

Changing Suppositions

Higher education is a microcosm of America. In the 1970s, higher education was still defined as a public good. The United States had a higher percentage of college graduates than any other nation, and both politicians and citizens seemed to agree that this characteristic of the American labor force was enabling the country to flourish economically. However, that educational distinction has vanished. In July 2010, the College Board reported that the U.S. ranked 12th out of 36 developed nations in the number of 25 to 34 year-olds with a college degree.2 Soon after, President Barack Obama stressed that the declining educational standing of America threatened its economic well-being.

Higher education’s decline has been associated with the rise of neoliberalism, which the United States began to embrace in the last quarter of the 20th century. This approach to socio-economic policy lauds the efficiency of private enterprise, promotes the effectiveness of managerial oversight by fostering individual and institutional accountability, and seeks to increase the role of the private sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state. Public institutions have been swept into the neoliberal maw. As the late 20th century fascination with neo-classical theories insinuated itself in public life, people thought differently about themselves and what they valued. American society turned from an emphasis on civic participation to a concern with promoting consumerism and eventually to a stress on measuring what one gets for one’s tax dollars. Speaking at the University of Connecticut, 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize novelist Toni Morrison recently summed up how the nation has changed. “I remember being a girl [in the 1930s and early 1940s] and being called a citizen and this was important…Sure I was a second-class citizen, but I was still a citizen.” Mostly people behaved as though they had a mutual responsibility toward one another. “After World War II,” she continued, “we were called American consumers not American citizens, and we are now called [American] taxpayers. This means our relationship with our country now is not the same as it used to be when being a good citizen was something important.” Citizenship yielded to consumerism. AfterWorldWar II, we became a nation of consumers, intent on living a better life by making informed purchases. Among the most significant and expensive of those purchases was a house in the suburbs; suburbanization included the dream of a college education for one’s children. (Today almost all American say they want their children to go to college.) Back then, when higher education was still defined as a public good, four years at a public college or a state university was relatively inexpensive. A qualified student paid for books and fees, and if the school was away from home, room and board.Those who fit the demographic characteristics of traditional college students—white men between the ages of 18 and 22—thronged to college. By the mid-1970s, the demography of the American population began to change. Fewer white men were born, while the birthrate of African Americans also fell, but less dramaticly. Immigrants were increasingly people of color, born in Asia, Latin American, and the Caribbean; many of their children yearned to achieve the American dream of college. Increasingly, for the first time since the American society has turned from an emphasis on civic participation to a stress on what one gets for one’s tax dollars.

Speaking at the University of Connecticut, 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize novelist Toni Morrison recently summed up how the nation has changed. “I remember being a girl [in the 1930s and early 1940s] and being called a citizen and this was important…Sure I was a second-class citizen, but I was still a citizen.” Mostly people behaved as though they had a mutual responsibility toward one another. “After World War II,” she continued, “we were called American consumers not American citizens, and we are now called [American] taxpayers. This means our relationship with our country now is not the same as it used to be when being a good citizen was something important.” Citizenship yielded to consumerism. AfterWorldWar II, we became a nation of consumers, intent on living a better life by making informed purchases. Among the most significant and expensive of those purchases was a house in the suburbs; suburbanization included the dream of a college education for one’s children. (Today almost all American say they want their children to go to college.) Back then, when higher education was still defined as a public good, four years at a public college or a state university was relatively inexpensive. A qualified student paid for books and fees, and if the school was away from home, room and board.Those who fit the demographic characteristics of traditional college students—white men between the ages of 18 and 22—thronged to college. By the mid-1970s, the demography of the American population began to change. Fewer white men were born, while the birthrate of African Americans also fell, but less dramaticly. Immigrants were increasingly people of color, born in Asia, Latin American, and the Caribbean; many of their children yearned to achieve the American dream of college. Increasingly, for the first time since the

