Working on the Tenured Chain Gang

The wheels of reform sometimes move slowly in the Ivory Tower. In fact, it can require an entire team of scientific researchers to detect any movement at all.

This is certainly the case when it comes to assessing faculty workloads in the University of North Carolina system. Nearly a year ago, Hannah Gage, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, convened a committee to explore how the system’s faculty spends its time. Five meetings were held, featuring testimony by experts and professionals.

The result was a resolution unanimously passed at the April meeting of the Board of Governors. It directs UNC president Thomas Ross to implement some minor changes in data collection and affirms the continued use of the industry-standard Delaware Study as the sole source of teaching load analysis.

But faculty workloads are an issue that cuts to the heart of higher education reform, raising some fundamental questions, including: do the faculty of state-supported universities have some special status that entitles them to protection from the economic vicissitudes suffered by the rest of society? Or, rather, do their jobs exist to serve the needs of the larger public?  If the latter, they should certainly share in the economic difficulties experienced throughout the state.

Furthermore, professors’ salaries are fertile ground for the cost-cutting demanded in today’s economy; professors’ salaries account for approximately 40 percent of all instructional costs, a significant amount.

Dr. William Andrews—the senior associate dean of fine arts and humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill—played a key advisory role for the faculty workload subcommittee.  Speaking at the Board of Governors meeting, he said that his single biggest concern about faculty workloads is “competitiveness.” By that, he meant that his school is struggling to compete with other schools to keep faculty members. Furthermore, he suggested that faculty retention is an increasing problem with potentially disastrous implications for the system’s ability to provide a quality education. He, along with UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp, said that when UNC professors were offered jobs elsewhere in the past, the school was able to retain two-thirds of professors with counter-offers. Now, because of tightening budgets, that figure has fallen to one-third.

But his argument fell apart when the number of professors affected was revealed. In response to a board member’s question, Andrews admitted that each year only 12 to 15 of the 275 tenure-track professors in the Arts and Humanities faculty receive offers from other institutions that need to be countered. If two-thirds of those leave—between eight and ten professors—that means that roughly 3 percent of the faculty quit voluntarily. To put things into perspective, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “quit” rate for private industry was 1.5 percent for just one month—January 2012—and 1.3 percent for February, 2012. Averaged together, that’s 16.8 percent for the entire year, more than five times the rate at UNC schools.

With faculty turnover UNC-Chapel Hill extremely low when compared with private industry, it is hard to see faculty retention as a serious problem. Unless, of course, one holds to the belief that the Ivory Tower is a special place that should be shielded from the ordinary changes all other institutions go through. While one might infer from Andrews’ remarks that there is a mass exodus of talented academics, in fact, professors are staying at their jobs at their jobs at an extraordinary rate. This suggests that, except for a special few, few professors have options more attractive than their UNC positions.

The relevant facts also include the national decline in professors’ salaries—when adjusted for inflation, professors’ average salaries fell 4.2 percent from 2008-9 to 2010-11, according to the American Association of University Professors. The economic downturn is causing other systems to undergo belt-tightening similar to UNC, creating a labor market in which most professors will be quite grateful to have any job, no longer able to leapfrog from one cushy slot to the next.

Despite such evidence of faculty stability amidst a difficult job market for academics, Andrews emphasized that teaching loads should be adjusted to make UNC more competitive in attracting and recruiting faculty. Speaking specifically about UNC-Chapel Hill, he said that holding professors to a standard of teaching two courses per semester hurts UNC’s ability to compete in many disciplines, since other schools could win over candidates by permitting them to teach fewer classes. Therefore, according to Andrews, it is reasonable for departments to require that professors teach only one class per semester. He was not talking about special situations in which researchers buy their way out of teaching through sponsored research, but as a general department standard.

Andrews bolstered his fear of too much faculty turnover by noting the lack of a general raise for UNC professors since the beginning of the recession. While that is true, that fact loses effect when the entire national labor market is included in the discussion. Real wages fell 0.6 percent between March 2011 and March 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (and, as stated above, professors’ real salaries are also declining nationally).

He also said that “measuring” faculty workloads—the assessment of how many classes faculty should teach and how many other responsibilities faculty should hold—should be reserved for those in faculty leadership positions, such as “department heads, deans, provosts, and chancellors.” Otherwise, he continued, “your norms will be imposed from without rather than evolving from within, and you’ll have a very difficult time securing faculty buy-in, because they won’t have confidence in the people who are overseeing and supervising.”

Andrews is proposing a “faculty-centric” approach, in which the faculty gets to set their own standards, with those standards adjusted to their own satisfaction so that they never want to leave their current positions. This self-governance by vested interests should be questioned, especially in times requiring fiscal austerity. Many faculty members have spent their entire professional lives in a sheltered environment with traditions dating back centuries. What they consider to be reasonable may in fact not be reasonable at all.

The low turnover rate at UNC-Chapel Hill, the declining salaries of faculty nationwide, and Andrews’ admission that UNC “is very competitive in attracting new professors” tell a different story than was presented at the meeting. To the taxpayers and tuition-paying families, it is more reasonable to adjust university practices, including faculty workloads, to make them more efficient.  Those who are struggling to support public universities that have grown beyond their natural capacity deserve some consideration.

The problem with faculty workloads does not occur everywhere in the UNC system. The smaller schools that concentrate on undergraduate teaching have much higher teaching load standards, from three to four classes per semester; the problems is at the larger research-intensive schools, particularly Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. Although faculty workloads at the larger UNC schools have increased slightly in the past few years, there is still much to be done. Some university traditions that are now considered sacrosanct—but which offer little in the way of productivity, such as arts and humanities research—may need to be sacrificed. Doing so could save tens of millions of dollars, without sacrificing education.

By allowing the faculty and administration to direct the investigation of faculty workloads, the subcommittee avoided serious fundamental questions that need to be explored. The Board of Governors should recognize that minor modifications about how to recount the credit hours and such are merely rearranging the deck chairs.

Rather than consider faculty and administration as impartial experts—or even equal partners—on the question of their workloads, the trustees should have taken control of this issue and maintained their independence. Their deference to the institutions they are supposed to oversee on a question of burning concern to the public suggests some confusion about the role of the UNC Board of Governors. One board member even prefaced his remarks with “We, as the general administration,” revealing a complete misunderstanding of his part as a supposedly independent trustee representing the state’s non-academic interests.

Eventually, the Governors will be forced to act independently, in the interests of the public, no matter how many barriers the academy erects—or else the legislature will be forced to take charge. One way or another, the world’s changing circumstances will breach the protective walls of the academic sanctuary. Change will be imposed, from without if not from within—no matter how dissatisfied it makes the faculty.