Do University Professors Work Hard Enough?

Over the weekend, the collective brain of the academic bloggers exploded. 

In the Washington Post, David C. Levy writes that professors are receiving big salaries, but not spending very much time in the classroom. He says that they aren't working 40 hours per week and they have 22 weeks of vacation every year. 

The anger was huge. 

Greg Weeks says that it is ludicrous to measure teaching time solely by time in the classroom. 

The idea that faculty work, even just the teaching part, is measured mostly by hours in the classroom has no relationship with reality. Just for the teaching side, the list of responsibilities includes, but is not limited to, writing syllabi, preparing lectures, grading exams and assignments, advising students (in some cases, like mine, both undergraduate and undergraduate), assessing academic programs (both your own and others), serving on committees (departmental, college, and/or university) related to student issues, writing letters of recommendation, attending pedagogical workshops/meetings, recruiting new graduate students or majors, sitting on MA or Ph.D. committees, supervising independent studies and last, but not least, answering student emails on all different kinds of topics.

Rob Farley also explains that his contract is based on the expectations of research and committee work. Maybe schools put too much emphasis on research, but that's the way it is. 

James Joyner says that the summers are used for research and for teaching additional classes. 

I pretty much agree with Greg, Rob, and James; college faculty do work long hours. I had one semester where I was so overworked that I coasted on three hours of sleep for days at a time. I reworked one class three times – a very time consuming process – and would have probably continued tinkering with it, if I kept teaching. 

While Levy was completely off base, I do think that we have to consider a few questions. Are college professors working in the right way? Are they spending too much time on committees and doing service requirements? Is teaching getting enough attention? Are colleges putting too much emphasis on research at the expense of teaching students? Maybe everything is perfect and wonderful, but the questions aren't totally off base. 

And, let's be honest, we all know of faculty who aren't working those 40-50 hours per week. They aren't doing any research and haven't prepared a new class in a few decades. They are clearly in the minority and are a few years away from retirement, but we all know that they exist. We also know that certain disciplines have fewer work requirements than others. Art professors aren't grading papers or preparing lectures. Shouldn't there be a conversation about how to make sure that everyone is pulling their fair weight? 

 

31 thoughts on “Do University Professors Work Hard Enough?

  1. We also know that certain disciplines have fewer work requirements than others.
    I still have no idea what the geography department does now that pretty much every place is mapped. The communications department, except where it contains the actual journalism classes, doesn’t exist for anything but boosting the GPA of athletes.

  2. I think most of what people are saying in response is true. But I think except for the graduate advising, it’s no more true of college teachers than K-12 teachers.
    Levy suggests a 1:1 ratio of teaching time to prep/everything else. He makes up the number and compares apples to oranges — saying other professionals work 2000 hours/year and comparing that to teaching time. I agree that Levy is making fundamentally flawed comparisons (not the least with the assumption that 1:1 is a universal ratio). But I see very little of the complaint being different for k12 than college and can’t see getting on the college bandwagon first.

  3. I think it’s a tough sell — and it should be– to explain why 18 year olds should be paying for research and scholarship not directly related to what they are being taught. And that applies equally for research on french philosophy and on neurotoxins.

  4. I’ve been wondering if part of the issue is a paradigm shift from packaging things together to more niche-based consumerism. I feel like we’ve packaged a whole bunch of things together into a college education, and now we’re kind of rebelling against it.
    What if students didn’t have distribution requirements any more? What if they took the courses they thought they needed to get jobs? What if they took as many as they wanted, and if they failed, they just took them again? Maybe the onus should be on employers to test skills instead of universities to provide pre-tested/credentialed applicants for jobs?
    I’m thinking of the iTunes model of music distribution. I mean, the idea that I can pick and choose only the songs I want is amazing. Back in the day, I had to get the whole damned album even if I wanted only 2 songs. At least with vinyl, we had 45s, but when the industry moved to CDs, CD singles were rare. I’m still annoyed that in order to get BBC America, I also have to get 3 home shopping networks, 10 Spanish language stations, and Fox News.
    That wasn’t really coherent, but sometimes I wonder what would happen if we went a la carte.

