Do Professors Work Hard Enough? A Rebuttal

March 27th, 2012 the Washington Post published an opinion/editorial by David C. Levy. Mr. Levy opined rising tuition cots are a function of a broken employment policy system within Higher Education. On the one hand, Mr. Levy attempted to assuage fears of gross misconduct across the higher education by suggesting few faculty were not working to their potential. Yet, on the other hand, he also suggested inefficiencies within the employment structure of higher education encouraged such a great amount of complacency as to generate enormous cost overruns in salaries and benefits awarded to faculty who apparently do not work enough.

As a self-described “career-long academic and former chancellor,” I am surprised by his notion of the lazy professor. While I have run across a few “lazy” professors, I can speak from two decades worth of experience across four institutions the “Tale of the Lazy Professor” is more myth than reality.

Let’s talk salaries. Dr. Levy asserts the salary range for “senior” faculty is in the range $80,000 – $150,000. I have found his numbers to ring true (salary.com). We need to examine his statement closer; he says “senior faculty.” Senior faculty implies “assistant,” or “full” professor. I would imagine most institutions have few “senior”-ranking faculty simply due to the time required to achieve such status. Thus, we are talking about a reduced sample size. Next, his salary range suggests all faculty fall within the range. Dr. Levy’s range mischaracterizes salaries in higher education. A more telling statistic reported is the median salary. The median salary nationwide is $80,000; so, roughly 50% of faculty earn more than $80K, while roughly 50% earn less than $80K. $80K sounds good to me, as I work my ass off and don’t make close to the median. Most first-year faculty will be lucky to earn 1/2 the median her first year, including benefits. In fact, in many rural areas around the country, I would not be surprised if the starting salary was less than $40k.

One troubling contribution to the rise of tuition is reflected not in salaries but in rising health care costs. Having been a member of my institution’s insurance and benefits committee, rising health care costs coupled with poor health care choices by employees caused us considerable grief. Employees not wanting to spend $10 a month for a health care plan, or employees not using generic medications, or not using the discount drug plans offered by Wal-mart, or using the emergency room as their health care provider drive up institutional health care costs. Faculty and Professional Staff are generally not the perpetrators of poor choices. The hourly staff who can least afford health care tend to be the greatest inefficiencies within the system. Hourly staff do not check emails, do not use computers, and are reluctant adopters of change.

Dr. Levy appears to conflate the public cost of higher education salaries with inefficiencies. He says, “Since faculty salaries make up the largest single cost in virtually all college and university budgets (39 percent at Montgomery College), think what it would mean if the public got full value for these dollars.” When I read his comment, knowing his credentials, I am blown-away at the staggering ignorance of his position.

Setting aside salaries and benefits, another concern is Dr. Levy’s calculation’s of teaching time, teaching load, otherwise known as “contact hours.”

Here is his statement:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

For someone as credentialed in higher education as Dr. Levy, his comments seem naïve and myopic. First of all, let’s debunk the notion of his ideal executive. Executives work hard, no doubt, but lets not forget these executives are human beings, not automatons. Executives might have business lunches, might have golf games for improving customer relations, or travel abroad to fantastic places. Dr. Levy’s “executives” are no less likely to be any more self-directed as a professor. His comments simply portray ‘executives’ in an unrealistic light.

Yes, faculty teach 12 to 15 hours per week. In fact, some may only teach 6 hours or 9 hours per week. Dr. Levy seems to think after class is over faculty go home and watch cartoons and wait for the next class to come around. Not only is his notion wrong, it’s irresponsible, ignorant, and just dumb. Really.

Faculty are busy as hell. Yes, we prepare for class. We grade papers. We take professional development workshops. We advise students. We also sit on a number of committees. Committees drive recruitment, and they help manage accreditation, and they investigate curriculum development. Faculty, especially non-tenured faculty, have to perform research, mentor student research, publish papers, present at symposia, workshops, and conferences. Faculty mentor campus student organizations.

