“Do college professors work hard enough?”

The right time for a college professor like myself to read an op-ed piece asking the question above is not during a short break from a grading session that would end my spring “break” at 1am, five hours before I woke up to take my children to day care and then start a teaching day that will end around 8pm.

But let’s hear David C. Levy out, shall we?

David C. Levy
David C. Levy - Cambridge Information Group

Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions….

I take no issue with faculty at teaching-oriented institutions focusing on instructional skills rather than research and receiving a fair, upper-middle-class wage. Like good teachers everywhere, they are dedicated professionals with high levels of education and deserve salaries commensurate with their hard-earned credentials. But we all should object when they receive these salaries for working less than half the time of their non-academic peers.

Now, my first inclination is to call David C. Levy rude names in the languages I had to master as the product of one of his beloved research universities. But after taking a deep breath…

First things first. I do not feel slighted by my wages. As it happens, I just got my contract for next year and my pay will go up, in accord with a new compensation plan that demonstrates our institution’s recognition of the value of its faculty. But even so, my salary is certainly not “upper-middle-class.” (Levy sets the comparison according to the average salary of a full professor at a community college in Maryland: $88,000. That’s not too far above what I could expect at that level in my discipline… But less than 40% of history professors in this country are at that rank.)

According to 2010 Department of Labor estimates for workers in the state of Minnesota, what I’m paid as an associate professor of history finishing his ninth year teaching at a small private university roughly compares to the industry averages for the following professions:

  • Pile Driver
    I don't actually have a photo of me teaching, so here's a fellow member of the upper middle class to give you an idea of what we do - Creative Commons (ZueJay)

    Claims adjusters

  • Dieticians
  • Floor layers
  • Foresters
  • Pile driver operators
  • Postal clerks
  • Railroad conductors
  • And the captains and mates of water vessels

Now, I also earn a bit more than the people who clean up the mess when a haz-mat truck crashes in downtown Minneapolis at rush hour, so yes, I’m overpaid. But I earn less than the average Minnesotan chiropractor, athlete, and CEO, so “overpaid” is clearly a relative term.

And I’m absolutely positive that I would feel unfairly compensated if I were to learn the sum paid to a senior administrator at a “family owned management and investment firm(a little mom ‘n’ pop that’s acquired thirty companies in the last eight years) who specializes in education yet apparently is so out of touch with his area of expertise that he thinks the following is true:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

How the clause “Even in the unlikely event that [faculty members] devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation…” slipped past the fact-checkers at the Washington Post is beyond me. Since, of course, what makes that event unlikely is that most of us spend far more time grading and preparing to teach than we do in a classroom. At least two to three times as much, plenty of it extending into our days off (weekends, holidays, vacations).

And that doesn’t count student-centered activities like academic advising, mentoring, and writing recommendations for alumni applying for jobs and graduate school.

Or the kinds of wide-ranging conversations I have with colleagues that lead to innovative teaching and course design rather than repeating the same old moves year in and year out. (That accounted for my entire morning last Friday, and will be the focal point of several workshops that will help fill my summer “off.”)

Or the service we provide to our institutions: much of which is tedious, all of which is important to the maintenance and growth of institutions like ours.

Or the research and other scholarly activities us small college rubes engage in despite our not being at the “center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits.” (Over my spring break I did some more work preparing for the second conference I’ve helped coordinate in three years, worked on a couple of grant applications, organized a session for my main professional society’s meeting this fall, and wrote the first half of a manuscript due in May. And I’m worried that I won’t meet my institution’s increasingly lofty criteria for promotion, given the exceedingly impressive scholarship engaged in by my colleagues who do have full professor status.)

I haven’t even touched on the amount of time that we invest in reading — an indispensable activity that is hard to find time for as it is, but would be almost unimaginable under Levy’s proposed model of faculty employment at schools other than research universities:

Medieval Teaching
One of my lazy forebears, mailing in a philosophy lecture at the University of Paris in the 14th century - Wikimedia

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.

I could do this. If it were the only way to keep open a school whose mission I believe in, to keep me working at the vocation I’ve been called to, and to provide for the family I love, I would do this.

Spending more time in front of a classroom would even energize me, since I’m a ham who can manage an extroverted facade for 50-70 minute bursts. But it would also result in my having much less time for all the out-of-classroom activities that actually permit teaching to flourish and learning to occur.

