March 23, 2012

No public expenditure has a more productive impact on a nation’s health than its investment in education. 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.

Through the first half of the 20th century, faculties in academic institutions were generally underpaid relative to other comparably educated members of the workforce. Teaching was viewed as a “calling” in the tradition of tweed jackets, pipe tobacco and avuncular campus life. Trade-offs for modest salaries were found in the relaxed atmospheres of academic communities, often retreats from the pressures of the real world, and reflected in such benefits as tenure, light teaching loads, long vacations and sabbaticals.

With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. 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. For example, Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: “Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty.” While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

I take no issue with faculty at teaching-oriented institutions focusing on instructional skills rather than research and receiving a fair, upper-middle-class wage. Like good teachers everywhere, they are dedicated professionals with high levels of education and deserve salaries commensurate with their hard-earned credentials. But we all should object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers.

The cost for such sinecures is particularly galling when it is passed on to the rest of the middle class and to taxpayers in states that are struggling to support higher education. 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.

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.

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 whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

Regrettably, proposals for faculty workload reform have generally come from the political right and have been associated with anti-labor and anti-intellectual values. This has inhibited mainstream acknowledgment that while the abuse of low faculty pay has been removed, the accommodations originally put in place to compensate for it have themselves become an abuse.

Change in employment terms and conditions is never easy, but further avoiding this issue can only continue an out-of-scale escalation in the cost of higher education, with the demand, ad infinitum, for increased public funds to support it. America’s position in the global economy depends on widespread access to education across all demographics, and college enrollments must increase accordingly. In such an expansion, the current model is unsustainable. Therefore, a realistic and fair-minded revaluation of faculty employment policies in teaching institutions is imperative.

outlook@washpost.com

David C. Levy, president of the education group at Cambridge Information Group, was the president and director of the Corcoran Gallery and College of Art and Design from 1991 to 2005. He is also a former chancellor of the New School University. The views expressed here are his own.

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