Back in the Classroom

Colleges are calling off the deals that allowed many professors time out from teaching

Laura Segall for The Chronicle

Christopher Neck, a management professor, says he took his job at Arizona State U. after his department head told him he would only have to teach one large course per semester. Now he is teaching five days a week.
October 16, 2011

When Christopher P. Neck took a faculty job at Arizona State University two years ago, he says his department head promised he could teach just one course a semester. It would be a large class on management principles that met once a week and enrolled as many as 500 students.

But last year, with a new department chairman in place and budget cuts a consistent threat, Mr. Neck says Arizona State told him the deal was off. Not only did his new department head want him to teach two sections instead of one large course, creating more options for students and making it easier for the university to find classroom space, he also wanted Mr. Neck to teach a third class on management for nonbusiness majors. So Mr. Neck, an associate professor of management, went from teaching just once a week to teaching five days a week.

"They hired me to be a place kicker," he says, "and now they want me to be a linebacker."

While research universities are not increasing faculty workloads across the board, many are calling off special deals that have given professors unique teaching arrangements or lighter teaching loads that administrators now believe are either inconvenient or uneconomical in tight budget times. In some cases, institutions are equalizing teaching loads by eliminating some specialized seminars that attract just a handful of students and upping enrollment in classes that remain. Universities are are cutting back on arrangements that give professors fewer classes in exchange for starting new academic programs or for chairing academic departments and important faculty committees.

Arizona State declined to comment on Mr. Neck's allegations. He's filed a grievance charging the university with breaching his hiring agreement, and the university says it doesn't comment on personnel matters. But in e-mail messages that Mr. Neck gave to The Chronicle, one administrator told Mr. Neck that the university now has an "increased eye on efficiency." The business dean put it even more bluntly: "The world has changed, in case you haven't noticed."

Entitled Forever

Special arrangements that limit teaching have become ubiquitous at the nation's top research universities where professors are judged primarily on their scholarly output. "At some universities, virtually everybody has a special deal," says Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University. Mr. Spanier has waged a campaign over the past couple of years to standardize faculty workloads, in part by eliminating teaching deals. Other research universities, particularly public ones hit hard by budget cuts, are doing the same.

Special teaching arrangements haven't always been so common.

"The academy used to have more equality in terms of salary, office space, and teaching load because there was a sense faculty were part of a community of peers," says Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California. "Then in the last 20 to 30 years, the star system emerged where higher education became more of a market environment."

Before the recession, top-level research universities frequently battled to recruit star professors—the ones with large grants, a research following, broad public recognition, and award-winning books. Think Judith Butler, a feminist philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley who has also taught at Wesleyan, George Washington, and the Johns Hopkins Universities, and will be visiting Columbia University next year; and Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University who has also taught at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Competition for such professors encouraged some of them to bargain for smaller teaching loads, which gave them more time for research. As a result, professors' prestige often became linked to how little teaching they did.

Deals that grant a reduction in teaching can end up lasting well beyond the reason they were handed out in the first place. For example, a professor might get one course off to assemble a historic-artifact collection or to establish a partnership between the university and a public-school system. But once the program is up and running, professors often continue to enjoy the lighter teaching load that was granted for the start-up phase.

"Many of the special deals that people negotiate, which are perfectly reasonable when they are negotiated, have a way of continuing in perpetuity," Mr. Spanier says. "That's where we get into issues of inequities and inefficiencies. People who get the deal often believe they are entitled to it forever."

A Cooling Market

Many universities still grant teaching relief to their most-productive research professors, and the nation's richest private universities in particular will continue to do so. But the pendulum on granting special deals in exchange for service is swinging back, specifically at public research universities, for a couple of reasons. First, most of them have weathered back-to-back years of budget cuts and are eager to find new ways to save money. State legislators are also pressuring universities to require professors to teach more so institutions can hire fewer adjuncts. In addition, the academic job market—and the star system that fueled it over the last couple of decades—has cooled significantly, and universities do not have to dangle as many special deals to land new hires.

"Competitive forces that might keep some of those deals in place have eroded," says Robert C. Marshall, chairman of the economics department at Penn State. Keeping track of special deals can be difficult. University leaders have been unwilling to standardize faculty workloads, in part because of the role faculty governance and academic freedom gives professors in deciding what courses they should teach and when they should teach them.

"Very few institutions have been deliberative about faculty work," says Cathy A. Trower, research director at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, based at Harvard University. "There seems to be no centralized decision making." Teaching deals are often made between a department chair and a professor. When a new chair takes over, it can be difficult for that person to judge whether special teaching arrangements are still warranted. And it takes some political will to stop them.

Some administrators are beginning to make changes, sometimes by giving professors a choice in the process. At George Mason University, professors who agreed to chair one of five "areas," or departments, within the university's School of Management had always taught just one course a year, compared with the usual faculty load of four courses per year. When Jorge Haddock took over as dean of the management school two and a half years ago, he thought the course release for area chairs was too generous. So he offered them a new deal: They could teach two courses a year, with pay for one month during the summer, or teach three courses a year with pay for two summer months. While the university pays more, Mr. Haddock says it's worth it to make faculty workloads more equitable across the board and to get full-time professors back into the classroom.

"Although you may lose some points with the people you say no to, you gain a lot of points with the others who think what was happening before wasn't fair," he says.

