Professors should teach more; colleges should charge less

Enjoyed this Steven Pearlstein column on the rising costs of college and what to do about it.  Number one, of course, cut administrative bloat.  Pretty much everybody but overpaid administrators will be down with that.  Streamline and re-think general educational requirements?  Sounds okay to me.  Operate year-round.  Sorry, fantasyland.  Not just as lazy professors who won’t go for that.  And in my experience, it’s the students who drive the empty classrooms on Fridays, not nearly as much the faculty.  Okay, so what I found most interesting (and surely controversial among my colleagues)– make us teach more:

Few students or parents realize that tuition doesn’t just pay for faculty members to teach. It also pays for their research.

I’m not talking about research supported by grants. I’m referring to the research by tenure-track faculty members that is made possible because they teach only two courses per semester, rather than the three or more that was once the norm.

Teaching loads at research universities have declined almost 50 percent in the past 30 years, according to data compiled for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. This doesn’t necessarily mean professors aren’t working as hard — surveys show they’re working harder and under more pressure than ever. Rather, says former Mason provost Peter Stearns, it reflects a deliberate shift in focus as universities compete for big-name professors by promising lighter teaching loads and more time for research. In the egalitarian culture of higher education, once some professors won the right to teach less, their colleagues demanded the same. Before long, “two-and-two” teaching loads — two classes in each of two semesters — became the norm.

Today, research is the dominant criterion by which faculty members are evaluated. In deciding which professors get tenure, assessment of teaching tends to be perfunctory (few members of tenure committees ever bother to visit a classroom), and all that is required is competence. It is nearly impossible, however, for a professor to win tenure without publishing at least one book and three or four articles in top academic journals.

Unfortunately, much of that work has little intellectual or social impact.

“The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless,” wrote Page Smith, a longtime professor of history at the University of California and an award-winning historian. “It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. . . . It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.”

The number of journal articles published has climbed from 13,000 50 years ago to 72,000 today, even as overall readership has declined. In his new book“Higher Education in America,” former Harvard president Derek Bok notes that 98 percent of articles published in the arts and humanities are never cited by another researcher. In social sciences, it is 75 percent. Even in the hard sciences, where 25 percent of articles are never cited, the average number of citations is between one and two… [emphasis mine]

A better approach would be to offer comparable pay and status to professors who spend most of their time teaching, reserving reduced teaching loads for professors whose research continues to have significance and impact. Some departments at some schools have embraced “differentiated teaching loads,” but most tenured faculty members resist and resent the idea that they need to continually defend the value of their research. And administrators are wary of doing anything that might diminish their universities’ research reputation.

Suffice it to say, that even my lamest research has generally been cited at least half a dozen times and my best stuff (party identification and social identity theory) might damn well be considered influential.  But I am under no illusions about the impact of my research on society.  I suspect my contribution to the world might be greater if I influenced another 60 students (two upper-level sections of 30) a year in the classroom rather than published another article on the politics of parenthood (not that I am in anyway ashamed of that research or think it is value-less).  [Not that I have any desire to forego my 2-2 load– it really does allow me to be as awesome and dedicated as I can in those two courses a semester and leave me the time not to just research but to actually be a “political expert” and enlighten the broader public beyond just my students].  There are some amazing political scientists out there who really move the discipline– and yes, the world– forward.  Research should be primary for them and we all benefit from the John Zaller’s and John Aldrich’s (two non-random scholars who have influenced me immensely).  But the truth is most of us simply are not changing the discipline or the world and more emphasis on teaching and less on research would both directly benefit our students and make college more affordable.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Professors should teach more; colleges should charge less

  1. John F. says:

    Who knows? Requiring professors to teach more may even improve their research:

    • ohwilleke says:

      In a lot of cases, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, we’d be better served with faculty meeting their obligation to scholarship in addition to teaching but disseminating the materials that they already teach their students to wider audiences, as opposed to finding yet another take on Othello or Robert Frost or inventing the next Arrow’s Paradox. A mass movement of professors (especially at non-flagship institutions) to change conventional wisdom in the minds of the general public would be a greater service than new publications read by almost no one. At a minimum, publications in the trade press or magazines aimed at non-specialist audiences with greater readership among educated laymen ought to get more credit than obscure academic journal scholarship, in relative terms, than it does now, in the hiring and tenure process.

      Even if a voice in the forest that no one hears makes a sound, a voice in a crowded theater has a more powerful and positive impact.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    The implicit deal used to be that tuition covered the cost of teaching, that state funding of public universities was the main source of funds for basic research by professors (i.e. as opposed to commercial development of patentable or otherwise marketable profitable products) as well as some select grants (especially in the agriculture area). Graduate education other than pre-professional degrees (law, medicine, MBAs and graduate degrees in K-12 education), unlike undergraduate education was conceptually viewed mostly as a form of basic research funding except for funding for TA lines. (Endowment money was often designed to allow faculty to spend time on research as well.)

