Thursday, September 9, 2010

Comment concerning "A&M System grades faculty — by bottom line"

This is a response to an article linked in today's Political Digest, below. ~Bob


As a free-market capitalist who is married to a college professor, I want to point out some facts that impact this effort. A & M stands for Agriculture and Mining. The purpose of A & M colleges has traditionally been to produce professional farmers (agronomists) and mining engineers, professions we have always needed in the past and have no reason to expect to do without in the future. Their graduates have helped make our agriculture one of the breadbaskets of the world. Although no longer dominant, our mines still provide much of the metal and minerals used worldwide. So, as a group, the various A & M colleges have been a runaway success within their fields. But, their fields are technical.

I suspect little if any of their proposed measurements would be applicable to any of the liberal arts or humanities. How many grants do you suppose are given to the creative writing teacher/professor at the college nearest you? If he/she does write a book and it outsells Stephen King's newest, the royalties (if any) don't accrue to the school, they go to the author; how do you count them? Or the bright music grad student who composes a new opera (oh, yeah, that's likely to make money)? Or the new translation of Plato? Or funding for the field trip to the Gettysburg battlefield for the American History class? And, if a budding historian writes a good paper that's read by 17 peers and given great marks, how do you figure that in? And, aren't some classes just supposed to make your life easier and/or better, or just more fun? I'd hate to think someone had to get a grant to put on a class of Movie Appreciation or Popular Music of the 1960s.

A wise man I worked with told me "You can't control what you can't measure." We disagreed; I said there are many areas that simply don't lend themselves to easy measurements. There may be fields where this kind of measurement is both appropriate and valid. But, clearly, there are others where it isn't. So, what do we use? The only thing we can use: opinion. The trick is to keep the opinions as free of bias--especially political bias--as possible. The only question that really matters is "Did the student learn enough to survive and carry forward our institutional name proudly?" If yes, you have a good teacher; if not, maybe some other field of endeavor would suit that teacher better.

Measurement by opinion isn't necessarily a bad thing. The stock quotes we see in the daily paper are no more than the vector sum of the most current opinions of willing buyers about the desirability of owning shares in that particular venture at that moment. Are shares sometimes over or under valued? Sure. That's how guys like Buffet make money; by knowing more about the value of the company than the rest of us.

In our political system, we express our opinions with our votes. It's imperfect at best, but that's the only legal way we have. Personally, I'd welcome a system of "conditional voting;" the politician has my vote as long as I agree with what he's doing. When I stop agreeing, I can take my vote back and give it to the other guy. Maybe it could be done by computer sometime in the future. That would get their attention rather quickly.

Ron Pittenger

1 comment:

  1. "...the politician has my vote as long as I agree with what he's doing. When I stop agreeing, I can take my vote back and give it to the other guy. Maybe it could be done by computer..."

    Yes indeed; a most excellent suggestion.