Power Tools for Professors
Very early in my career, a professor of industrial engineering gave a seminar in our department and told a story about costs. He was consulting for a manufacturing firm and saw all the workers struggling with manual hand tools. When he pointed out they would be much more efficient with power tools, the management explained that they were worried that the workers would steal the expensive power tools and use them at home. The professor’s recommendation was to go ahead and give the workers power tools, and a set to take home and a set for them to give away and a spare set. The real cost was the workers’ time and any gains in efficiency would easily cover the costs of several sets of tools. The management was trapped in a false idea of efficiency by not recognizing their major sunk cost.
A similar situation exists in the management of universities. Faculty members are highly trained professionals and thus expensive resources. Parents and students want these faculty to be teaching everything, but the costs quickly become prohibitive and administrators must reinforce them with cheaper, fixed-term instructors and graduate students. A better model would be to ask what are the “power tools” a faculty member needs to increase their efficiency. Something as simple as a grader for a few hours a week would free up that much faculty member time and save the institution money.
This model already exists in other professional services. When I go to the dentist I am wafted through a series of receptionists, hygienists, nurses and billing specialists and see the actual dentist for only a couple of minutes. The system is put together so the most expensive resource (the dentist) spends as much of their time as possible doing the thing that only the most expensive resource can do.
Universities have consistently responded to budget squeezes by protecting faculty lines at the expense of support positions and resources. We would do better to determine the tasks that only the expensive, permanent, tenure-line faculty can do for the institution and save money by making sure they don’t do anything else.
(image uploaded under the Creative Commons license by flicker user whiteforge)