Civil War, the sorts of high school graduates whom colleges had traditionally attracted were in short supply. By the 21st century, American college students included a plurality of women and “non-traditional students. A mere 25 percent of college students were 18 to 22 years old and attending a residential college or university. During this time, Americans had also come to agree that higher education is a private, not a public good. The American emphasis on consumerism had helped to spark that transformation. Universities and politicians might have emphasized myriad ways that students benefit by going to college. Students stretch their minds; they are exposed to ideas they might never have considered; some of them have the chance to meet sorts of people whom they might never have encountered; these ideas and people may help make them more informed and tolerant citizens. Because college graduates tend to change jobs every five or so years, education aimed at developing critical thinking and intellectual flexibility serves as better preparation for a career than much specialized training does. Colleges did mention these themes, but a different leitmotif came to dominate discussions of high education: College graduates earn more than high school graduates, if you graduate college you can get a better job, college is job-training, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Your major matters: Students who major in science will have higher starting salaries than those who concentrate on the humanities.(Colleges rarely pointed out that, until the past few years, a man with a high school education earned more than a woman with a bachelor’s degree.) This economic theme has become a mantra. Although first-generation college students have long expressed a vocational orientation, when one asks today’s students why they are attending college, more than ever before they respond “to get a good job.” In the 1960s, students often announced they were interested in specific subject matter, or loved books, or loved learning. Although such students sit in today’s college classrooms, they seem to accede to peer pressure by not identifying themselves. Judging by what students are willing to say publicly, the accepted attitude toward learning seems to be, “What do intellectual matters have to do with my life? Will I be able to get a job?” Other missions of universities, such as fostering an informed citizenry, seem to recede in the public mind. 

Attending College as Informed Consumption

 When potential students identify higher education as job training, the intellectual content and cohesiveness of the curriculum may seem less important than the ranking of a college in U.S. News & World Report or the Washington Monthly, and whether the experience will help them socially mature. Residential students also want to know whether a school provides the creature comforts associated with home. When one pays $17,000 a year (estimated total in-state cost) or $35,614 (out-of-state cost) to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and expects to graduate with a debt of $14,262, one does not want to suffer privation. (In 2011, Kiplinger rated UNC, Chapel the best value in public colleges.) For the record at least, college administrators believe that potential students should not base enrollment decisions on rankings and amenities. Admissions officers say applicants pay too much attention to magazine rankings. According to a survey that The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted with the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of the presidents of four-year colleges believe that the most important thing college provides is “a broad-based education that promotes intellectual growth.” Roughly 60 percent of these presidents also believe that the quality of their academic program (followed by the cost of their tuition and mandatory fees) is “the most important factor” as their institution “competes with other institutions to attract students.” Nonetheless, administrators routinely engage in an “amenities race;” the viewbooks mailed to potential applicants feature dormitory suites with kitchens, mall-like student unions with food courts, fitness centers replete with the latest elliptical exercisers and even Olympic pools.They also show students studying in a well-lit library, students laughing as they talk with one another, and of course students cheering for the college team. (Students should enjoy themselves as they prepare for a job. College years are the “best years of your life.”) The amenities race may seem a far cry from productivity measures, but both are integral components of the current emphasis on consumer value. Practices in Britain presage what may happen here. There, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education applies a series of productivity measures to every higher education program in order “to provide public assurance that the quality and standards of higher education are being safeguarded and enhanced by conducting academic reviews of higher education provision,” as its website explains. It publishes the resulting reports on its website; and several British newspapers, including The Times and The Guardian, use them to rank schools and programs . One can think of both the published quality reports and the rankings as “Consumer Reports for Higher Education,” intended to help students decide how to invest their education dollars. Which is the better investment, an education in accountancy at the University of Edinburgh, where the quality of teaching and

learning, the quality of student progression, and the quality of resources are all “commendable” or one at Bradford College, where these items are “approved, but”? What if a student is not qualified for admission to the University of Edinburgh? Should she take a degree in building and surveying? Bradford’s record in that program is “commendable”? Such devotion to market logic promotes centralization, because the definition of quality is a centralized definition, much as an American consumer determines the trade-in value of a car by consulting the Kelley Blue Book. Should the canny consumer buy a gas-guzzler that holds up well in front-end collisions or a small-car that gets many miles to the gallon, does badly in collisions, but holds its value at trade-in time? 

Metrics Revisited

Such centralized data drastically change the working conditions of academics. Professors become statistics in the institution’s business plan.Usually, that business plan involves a speed-up of the academic assembly line. Table 1 (see downloadable .pdf on this page) shows the statistics governing the pedagogical and research activity of professors at one northern university. Some of these metrics, particularly those concerning research, assume that the university will have hired more full-time faculty, but most of the metrics do not.Those governing teaching and external research expenditures are calculated on a per faculty basis. Perhaps because professors have judged themselves by their academic achievements (their grades) since their childhoods, many seem to have internalized the standards in the business plan. At least, they don’t protest them.Most dutifully file a series of annual self-reports with full knowledge that they may be rewarded or punished for their individual metrics. Put somewhat differently, professors may begin to audit their professional achievements, much the way that many people routinely monitor their weight. Doing so, they transform themselves into auditable commodities comprising so many measurable skills.They become active participants in an accountability regime—a politics of surveillance, control, and market management disguising itself as the value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations. My department has concocted a spreadsheet that enables calculation of whether someone has met mandated “professional responsibilities.” Providing a single number summarizing scholarly activity over the last five years, this form requests information about books and articles accepted and published and research grants. If one does not score 20 points over five years (a book-length monograph My department has concocted a spreadsheet that enables calculation of whether someone has met mandated “professional responsibilities.”