Has he seen the rules and guidelines for pushing a course for 100% online delivery? Methinks not. Having taught online for 8 years, and as a recently certified faculty for online instruction, I can state with 100% confidence the development of a course for online delivery is far more complex than one developed for a traditional classroom.

With more universities pushing content into the Ether, as I call the Internet and associated “cloud,” the time faculty invest in teaching, learning how to develop online content, developing online content, evaluating student work and working with online students is pushing their time contribution up, not down.

Most faculty I know sacrifice weekends and occasional holidays. Conferences consume time, students are chaperoned, and many faculty are involved in discipline-related organizations, to boot. Reading crappy research papers and essays each night in front of the TV is common. Yes, we take our work home with us. Universities provide us with Virtual Private Network (VPN) access so we can even access our office computers from home.

Dr. Levy’s pseudo-math of faculty efforts simply doesn’t pass my sniff test.

I’m going to say that all faculty are perfect angels, either. In 20+ years of academic experience, I have known perhaps one slacker. If anything, the tenure process can slow faculty down. I suspect tenure slowed down my example. But, the motivation or inspiration found by faculty in higher education is no different than the motivation or inspiration found by “executives.” In fact, I would argue faculty are the “executives” of Academia.

Faculty manage people, called students. Faculty manage budgets associated with grants or contracts. Faculty manage reports, assessments, evaluations, and proposals. Faculty network with others in their field, both peers and superiors. Faculty are held accountable for low-performance and non-performance, though once tenure is achieved, the ability of a institution to divest itself of non-performing faculty is greatly hindered. A change in academic culture with regards to tenure might improve performance. We have to be careful in thinking changes to tenure might lead to controlling costs, however. Potential faculty candidates could argue for higher salaries based upon a proven track record of obtaining grants or perceived recognition in their field and potential for student recruitment.

“…I disagree with the next assumption, that the answer to rising college costs is to throw more public money into the system. In fact, increased public support has probably facilitated rising tuitions.”

Superficially, the above comment by Dr. Levy might make sense. Throwing money at academia could translate into carefree attitudes, hiring sprees, and wasteful spending. The problems with his statements are numerous. State educational policy boards, such as the Council for Post-Secondary Education (CPE) in Kentucky mandates enrollment growth for each state institution. Growing enrollment has the effect of potentially needing additional faculty. Educational directives mandate a certain number of hours for Undergraduate and Graduate education. The ability to teach necessary courses on a timely basis might require the hiring of additional faculty. For programs to remain competitive and attractive, investment in technology is necessary. Students desire computers, software, and various other technologies to be available in order for them to be competitive in the global workplace. Technology drives energy costs higher as old buildings need to be retro-fitted with utilities to power technology. Universities have to pay for software licensing, Internet access, public safety, counseling services, and address the issue of the voluminous waves of students whose high school education has left them woefully ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education. All of these require funding.

Furthermore, his attitude of ‘…throw more public money…,” poorly addresses the issue of education funding in Higher Education. In our current atmosphere of anti-intellectualism undermining the United States economic future, such statements only fan the flames of those wanting to burn our books – except of the Bible, of course.

Funding public education is one of the few investments made in the public sector which returns a profit. We build more prisons and spend 8-10x’s more per inmate than students, yet people complain about education. Being an educator himself, he should be fully aware of the benefits to society of education. Every other advanced and developed country on the planet fully subsidizes higher education, every one but the United States.

I’m sure I’ve missed some important points. Dr. Levy, in my opinion, should have given his argument more thought. Not to speak for my peers, though I have to admit I suspect most if not all of them would find Dr. Levy’s comments in the range from ludicrous to hilarious or inane to insulting. I would describe his words as “pure bunk.” He simply does not capture enough of the complex economic forces at work controlling and influencing tuition costs. Additionally, he does not adequately capture the complete compliment of responsibilities of faculty, professional staff, and hourly staff. No doubt inefficiencies exist. I know the Academia bureaucracy could operate more efficiently. However, ALL bureaucracies, both public and private could benefit from increased cost-awareness.

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