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Stupid or Lying: Wildly Overpaid Faculty Edition

[ 165 ] March 25, 2012 |

The Kaplan Test Prep Daily has determined that American faculty are overpaid:

But college costs have risen faster than inflation for three decades and, at roughly 25 percent of the average household’s income, now strain the budgets of most middle-class families. They impose an unprecedented debt burden on graduates and place college out of reach for many. This makes President Obama’s recent statement that college is “an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford” an especially urgent message.

As a career-long academic and former university chancellor, I support this position. But 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. Overlooked in the debate are reforms for outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules.

Right; the reason for the increase in college tuition is “insufficient teaching schedules,” not the massive increase in administrative costs. This is helpful; we now know that David Levy is lying about cause and effect, and can adjust our expectations for the rest of the op-ed. This is aggravated by a second (obvious) fallacy; the “insufficient” teaching time is almost invariably made up for by cheap, temporary, low cost adjunct faculty, lecturers, and grad students. Having senior faculty double their teaching load wouldn’t have faculty costs; it would simply push out the very low cost workers we now hire to fix the “shortfall.”

Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. 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. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions.

Okay, so two possibilities. The first is that Levy is too stupid or ignorant to appreciate that faculty positions at most private universities and “state colleges” do in fact include research requirements, and that salaries at institutions that don’t have a research requirement are considerably lower than those at research institutions. I’ll allow it’s possible that the man is either a moron, or is ignorant of the basic structure of the profession. The other (more likely) possibility is that he’s simply lying, and expects his audience to know nary a thing about the actual structure of faculty compensation in the United States.

As I understand it, my contract is fairly common for my field; 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service. Do the math; this means that 60% of my job performance is evaluated on terms other than teaching. I’m at an R-1 university, but I’ve seen a lot of contracts at other schools that are similar, and at schools where the research load is less the teaching load is heavier. Indeed, at UK it’s not uncommon for non-tenure track Lecturer positions to include service and research requirements, above and beyond a much heavier teaching load.

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.

In case you’re wondering, 12-15 hours per week is a 4:4 load or a 5:5 load; I have NEVER encountered anyone able to undertake such a load on less than fifty hours per week of actual work. Indeed, I’d guess closer to sixty hours. I simply cannot believe that Levy is ignorant of this; he’s just lying. He wants his readers to believe that an assumption of 1:1 inside-outside the classroom is standard, which is simply absurd, even if faculty do their best to ignore student e-mails and grade completely through scan tron. And it should be noted that research and service requirements are ON TOP OF THIS load.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

Critics may argue that teaching faculty members require long hours for preparation, grading and advising. Therefore they would have us believe that despite teaching only 12 to 15 hours a week, their workloads do approximate those of other upper-middle-class professionals. While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.

And again with the “ignorant or liar?” Increasing senior and tenure track faculty to a 6:6 load or 7:7 load would amount to considerably worse instruction, with considerably less cost saving than Levy would have you believe; the faculty would primarily replace low cost adjuncts and graduate students. But at least we can agree that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.” Levy also invokes the “but they get the summers off!” myth, as if books read themselves, articles write themselves, and syllabi organize themselves.

As it happens, I love my job and most of my colleagues like theirs.  I quite enjoy teaching, and am lucky enough to have a relatively low teaching load (although a higher service requirement than most). I wish that promotion and tenure decisions involved more consideration of teaching than they do, and I think that the way my discipline has focused on research (and the kind of research it has focused on) will prove detrimental in the long term, as state legislatures become increasingly disinterested in underwriting work that their constituents don’t give a damn about.  But Levy’s argument is simply mendacious; that Kaplan Test Prep Daily decided to give him a platform is unsurprising, but disappointing.


  • My take on this looks at the labor market consequences of the changes he proposes.

  • Anonymous

    I am a full professor at a state university making $80K/year. It took 10 years of post-secondary education to be qualified for my job. I have 15 years experience as a professor and have had four promotions to get to the $80K/year that I earn. I work 65-75 hours per week during the semesters and 40-50 hours/week during summers, Christmas and “vacations”. My graduate school peers who were not “lucky enough/good enough” to get a faculty position like me, earned 2.5 – 3 times my annual salary for a 40-45 hour work week and do indeed take several completely work-free weeks of vacations per year. And my students? They tend to graduate with a masters degree and no experience and start at my current salary.

    K-12 teachers and higher ed faculty need to stick together. We both work hard, although our jobs are different.

    • Marcus

      What do you teach?

  • JohnL

    To make his point Levy uses the salary of the highest paid professors and ignores those without tenure (non-tenure/tenure track professors now only make up about 25% of college instructors). That’s pretty egregious. Does he think that the 40% of college faculty that are part-time are overpaid?

    Also, he uses a community college as his example of pay that’s too high. He doesn’t look at it when he’s saying how much instructors work–perhaps because in many community colleges there are contracts that require faculty to show they are working at least 40 hours a week.

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  • P T

    Levy’s article reminded me why I decided to forego my PhD and not seek an academic career. Academic positions don’t get paid enough for the amount of work that they perform. And even as an asian immigrant graduate student, it became clear to me that the whole academic labor market is able to keep low wages because of immigrants like me from asia. Clearly, most of the promising domestic students figure out that academic career is not a good payoff and now with rising wages in India and China I see a significant drop-off in the best students coming here for graduate studies.
    One of the interesting things about education is the lack of quality control combined with the fact that Teaching is one of those skills that a significant portion of any population can perform (obviously of varying quality). So, as they say – If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys :-)

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  • Mark in Wisconsin

    Whew, for true! Years ago we had one of the administrative bean counters come through a faculty collegium wondering about our work schedule. He silkily threatened to put in time clock to make sure faculty were putting in “a real 40 hour week.” One of my senior colleagues, an otherwise Grandmotherly looking English professor, stood up and said “put it in tomorrow. Everyone in the room will be happy to stop bringing work home every night and grading over the weekend. Put it in tomorrow!”

    We never heard back about that. :^)


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  • Levy runs a for-profit educational “group” which is franchising for-profit music schools that directly compete with the music programs at community colleges, particularly in Maryland (like the college whose faculty he slams in his absurd WaPo piece).

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