Providing a single number summarizing scholarly activity over the last five years, this form requests information about books and articles accepted and published and research grants. If one does not score 20 points over five years (a book-length monograph yields 20 points, a refereed article is worth five), the number of courses that one must teach each semester increases.We use a slightly different formula with items covering research, teaching, and service to decide who warrants merit pay. Each department gets to set its own standards, but set standards each must. So, my department does not recognize book reviews as meritorious, but other departments do. A humanities professor once told me, “I should really write a book review. The points I get from that would pretty much insure that I get merit money this year.” The assumption seems to be that if groups of workers (academic departments) set standards that conform to the metrics of the business plan, they are not being subjected to a speed-up. Parents and students may use a different set of metrics to evaluate whether they’re getting their money’s worth. Some of these calculations relate to rankings and amenities; some concern the value of an hour of class. (After all, accreditation agencies also calculate how many hours of classroom-time qualify as a three-credit class.) Writing in Inside Higher Education, Afshan Jafar, who teaches at Connecticut College, a well-known liberal arts college that values teaching, suggests that at colleges (as opposed to research universities), the emerging corporate model places primary emphasis on in-class activities. “In this model,” she writes, “our face-to-face interaction with the customer (student) is the basis for judging our value as teachers. How else can I explain one of the most appalling requests that I’ve heard of in my time as an academic: the parents of a student asking for ‘financial reimbursement’ because a professor cancelled four class meetings due to a heart attack.” To be sure, one anecdote is not sufficient evidence of how parents and students now see higher education. But such anecdotes, a myriad of web pages displaying academic plans, and ever decreasing state support for public higher education seem to be announcing that one can measure the worth of a college education as a private good. This year, as an optional question on a final exam, I asked honors students in an introductory sociology class to suggest ways that the university could save money.

The most appalling request I’ve heard: parents asking for a “financial reimbursement” because a professor cancelled classes due to a heart attack.

Two of them made very similar recommendations. Because our public university needs money, its admissions policy should favor students who might be expected to succeed financially and to make significant donations as alumni. And because honors students and upper-middle class students in general are more likely to graduate and to make good, the university should offer scholarships to these meritorious students rather than to students from poorer families, who may need the money to attend college but not have as terrific academic records, be as likely to graduate, and have as great a probability of making lots of money to donate as alumni. In the long run, these students seemed to be saying, the university would gain more by educating them. I don’t know how the other 17 students in this class would have felt about these two short essays, but the answers were certainly based on a rational calculation of how to raise money. They affirmed that in universities, as elsewhere in American life, awards accrue to private enterprise. A college is a business, replete with strategic plan; professors are workers; and public higher education is no longer a public good. At a recent retirement party, a social scientist confided, “I pity the poor suckers who will be left here. They’re really going to be in for it.”

End Notes

1. June, “Release of Faculty-Productivity Data Roils U. of Texas.”

2. Lewin, “Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees,” A11.

3. Attewell and Lavin, “Distorted Statistics on Graduation Rates," B16

4. Clark, "Best Values in Public Colleges."

5. Pew Research Center, Higher Education 2011: Survey of College Presidents. See page 5 for

intellectual growth and page 11 for quality of academic progam.

6. See the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education website at

www.qaa.ac.uk/Pages/default.aspx for more information about these reports.

7. Tuchman,Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, 185.

8. Not so long ago, a similar calculation excluded Jews and Asian Americans from first-rate colleges.

Works Cited

Attewell, Paul and David Lavin. “Distorted Statistics on Graduation Rates.” The Chronicle of Higher

Education. ( July 6), 2007.

Clark, Jane Bennet. “Best Values in Public Colleges.” Kiplinger. Accessed June 12, 2011 at

www.kiplinger.com/magazine/archives/best-values-in-public-colleges-2011.html

June, Audrey Williams. “Release of Faculty-Productivity Data Roils U. of Texas.” Accessed at

http://chronicle.com/article/Release-of/127439/

Lewin, Tamar. “Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees.” New York Times ( July 23), 2010.

Pew Research Center and Chronicle of Higher Education. Higher Education 2011: Survey of

College Presidents. (May) 2011. Accessed at http://chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/pewsurveypresidents_

2.pdf

Tuchman, Gaye. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,