  5. Actually geographers these days study a lot of interesting things — whether or not there are neighborhoods on the internet; how geography affects your access to resources like food, education and jobs; whether one’s identity is fixed or permanent and why some environments (like ghettos) are easier or harder to leave than others; why some types of rules travel from place to place in a globalized world and why others are reinvented in a new environment; and how forces like migration (legal and illegal) shape our world.
    What no one mentioned, however, is that the man who wrote this article was the Chancellor of the New School — where he exploited adjuncts and earned over 100 times what they earned; and now he works for a consulting firm that has been accused of stealing other people’s intellectual property and reselling it at a huge markup.
    Does anyone really believe that the reason college costs too much is because the professors are overpaid? I get approximately 8,000 to teach a course that 60 people take, paying 3,000 each for the privilege. IN other words, my labor generates 180,000 dollars and I get to keep 8. The question you really need to be asking is how many people in the many student services offices, marketing offices and real estate offices are sucking down the other 172,000 dollars and whether THAT money is benefitting your child in any way.

  6. The reason why college costs are up is that the instrumentalist expectation of “graduating from college gets you a higher income” has driven more and more people to pursue higher education. The perverse thing is: academics, or at least many academics, do not have the same sorts of instrumentalist expectations about their work.
    Let’s say a historian is working on what would appear to non-historians as a completely esoteric topic. Among historians the work might be considered excellent and useful, even beautiful. And that work would circulate among those who appreciate it without any material remuneration to the writer. What is important is the knowledge and the learned discussions that it inspires. Those are the values of academia. We write and publish without getting paid for it! And we teach and try to instill in our students a similar love of learning.
    And then somebody yells at us and says: “hey, you don’t work hard enough. And my kid didn’t get a job”…
    It is a fundamental disconnection between what is essentially a medieval institution and a post-industrial economy…
    I like (some of) the medieval virtues. If people don’t want “useless knowledge,” fine, then don’t major in English or whatever.
    But it’s funny, isn’t it, how the non-instrumentalist pursuit of knowledge still has an appeal for some, especially those who are repelled by the materialist, market-driven gloom of modern/postmodern life….

  7. Well, academics are getting paid to do research, Sam. Rob Farley said that 40% of his contract is based on the fact that he’s doing research. Tenure and hiring practices are based on publication. Respect and prestige is based on publications. People who are simply great teachers and don’t do research are sneered at. So, research isn’t being done purely altruistic, love of knowledge reasons.
    The problem is that kids and their parents want employment. . Knowledge is great, but not living in your parents’ basement is also a good thing. If colleges aren’t helping kids get jobs, if 70% of their classes are taught by under paid adjuncts, if their tuition is supporting research that nobody outside the university is allowed to read, then we need to ask tough questions about the whole system.

  8. I think there is something wrong with the scenario Lousia describes — but, if the class was really generating 180K out of the value of the teacher’s work, presumably, the teacher should be able to claim a higher salary for themselves? I think we have to include the possibility that all those people in the student services/marketing/student loan/administrative offices are actually generating value that the tuition is playing for. If it weren’t, a teacher should be able to offer the class on their own and claim more of the profit.
    Possible ways that the structure of the university is contributing to the value of the class include the possibly reasonable ones like over-seeing the credentialing in education, including requiring a particular class as a necessary component of that credential. They can also include things like marketing the value of a university education and a particular university’s education, helping students get student loans (I think this is a big one), giving students a place to spend their time outside of class.

  9. What kind of research are we talking about? Because if it’s science or health-related it’s almost certainly funded through grants and is an over-all money maker for the institution. I don’t know how it works for the humanities.
    Administrative salaries are paid in part by student tuition and fees and it’s hard to see how many of those positions are justifiable. Some of them are but the numbers and salaries for many of them are absurd.
    Capital improvements, too. These are never-ending at my university. Did we really need a new football stadium that only gets used seven times a year?

