Hardly an Academic Sweatshop

How much do university professors actually work? Opinions vary widely—some academics insist their standard workweek is roughly 50 hours, while members of the public hear about professors with six-figure salaries who teach one three-hour course per week for eight months of the year and shake their heads in disbelief.

The question is not just one of idle speculation. Improving faculty productivity offers great promise for reducing public university budgets in a time of government belt-tightening. If professors are indeed capable of teaching more, then great savings are at hand. For instance, faculty salaries at the University of North Carolina system equal nearly half of the system’s $2.8 billion appropriation it receives from the state each year. Having professors to teach, on average, just one more course every two years—a ten percent increase in productivity—could save North Carolina taxpayers close to $100 million annually.

The University of North Carolina recently provided the state legislature with an average for the number of classes professors teach in a semester: 3.37. This estimate seemed to be extremely high. So the Pope Center undertook its own exploration into faculty teaching loads. 

This is not the easiest thing to do. A professor’s full workload is complex and individual, and nearly defies quantification. Their duties include grading, preparation, research, community service, meeting with students, administration, and more—with many activities having uncertain demands on a professor’s time.

In the past, the University of North Carolina system attempted to determine average workloads incorporating all of a professor’s activities. In 2001, “because of the cumbersome nature” of this method, the system dropped it and instead adopted the (University of) Delaware Study methodology, “a more simple and accurate method,”  according to the system’s website.

The Pope Center requested the Delaware methodology, but has not yet received it.  Instead, we created our own quick, simple, and meaningful measure of teaching loads that can be used for policy purposes. In doing so, we uncovered some interesting facts.

We chose to focus on the number of actual classes taught per semester. We fully acknowledge that many diligent professors spend many more hours in preparation, grading, etc. than they do in the classroom. And we are certainly aware of the myriad duties that must be performed at a university. But there is still plenty of insight to be gained by knowing one simple fact: how many classes do professors teach on average? So we concentrated on that measure alone.

Actually, we created two measures of the same thing, to provide a range rather than a single statistic, which might be biased one way or the other. Such biases can happen unintentionally, particularly in this case. For, even after eliminating all non-teaching duties, there are still many arbitrary decisions that must be made. There are different types of classes, requiring different amounts of teacher involvement. There are different types of faculty—some full-time, some part-time; some with research requirements, and others with none. And there are different types of universities: some are very research-intensive while others concentrate solely on undergraduate teaching. We decided to use only tenure-track professors who do not have administrative duties at the department chair or higher levels.

The first of the two measures is intended to be generous toward the faculty—in some cases, a professor is given credit for teaching a class even if he or she only supervised one doctoral dissertation or independent study student. That activity can mean no more than one or two hours of work per week.

In the second measure, a lecture with one student was counted as a class, but a professor had to oversee at least three doctoral dissertations for those doctoral dissertations to count as a course. This is hardly severe, and probably reflects workloads more realistically.

All in all, we tried to err on the side of generosity to the faculty.

Using actual course enrollment data posted online, we tried to approximate the mix of different schools and different majors that are present in the UNC system, so as not to bias our findings one way or another.

So what did we find?

We discovered that teaching loads are a lot less than the figure cited by UNC. Our high measure yielded 2.68 classes per professor per semester system-wide, while our low measure yielded only 2.03 classes per semester.

Averaging the high and low measures yields 2.36 classes per professor per semester, almost exactly one class per semester lower than the 3.37 figure cited by UNC.

Even if we were to extend our definition of what a class is to extreme limits, we would not likely come anywhere near an average of 3.37. We can only assume that the Delaware Study method—while still simpler than UNC’s older method—continues to count some non-teaching activities as “class equivalents,” as did its predecessor. Doing so will inflate the results upward, presenting a false portrait of a professor’s activities.

Here are the basic results of our study:




Classes  Taught

Classes With Less  Than 3 Enrolled

Method 1

Method 2

Chapel Hill
































































One reason why there is such disparity between the universities is the differing research requirements for each type of school.  North Carolina law mandates that schools require specific teaching loads for different types of universities; below is a chart these requirements:



Classes per Semester

Research University I

Chapel Hill, NC State, Greensboro, A&T


Doctoral Universities

East Carolina, Charlotte



Central, Western, Appalachian, Wilmington, Pembroke, Fayetteville


Baccalaureate I



Baccalaureate II

Elizabeth City, Winston-Salem, School of the Arts



Our findings lead to several conclusions:

  • UNC-Asheville’s low measures suggest that there is a lack of monitoring and enforcement of the current standards at some schools in the UNC system. At Baccalaureate I schools like UNC-Asheville, professors are expected to teach four courses per semester. But the combined averages for two departments—one in the humanities and one in an interdisciplinary subject—are only 2.67 using the high measure, and 2.42 using the low measure. These results are lower than those for Appalachian State (3.26 and 2.35), where professors are only required to teach three classes per semester, when they should be higher.
  • Although it cannot be seen from the above charts, the total teaching load for six professors in Chapel Hill’s English department is only one lecture class. For another five professors, their entire teaching load is the supervision of one doctoral dissertation. Such low teaching loads in the humanities are an extravagant luxury.
  • UNC officials have suggested for several years that there is a shortage of nursing faculty. Nursing is a high-intensity teaching subject, requiring small classes. Yet nursing professors do not necessarily conduct a lot of research, since most health care research is performed by faculty from other disciplines, such as biochemistry and medicine. But—perhaps because its Research I classification allows it—UNC-Greensboro has teaching loads in its nursing department between 2.22 and 1.72 classes per professor per semester. That, too, seems extravagant.
  • UNC-Chapel Hill’s English department slightly exceeds its Research I standard of 2 classes per semester using the high measure, but fails to satisfy the requirement using the low measure. The real question is why an English department’s requirements are the same as a chemistry department’s.  The only valid reason for assigning such a low teaching load to Research I schools  (two classes per semester) is that professors ostensibly perform valuable research that advances useful knowledge, often with economic implications.  However, research in the humanities and many of the social sciences is not equally “useful” as that produced in technical and scientific subjects. This suggests that the teaching load standard should be differentiated among departments at Research I schools to account for the difference in utility.

UNC’s current standards for teaching loads are based on an era of rapid growth in academia, when funding was plentiful, and when there was intense competition (including with private industry) for top academic talent in many disciplines.

But that rapid growth is proving to be unsustainable. Furthermore, many reasons cited in the past for professors’ light teaching loads are no longer valid. The market for faculty has changed; rapid growth has caused the overproduction of Ph.D.s in many disciplines, and the competition from private industry has diminished. Every public higher education system in the nation is undergoing the same pressures; nationally, faculty wages are likely to fall, teaching loads are likely to increase, unprofitable research is likely to lose importance, and talented faculty are likely to be readily available for the next few years.  

A new reality calls for new thinking; it is the dawn of a new era in higher education, in which traditions and standards developed a long time ago—when only a small percentage of the population attended college—must be cast aside in order to educate greater numbers of students more efficiently. Faculty productivity is one area where great financial savings can be found. It’s time to reorder teaching loads (and monitor and enforce existing regulations) in ways that reflect the new demands.