Public universities are increasingly subject to productivity measures as a means of justifying continuing revenue support, such as it is, from the states. One such measure is “credit hour productivity,” which represents the ratio of total student credit hours taught per faculty member.
For example, a faculty member who teaches large lecture classes will receive “credit” for teaching hundreds of student hours, while some faculty who teach small honors seminars may receive credit for hours earned by, say, 15 students. In many public universities, funding for departments and even larger divisions is based in part on the total number of credit hours that are taught.
Sometimes, credit hour productivity is also a factor in tenure and promotion evaluations, providing yet another source of pressure to apply the productivity model to instruction.
Unfortunately, this model is inimical to what is probably the strongest feature of honors education: small, interactive classes, similar to those at the best liberal arts colleges and elite private institutions.
Therefore, a big challenge for many honors directors is to find a way to persuade deans and department chairs to utilize weighted systems as a way of giving approximate productivity credit to faculty for teaching honors classes.
Many research institutions already weight their systems so that faculty who teach graduate courses, which typically feature small, seminar-sized classes, receive augmented credit for teaching the courses, based in part on the time and supervision required when working with advanced students who are engaged in research and in-depth writing or laboratory assignments.
Alternatively, some universities give the same productivity credit for teaching lower-division honors courses as they do for teaching upper-division courses, and also give the same credit for teaching upper-division honors as they do for teaching graduate courses.
In the end, the decision to use productivity weighting comes down to the willingness of the institution to acknowledge the value-added impact of honors programs to the university as a whole–and then reward that value by implementing sufficient productivity credits to induce faculty and departments to participate fully in honors education.
The absence of such support is, sadly, evidence that the students who choose a university because of the honors program are far more subject to the mass production model in higher education than they would ever expect to be.
In a broader sense, the inadequate support gives many critics of public universities, who often disparage research and excellence in the interest of this very same productivity, yet another victory on their way to reducing the quality and influence of public universities.