Could UNC professors teach more?

When legislators and officials of the University of North Carolina and legislators consider costs, they prefer to focus on minor operational functions—such as heating bills. But that is mere nibbling around the edges.

One area is more promising for cutting costs than all the rest: faculty teaching loads. Faculty salaries are roughly half of the UNC budget; even slight adjustments could mean savings well into the tens of millions of dollars. Yet they have remained something of a sacred cow—there is never any discussion of changing the amount of teaching professors do, even though it is quite feasible.

That’s where the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy comes in—we look at potential cost-cutting measures that nobody else dares to. This year, the Pope Center’s director of policy analysis Jay Schalin took a close look at faculty workloads and found some very interesting things. (The entire study, titled Faculty Teaching Loads in the UNC System, can be found here.)

For one thing, the university system’s official workload averages seem to be way off: the claim that professors in the UNC system taught on average 3.7 courses during the Fall of 2012 semester beggars belief. After all, the legislated standard systemwide is roughly 2.6 courses per professor per semester—and many professors have their teaching loads specified in their contracts at the legislated standard for their school.

Schalin found several eye-popping discrepancies between legislated standards and the system’s claims: UNC Greensboro claimed its average professor taught 4.2 courses in the Fall of 2012, despite a legislated standard of 2.5. Our own findings for tenured and tenure-track professors duplicated the 1.7 course difference at Greensboro.

Schalin’s estimates—using official data taken directly from university registrars’ websites—showed that the UNC estimates were inflated by roughly one course per professor per semester. That is a huge discrepancy—the UNC system is claiming the average professor teaches roughly seven courses a year, whereas both the legislated standard and the Pope Center findings suggest that the average is closer to five.

At one university, Schalin was able to ascertain that the official figures were indeed inaccurate. Not only did he discover a 0.4 course difference between the Pope Center figures and the official figures for the average teaching loads of tenured or tenure-track professors at Appalachian State University, but he was privy to the granular data provided by ASU to the University of Delaware researchers. Those researchers compute the teaching loads for the UNC system and many other higher education systems in the country.

Looking closely at the granular data—which was “massaged” by ASU staff—Schalin was also able to find out some of the reasons for the discrepancy. One is that individual teaching units—such as independent study oversight or the supervision of dissertations—have sometimes been mislabeled as lectures.

Schalin also found other problems. One was with the reasoning behind the legislated standards. Schalin argues that there are enough differences in the demands on professors in different subjects that teaching loads should be differentiated according to disciplines. In fact, this difference is recognized by the university system’s own enrollment funding formula, which categorizes disciplines according to how many student credit hours professors are expected to teach.

For example, due to the need for more intensive training, the university expects professors in engineering and nursing to teach fewer student credit hours than professors who teach English and history. As a result, a school will receive greater funding for an increase in nursing majors than it will for an increase in English majors.

But right now, the legislative standards are only differentiated according to the type of university: professors at extremely research-intensive UNC-Chapel Hill are supposed to average 2.0 courses per semester, while UNC Charlotte professors are supposed to average 2.5 courses, Appalachian State professors are expected to average 3.0, and professors liberal arts colleges with minimal graduate programs such as UNC Asheville and Elizabeth City State University average 4.0 courses.

It seems to be common sense that teaching should be a greater part of the professors’ duties in the humanities and social sciences than in scientific and technical fields. The new knowledge produced in the so-called STEM fields is much more likely to have immediate practical and economic benefits than, for instance, literary research.

The Delaware Study also has a serious methodological problem. It permits schools to inflate their averages for all professors by aggregating part-time professors and graduate students. A “full-time equivalent” professor consists of any number of part-time instructors who teach a total of four courses. This is a circular process: one FTE professor equals four courses equals one FTE professor, ad infinitum. Therefore, the average for all professors can be significantly inflated by adding in the FTE professors.

Following Schalin’s recommendations would improve teaching efficiency and save money. He suggests making the process completely transparent, changing the methodology, and differentiating legislated standards for different disciplines.

Most importantly, the North Carolina legislature or the UNC Board of Governors, or both, should conduct their own investigations of UNC faculty teaching loads, and do so with a mindset of uncovering problems. More accurate information and some new standards for workloads could save huge amounts of money while refocusing the university system on its primary purpose: education.