“I had to make a decision,” Stretch said, “about whether I was going to spend the rest of that night grading papers for my composition class the next morning or writing a letter to the special fund the university has” so the student could avoid having to take a second job.
Stretch put off grading, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote the letter.
It was an example of the kind of unseen obligations faculty say they juggle outside the classroom — and among the reasons Stretch considered it “a gut punch” when her university system proposed that faculty teach more courses, raising their workload from four per semester to five, while also doubling their required number of office hours to 10 per week.
Administrators “see an opportunity in the discourse that we’ve been surrounded with for the last four years and even before that,” she said, referring to attacks on elites and “eggheads” such as academics. “They see that opening, and now the opening with covid, where they can be thumping their chests about reducing labor costs.”
And not only in Connecticut. Citing financial problems worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities nationwide are increasing the number of courses faculty teach, and the number of students in them, as a way to lower costs.
Such changes are primarily occurring not at selective private or public flagship universities, but on campuses that largely serve low-income students, who often come from poorly resourced public high schools or whose parents never finished college, threatening to further widen the quality divide between the educations rich and poor Americans receive.
“These are not self-directed learners with fabulous preparation who are in college to explore the world,” Stretch said of the students at her institution, an unusually high number of whom have disabilities and nearly half of whom are low-income, based on their eligibility for federal financial aid. “Most of them need a lot of support, not only inside the classroom but also professors who see them, who know them.”
A spokesman said that the Connecticut State University System has withdrawn its proposal that faculty teach five courses a semester. The faculty union disputes this. It said the system agreed to withdraw this demand only on the condition that the union abandon its request that the teaching requirement be reduced to three courses at a time.
Similar battles are raging elsewhere.
In some cases, workloads of faculty have increased because they’re filling in for colleagues who were laid off during the pandemic. The number of full-time faculty fell during the past year at about two-thirds of universities and colleges, according to the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP.
This, too, varied by type of institution; top research universities slightly increased their numbers of faculty, the AAUP found.
At most other schools, however, “we have a lot more work to do with fewer faculty,” said Evelyn Stiller, a professor of computer science and the president of the AAUP chapter at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where a fifth of tenured faculty accepted an early-retirement buyout over the past year.
“We love our students,” Stiller said. “But if you’re teaching more and have more administrative responsibilities, something’s got to give. You have to make compromises.”
The push to increase faculty teaching time began before the pandemic — most notably in Wisconsin, where then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) said public universities should offset state budget cuts by asking faculty to teach more, and the legislature in 2017 ordered that the working hours of every faculty member be tracked and made publicly available, by name and campus, through an online dashboard.
Some universities, colleges and systems are renewing calls for faculty to take on more courses or more students per course, in addition to such responsibilities as advising and serving on committees. Several have already effectively done this by reducing the number of “releases” they allow — exemptions from teaching for faculty who have administrative responsibilities, such as department chairmanships, or who are conducting research.
A few months before the pandemic descended, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh cut the number of part-time adjunct instructors it was using. To help make up for this, it reduced by half the number of course releases full-time faculty were allowed to take for research. A spokeswoman said the university planned to reverse this change “as financial difficulties are addressed and resolved.”
Even before that, Eastern Kentucky University responded to drops in both its state budget allocation and enrollment by, among other things, lowering the number of course releases granted to faculty and raising the number of students per class — from 22 to 25 in English composition classes, for example. Upper-division courses, which tend to be small, were offered less frequently, freeing up faculty to teach larger classes.
Miami University of Ohio, which laid off about half its 220 full-time, nontenured “visiting” faculty this year, has also cut back on course releases for those who remained, essentially increasing their workloads, said Cathy Wagner, a professor of English and president of the AAUP chapter there.
Miami faculty are required to teach three courses per semester or three in one semester followed by two the next, depending on the discipline. Until now, however, that load was typically reduced by course releases.
Three-quarters of Miami faculty say they are teaching more hours now than they did last year, the AAUP found in a survey.
“You’re going to end up affecting graduation rates and things like that, which is really counterproductive,” Wagner said. “I know that I’m not giving my students the time I was formerly able to give them.”
This has not been lost on students. “Miami’s reputation for being a top school for undergraduate teaching is in serious jeopardy if this continues,” the student newspaper’s editorial board wrote in March. “Students will stop coming here if they are not going to get the academic experience they’re paying for.”
While teaching loads at Miami are up, they do not exceed what’s set out in university policy, the provost, Jason Osborne, said in written answers to questions. Osborne acknowledged that enrollment in some classes has grown higher but said that more than 40 percent of undergraduate courses on Miami’s Oxford campus have fewer than 20 students in them. He did not answer how many fewer course releases had been granted to faculty.
It’s hard to track trends in the number of courses faculty nationwide are required to teach, largely because it differs so much from one institution to the next, and many academic calendars have changed over time from terms and quarters to semesters.
But there are plenty of stories about professors who teach as few as one course at a time, and deans at highly selective institutions concede that teaching workloads for the most senior faculty on their campuses have been declining as universities use this perk to compete for talent.
It was a comment to that effect by Rebecca Blank, the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, that helped ignite the debate in her state over faculty course loads. Blank started a political firestorm by saying that, when top faculty got job offers from other institutions, she sometimes reduced the number of courses they had to teach as a way to get them to stay.
It’s hard to gauge how cost-effective it is to squeeze more class time out of faculty. At Eastern Kentucky, increasing class sizes and reducing course releases saved $250,000 a year, a spokeswoman said. The university’s total budget that year was $356 million.
There’s room for more instructional efficiency at universities and colleges, said Donna Desrochers, who as an associate at the education consulting firm rpk GROUP helps them find it. But Desrochers said that rather than measuring this by time spent in the classroom, institutions should calculate faculty efficiency by student credit hours — the number of students multiplied by the number of courses taught and the number of credits per course.
“We’re looking at a lot of institutions where their courses have very few students in them,” said Desrochers. “We want to see a greater fill rate.”
Reducing the number of sections can accomplish this, she said.
Faculty acknowledged that they face a public perception problem, driven by popular-culture images of professors sitting in quiet offices reading books and getting summers off.
In fact, said Stiller, at Plymouth State, “It’s not kicking your feet up and having a leisurely life. And now [universities] are turning the thumbscrews.”