Summary of Faculty without Students: Resource Allocation in Higher Education” by William Johnson and Sarah Turner

  1. Summary of article

This research article essentially examines (undergraduate) student faculty ratios as a proxy for allocation of resources in universities.   In particular, resource allocation in universities has changed dramatically by field over the past several decades: this change is due to a number of factors including the use of other resources in teaching, the popularity of different majors, the rise of research faculty, and the impact of politics on erecting barriers for student demand.  Overall, a number of explanations seem to explain the difference in allocation: there are natural differences in productivity and research prestige across departments.  This difference, however, likely does not explain the substantial changes in resource allocation.  Indeed, “politics” including the lobbying for curriculum requirements also seems to be at work in these institutions.

Although professors undoubtedly play a key role in the production of credit hours/ majors, there are other important elements (“everything else”) including: administrators, graduate assistants (teaching and grading responsibilities), use of building, library resources, etc.

  1. As the salary of professors (K) increases, the cost-minimizing mix on inputs would move towards “everything else.” In reality, this might mean an increase on graduate assistant labor, the utilization of technology (on-line classes) to increase the number of individuals who benefit, even the use of different learning methods.
  2. If the explanation based on salary/ research productivity is correct, it should mean that departments more focused on research (that depends on faculty labor inputs) should use more non-professorial resources in the teaching of students. This is because the opportunity cost of professorial resources is higher in this department: research is more profitable to the university than the teaching of students.  Thus, one would expect to find more adjunct faculty and graduate assistants in these departments. This economic institution is confirmed by my experience at Clemson: research-based departments such as economics and the natural sciences use more adjunct and graduate labor compared to other departments such as classics and
  3. If faculty in some departments are more productive along a research/ graduate education dimension, a school would be wise to employ more of them, regardless of the number of undergrads in the department. The paper cites Princeton’s mathematics department as one such example: Although the department has a total of 58 faculty members for 66 undergraduate students.  These isoquants would shift towards professorial resources rather than towards capital.
  4. If demand for majors changes quickly, over the short-term that demand would be picked-up via substitution towards “everything else” either through the use of adjunct faculty or graduate assistants. Over the long run, increased demand at the undergraduate level would likely lead to the hiring of more professors.  Thus, the isoquants would shift towards K over the short-term but towards L over the long-term


  1. There may be natural differentials in the productivity across different disciplines: for example, while one professor may be able to teach 100 students in an introductory economics class, a French professor may be able to only teach 15 students (effectively) in a language class. Thus, a “French” specific isoquant may be more skewed to the labor access, while the “Economics” specific isoquant may be more skewed to the everything else axis.
  2. Ignoring the potential salary differences related to productivity differentials, the difference in technology would lead to greater faculty per student ratios in departments where technology can be effectively utilized (increasing productivity) and lower ratios in departments where that technology cannot be utilized.
  3. From the viewpoint of educational quality, rather than merely productivity, the use of non-professorial resources may lead to a more economically efficient but lower quality experience for students.
  1. The main idea explored in the conclusion is: in theory, the teacher student ratio should be a strict function of student demand, however, this is clearly not the case. Political factors, including the erection of barriers to create artificial demand may drive certain departmental activities.

A model that attempted to calibrate the optimal allocation between professional development and curricular politics would be a function of several           considerations: 1) the number of undergraduates registering for a department’s classes; 2) the productivity quotient for teaching classes in the department (labor-intensive versus capital-intensive); 3) research prestige of a department.

I would look for evidence of such politics among small departments with few students, a low productivity quotient, and limited prestige. This is because they would need politics to fill up classes and improve their department’s perceived image.