  10. What are justifiable administrative salaries? What sorts of research costs are associated with faculty lines? What is the cost of education, in real terms? These are important issues, but what are the empirics?

  11. “That wasn’t really coherent, but sometimes I wonder what would happen if we went a la carte.”
    I also think that a lot of students (perhaps especially at the community college level) would be better served by going a la carte. Outside of vocational fields with a particular program of study, is anybody more impressed by an AA than by an equivalent number of courses?
    “I think there is something wrong with the scenario Lousia describes — but, if the class was really generating 180K out of the value of the teacher’s work, presumably, the teacher should be able to claim a higher salary for themselves?”
    Apparently, $200k is about the going rate for a research star (even at some state schools). Some people I know would like to get hold of a star, but are discovering that if the star makes $180k at their current school (a state school in an inexpensive location), they would need to offer $200k (plus $50k benefits).

  12. “… if their tuition is supporting research that nobody outside the university is allowed to read…”
    We’re pretty much agreed that Elsevier are first against the wall when the revolution comes, and in the meantime working toward arXiv-like or PLoS-like solutions for other disciplines. What else is on the to-do list?
    (Other than Julie’s annoying call to look at actual evidence, of course.)

  13. All of what I write is publicly available for free within 12 months after it is published. It isn’t very accessible, since I don’t write well.

  14. I have to admit that part of the reason I’d like to do an a la carte thing is that I’d love for the students to blow off English, then apply for jobs and realize that in order to work effectively, they need to know how to write. Then they’d come running back to me crying how badly they need me and …
    OK, obviously I have issues. ;)

  15. I see an increasing trend towards the ala carte model developing, but don’t see it replacing the current model. I think we’re seeing it already in K-12 education, with parents paying for lessons, tutoring, sports, camps, classes outside of school.

  16. There’s nothing like being quoted to make misspellings more glaring (i.e. should be undergraduate and graduate).
    There are all sorts of legitimate complaints about academia, but starting with the stereotype of the lazy or semi-lazy professor who doesn’t care much about students and publishes stuff no one else cares about (or doesn’t publish because he or she has tenure) isn’t the way to go.

  17. “stereotype of the lazy or semi-lazy professor who doesn’t care much about students and publishes stuff no one else cares about (or doesn’t publish because he or she has tenure) isn’t the way to go.”
    I agree, and it’s particularly frightful for someone who actually ran a schools, like Levy. It’s pretty clear that starting off the discussion with “you lazy bums” isn’t a good way of getting the most out of your work force.
    My beef is that we have this same discussion, with this same tone, about K-12. to see the internet fire up with umbrage when the subject is college education but not K-12 sounds too self-serving to be convincing to those not in the business.

  18. Good teaching takes skill and effort and time, and to talk about 3:1 or 4:1 ratios of time spent working to end result are all perfectly reasonable. The problem, for all teaching, at all levels, though, is that it’s difficult to measure out comes.
    I was comparing it to coaching and realized that a big part of the difference is that good coaching is measured through one main variable (winning games). Lip service is paid to other aspects of coaching, but ultimately you only get to do those things in addition to winning games. One could implement similar models in teaching, but the problem I see with that is that the ultimate goal of teaching really is learning, not winning games (or getting a job, though maybe some institutions should be measured that way — law schools?).

  19. bj, I think the main reason there isn’t so much uproar about k-12, although there is quite a bit among teachers, is that it’s not paid out of pocket.
    8,000 per class is a good rate. The best I ever got was 6k. The going rate around here is 3500-4k. I noticed that the article didn’t mention adjuncts at all. And I can say for sure that my full-time faculty member spouse works well over 40 hours/week for less than a six-figure salary.
    Wendy, I love the a la carte idea. I think you can still have prerequisites for classes and still do the a la carte thing. So, algebra before calculus, but after a certain level of foundation, most classes are available.