Amit Dutta, a George Mason professor who leads the information-systems and operations-management area, acknowledges that there was a lot of grumbling at first. "We do course scheduling, faculty development, and faculty recruiting, and we are held accountable for those things by the dean," he says of the chairs. Because the chairs are teaching more, Mr. Dutta says, their research productivity may take a hit. "You can see it in bits and pieces: Fewer conference papers, taking a little longer to complete each paper, and keeping co-authors waiting a little longer," he says. But he notes that area chairs serve for only a few years, not permanently. "This is part of our obligation as senior faculty," he says, "so you suck it up and take it."

Standardized Teaching Loads

At Penn State, the English department has instituted several changes this year aimed at complying with Mr. Spanier's universitywide mandate to standardize professors' course loads. Before the changes, says Robert E. Burkholder, associate head of the department, some professors taught small seminars that enrolled just a half-dozen students, while others taught basic courses that enrolled up to 150 undergraduates. As a general goal, the department now wants all professors to teach four courses a year, with a total of at least 100 students. To get there, the department cut the number of undergraduate and graduate sections it offers by 75 from last year and upped enrollment in some of the 650 sections that remain. The department also pushed tenured faculty members to teach basic undergraduate classes that had primarily been taught by lecturers or adjuncts. Last fall, for example, only four of the department's 13 introductory-level literature sections were taught by tenured or tenure-track professors, whereas this fall all but one of them is.

"More faculty teach at all levels now, but especially at the core and lower down," Mr. Burkholder says. "And their classes are likely to be larger."

For some subjects, though, professors say that just doesn't work. Julia Spicher Kasdorf is an associate professor who teaches poetry writing. This year she has two small classes each semester. While the enrollment in those courses is higher than last year's, she still has only about 65 students for the entire year, far less than the 100-student goal. She says her classes must be small so she can give students the kind of hands-on attention they need to learn to write poetry.

"This is a policy set by people who aren't really aware of what happens in the classroom," Ms. Kasdorf says. "My thought is that this is inappropriate and they'll realize that for certain fields like creative writing it doesn't work."

While Mr. Burkholder acknowledges the value of small courses in creative writing, he says administrators hope that faculty members like Ms. Kasdorf will step in and teach large lecture courses in English once in a while.

Other universities have never been in the position of handing out lots of special deals. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, for example, the standard teaching load of three courses a semester per professor has always been a bit higher than at the most elite research institutions. And now, with steep budget cuts that have forced the university to shrink its faculty, professors at UNLV are regularly teaching even more. Since 2008, says Michael W. Bowers, executive vice president and provost there, the number of professors who have been granted lighter teaching loads in exchange for doing extra research or service has dropped by nearly 20 percent.

The university, like many others, does give lighter teaching loads to professors who head committees of the Faculty Senate. But this fall, with fewer professors over all, some people are concerned that the policy will interfere with the university's ability to offer classes.

"We've had a couple of departments that have two to three faculty that are serving on various committees," says Paul Jarley, dean of the university's College of Business. "That's been a burden for us this year." Mr. Jarley talked about the issue with department heads and with the Faculty Senate, and some of the professors voluntarily agreed to waive the teaching release they would have otherwise received.

Cecilia Maldonado-Daniels is an associate professor of work-force education and development in the university's Graduate College. She's agreed to teach five courses this year, even though, as both head of the university's faculty promotion-and-tenure committee and coordinator of a Ph.D. program, she would have qualified to teach just three. Still, she is worried about what it means if the trend toward waiving course release continues.

"We're still a young university, and we are very service-oriented," she says. "But what this signals is that service isn't that important, and as a result we will get less and less people to invest in the university."

How 3 Departments Standardized Faculty Workloads

At Pennsylvania State University, Graham Spanier has led a campaign to standardize teaching loads across the institution, in part by curtailing special deals that give professors time out of the classroom in return for doing more research or service. Over the last couple of years, Mr. Spanier, the university’s president, figures the institution has saved several million dollars by putting more full-time faculty members back into the classroom. Here are how three academic departments operated before and after they responded to Mr. Spanier’s directive on teaching:



English department

Course load: 4 classes per year

Course load: 4 classes per year

No requirement on teaching freshmen; some professors had never done so

Every professor must teach freshmen at least every other year

No requirement on number of students taught per year; some professors taught fewer than 50

Every professor should teach at least 100 students per year

Number of 400-level course sections offered last fall: 32

Number of 400-level course sections offered this fall: 24

Enrollment in 400-level courses capped at about 30 students

Enrollment in 400-level courses capped at 40 students

Four of 13 intro-level literature sections were taught by tenured or tenure-track professors last fall

All but one of 11 intro-level literature sections are being taught by tenured or tenure-track professors this fall

History department

Course load: 4 classes per year

Course load: 4 classes per year

Enrollment in 400-level courses ranged from 15 students to 40 students per class

Enrollment in 400-level courses standardized at 35 students per class

Three-quarters of intro-level world and U.S. history courses taught by tenured and tenure-track professors

Nearly 100 percent of intro-level world and U.S. history courses taught by tenured and tenure-track professors

Nutritional-sciences department

Course load: 2 one semester, 1 the next semester—for a total of 3 per year

Doubled course load in one semester so load is now 2 and 2

Source: Chronicle reporting by Robin Wilson