    Nobody actually required that public colleges and universities engage in managerial accounting to match tuition to teaching costs, but that was the basic notion, and was one of the reasons to have pretty loose rules out residency for in state tuition, because the state subsidy was really about research and not teaching.

    Different levels of state subsidies for public institutions also reflected this bargain. Lots of state funding goes to flagship research universities where basic research is a bigger part of the mission and supposedly more eminent researchers are hired and hiring/promotion is more focused on publish or perish, while very few subsidies when to community colleges where faculty research is not really part of the mission (even if it should be), and intermediate amounts of state funding went to public universities and colleges in between where heavier teaching loads were expected.

    The Feds helped with the teaching costs indirectly through Pell Grants, work study funds, guaranteed student loans and tax expenditures for students and their families (except for a few exceptions where national higher education institutions were needed like the military service academies and Gallaudet University), and funded research through a variety of grants decentralized throughout the federal bureaucracy that were more targeted towards specific outcomes than the basic research funded by state subsidies to public colleges and universities.

    The trouble is that legislators and lobbyists tend to market state subsidies of public education as subsidies of teaching, even though that doesn’t really reflect the grand bargain or the economic reality, because basic research has always been a hard sell to the public, particularly as a universal focus on research for all faculty driven by emulation of the institutions at the top of the food pyramid has diluted the quality of published research. Similarly, the trend to make the PhD the presumptive credential for all faculty is regrettable at non-flagship undergraduate teaching oriented colleges and universities, when a master’s degree would have produced a crop of professors better suited to their work.

    Ultimately, I think that the admin costs are doing far more to drive higher educational institution costs than faculty based upon the statistics that I’ve seen. The trends with faculty, instead, seem to represent intra-institutional transfers from teaching faculty (with teaching now increasingly delivered by adjuncts, non-tenure track lecturers, TAs, and huge lecture hall classes where TAs support lead faculty), and towards tenured or tenure track research faculty who are given lighter teaching loads. On the research side, post-docs are serving a similar back filling function transferring resources from compensation for young researchers to tenured faculty. Getting old faculty to retire (or at least paying for much of their retirement age compensation from pension funds actuarially set aside for their care at that age) and focusing pay raises on faculty who aren’t already highly paid due to many years of raises over the years, is more important than reducing teaching loads (which can also be compensated for by offering larger classes when appropriate – law schools manage fine with 90 student classrooms for much of the curriculum).

    A related issue is that relatively stagnant numbers of students combined with faculty on average taking emeritus status much later than expected when they were hired, is leaving inadequate room for promising new younger academics to get on tenure track and establish themselves to facilitate an orderly generational transition. We are seeing a lost generation in academia.

    Finally, while I’m spouting my assessment is that the biggest areas of waste are not so much low teaching loads as (1) spending way too much money subsidizing undergraduate education for students from affluent families that can afford without public help, and (2) spending way too much money on financially encouraging (and allowing) students with dim chances of earning degrees who end up with big student loans but no degree to generate the income to pay for them.

    Refocusing almost all non-research oriented funds on scholarships that are both merit and need based, rather than using across the board in state tuition breaks and allowing residential four year public educational institutions to have unrealistically low admissions standards, wastes money better spent on academically excellent poor and working class and middle-middle class students. Today, those students forego higher education for economic reasons (including fear of student loan debt burdens seen in their less academically able peers who drop out and don’t make the income to comfortably pay those loans), while academically mediocre affluent students are coddled along until they earn four year degrees in five, six and seven years with heavy tutoring and parental nagging and unflagging financial support from family.

  3. R, Jenrette says:

    As a former community college instructor and as a former high school teacher, it is clear that teaching is a disrespected activity. Many people who have never tried it, think it’s easy and that anyone can do it. It’s not easy. The most severe critics are your students. They are quick to see any lack of knowledge. Their problem is that many expect the teacher to be entertaining enough that they remember the lesson with little effort on their part. Obviously, no one is that entertaining.
    Since the public has no idea of what successful teaching is, they resort to test numbers that reflect tests that assume all students are equal in what they bring to class. Would that it were that simple.
    There are a lot of teachers and as a whole their salaries are expensive in state budgets. Blame them for educational failures and political leaders feel justified in keeping salaries low. Then attack teachers for failing and give the public reason to tolerate the low salaries and lack of respect for the profession. Feed the public notion that big achievers achieve and the others teach.
    Until teaching returns to being a respected profession, little gains will be made in public education. It can only return to the status needed to restore respect and authority in the classroom by the community recognizing the importance and value of the profession and the willingness to assume the costs of raising teaching to a professional level.
    This is not meant as a defense of ineffective teachers.
    Are all teachers competent? No. Are all doctors competent? Are all lawyers competent? No and no. The data shows that many teacher weaknesses can be improved with recognized techniques. But when the community disrespects teaching, students have a more difficult time learning.

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