  20. “bj, I think the main reason there isn’t so much uproar about k-12, ”
    I think I was actually trying to say the opposite — that people make the same complaints about K-12 teachers (being lazy bums who don’t work very much), but without the outraged response that this significantly undervalues their work (well, and I’m looking for outrage from college professors).

  21. As an employee of one of the teaching colleges Levy takes aim at, I am currently earning $5000 a year less than the managers of an Internet start-up I worked for back in 1999. These managers were in the office from 10am to 8pm, but spent much of their day on ESPN’s website. We shouldn’t confused hours clocked in with productivity in either realm.

  22. “I am currently earning $5000 a year less than the managers of an Internet start-up I worked for back in 1999.”
    It was other people’s money, wasn’t it? Did they ever even break even?

  23. Our eldest is a junior in high school. I’ve been reading up on the current state of affairs in colleges and universities. I’ve come to realize that I do want to know who’s teaching the classes. Are they adjuncts or tenure-track faculty? At $50,000 per year, I think that’s a fair question.
    Mr. Levy claims, The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules.
    Research stars on staff do not improve my child’s education, if she never comes into contact with them. It’s funny, you know, Mr. Levy uses neither “adjunct,” nor “teaching assistant” in his essay. I wonder why? The options are not researcher or teacher. It’s researcher (whom very few students will meet), teacher (whom many will meet and work with), and adjunct (who may not have time to meet students, as he/she is working more than one job).
    Dubbing all of them “professor” obscures their different roles. I don’t know why I should object to teachers having time to teach my child. I think that’s a better bargain than paying tuition for the folks “at the center of America’s progress,” who are too busy to teach.

  24. “Are they adjuncts or tenure-track faculty? At $50,000 per year, I think that’s a fair question.”
    Cranberry,
    A very interesting fact is that the grad TAs at my husband’s institution get better teaching evaluations than the actual faculty. Now, evaluations aren’t everything, but it’s still interesting.
    I don’t know how stars are at teaching, but from my husband’s stories, they tend to be rather notorious for phoning it in at conferences (are key note speeches ever any good?). I think part of the problem is that they get asked to do a lot more than they can do well.

  25. “Noted researchers certainly attract a higher grade of graduate students which probably helps get better TAs.”
    Yeah, but in an experimental field, they’re expected to be in the lab all the time, and get even less credit for their teaching prowess (and, in some cases don’t get paid for it, because it’s a class, as part of their teacher training).

  26. “A very interesting fact is that the grad TAs at my husband’s institution get better teaching evaluations than the actual faculty. Now, evaluations aren’t everything, but it’s still interesting.”
    I bet those TAs learned what I did–emphasizing your lack of agency in setting the course topic or assignments does wonders for building TA-student solidarity. (Also, we did generally talk to the students more directly, even if the professor was superbly friendly and approachable.)

  27. As far as I know (about science and engineering), the majority of faculty in the sciences and engineering are net money makers for the university. Their research is not funded by student tuition, but by grants. This applies to star faculty as well (more so in fact).
    Secondly, faculty salaries have not risen much in real terms and have grown at the rate of inflation, while the number of administrators at universities has exploded, including the more highly paid variety. Here is an article about this phenomenon:
    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/septemberoctober_2011/features/administrators_ate_my_tuition031641.php
    The following article is about increasing administrative salaries in the UC system:
    http://changinguniversities.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-administrators-took-over-university.html
    And this one has a nice graph about the growth in administrative managers at the UC system relative to number of faculty over the years:
    http://reclaimuc.blogspot.com/2011/09/senior-administrators-now-officially.html
    Other than all this, faculty salaries are not astronomical, and most faculty earn very little until relatively late in their lives. If these incentives are further weakened (along with job security), I think there will be very few takers for university positions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s