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Chapter 10: Eliminate Excessive Academic Research

Universities have two major academic functions: the dissemination of knowledge (i.e. teaching), and the creation of it through research. There is a strong bias in the academy to emphasize research at the expense of teaching. Faculty promotions are heavily research-based. Widely circulated research results create a national reputation, whereas the reputation for good teaching tends to be localized. Universities improve their ranking in the U.S. News & World Report or Times Higher Education World Rankings by emphasizing research.  Salary increases for faculty have averaged more in the highly research-intensive universities than in other institutions.

Yet research is subject to diminishing returns. In the humanities and social sciences, for example, most enduring topics have been heavily researched, and there is little new to say—over 26,000 articles have been written on Shakespeare since 1980, for example. Many of these articles are published in obscure academic journals with very small readership. Professorial teaching loads have declined to permit greater research, thereby increasing the per student cost of instruction. No one has done a serious cost-benefit analysis on conducting so much research. This is not to argue for the elimination of research, an end to federal research support or the like; , but rather, it is to note that the rate of return at the margin for additional research is no doubt typically very low.

At mid-quality universities, professors may teach six courses per year, with some occasional reductions for research leaves of absence or for teaching particularly large classes. Suppose a department has 90 courses to teach annually, and average professorial salaries including fringe benefits are $100,000 a year. If the average teaching load is five classes a year, it takes 18 professors to cover the teaching, costing $1.8 million. With an eight course load, it takes fewer than 12 professors, costing over one-third less. Is the incremental research occasioned by the lower teaching loads so valuable as to justify huge increases in instructional costs?  In most cases, objective analysis would almost certainly conclude that increased teaching loads for professors make sense on cost-benefit grounds.

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