Levy is right that the salaries of my colleagues and myself “make up the largest single cost in virtually all college and university budgets,” including Bethel’s, but he is wasting ink to continue the sentence, “think what it would mean if the public got full value for these dollars.”

(Beyond the obvious fact that contact hours alone do not measure the value of teaching professors… Need I point out that paying Bethel for my teaching, advising, mentoring, etc. is not like paying Wal-Mart for a box of Ho Hos or a bottle of Pepto Bismol? Those things will be gone in days or — during grading — hours; a college education has somewhat longer lasting effects.)

In all modesty, I think I can say that my students get full value for their tuition. That would not be true under Levy’s short-sighted proposal.

8 thoughts on ““Do college professors work hard enough?”

  1. Luckily I think the administrators at our own institution are not as clueless as this guy. Good heavens–I’ve seen better-substantiated arguments for the idea that aliens built Stonehenge.

    The one thing this does make me wonder about is whether academics are doing a good enough job of being transparent and clear about what we _really_ spend our time doing. There seems to be a trend right now toward devaluing teachers of all stripes: it started with arguments about primary and secondary level educators (who arguably DO work even harder and under more difficult constraints than college faculty). And the common denominator seems to be some version or another of the (utterly wrong) idea that the only time teachers are “working” is when they’re in the classroom. Levy just brings the same argument into the realm of university teaching and taints it further with a heavy dose of (equally ignorant) R-1 snobbery.

    The problem is that he’s doing it in the Washington Post during a time when everyone’s terrified about the cost of education. I’d love to see equal space given to someone better informed about what college faculty–especially ones at Bethel-level institutions–actually do. Perhaps our own captain would be a great voice in that regard.

    1. Right – my biggest fear is that someone in a decisionmaking capacity sees this, lets himself be impressed by supposed credentials and the fact that it appeared in the Post, and then ignores its obvious flaws in order to jump at the chance to “control costs.”

    2. There is no reason David Levy would not know the truth that 15 hours of classroom time means about 3-5 times that amount grading and preparation. Although the faculty at the Corcoran School consisted many art teachers whose grading and preparation are not as time consuming as the writing teachers, history teachers, etc, he was also the Chancellor of the New School. Also at the Corcoran, David Levy was known for cost overruns and driving the institution to the ground financially, but not on faculty salaries. He purchased expensive buildings and tried to get the trustees and city to build a very expensive Frank Gehry addition.

      Those of us who teach in the Washington DC are appalled by his misstatement which suggest that we go from “barely getting by” financially to even less. Trying to squeeze more out of college teachers will mean an exodus from the profession. The only thing true about his letter is that Faculty salaries make up the largest part of higher education budgets. Well, the purpose of a college is to educate, and that job can only be fulfilled by faculty members with advanced degrees in their field. It is the entire business of a college. Shouldn’t faculty salaries be at least 80% of the budget, not 39%?

  2. Does it seem at all reasonable to question the Washington Post’s objectivity in the decision to publish this piece? The reason that I ask is that they own Kaplan University. Kaplan is the 2nd largest for profit/online—so let’s consider the Post’s credibility related to higher education.

    Last year Kaplan had to cut 5% of its workforce due to financial problems. More significantly, following a sharp downturn in enrollment, the Washington Post Company reported a 29-percent drop in second-quarter revenue at its Kaplan Higher Education division. This year their enrollment is down 42 percent compared to last year—I suppose their faculty have some time on their hands these days! This decline comes at a time when federal agencies and state legislators are more strictly regulating recruitment practices at for-profit colleges, and are increasingly holding them accountable for their graduates’ ability to find employment and repay their loans.

    I guess this raises at least two questions for me:

    1) What was their motive for running a shoddily researched piece clearly designed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of traditional higher education?
    2) Given the performance of Kaplan, why would anyone be looking for advice on “how to run a college” from their parent company?

    Sorry, I realize that I have not addressed any of Levy’s arguments—but you did a wonderful job doing so and it did seem reasonable to shed some light on the source. While this is of course an op-ed piece, as one would expect, it has received broad coverage this week including articles in both the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed.

  3. The Myth of the Lazy College Professor–OBSERVED. I must add a different slant. Recently a new professor at a major Ca. Bay Area University moved into our neighborhood. We would like to have the same work hours that we see. Every other professional in the neighborhood leaves before dawn and comes home after dark while this professor MAYBE works 10 hours week-MAYBE. A tenured professor. Not emeritus status. No tough life there while this person works in the garage, mows the lawn and has a nice day of R & R while normal hardworking people of the world work hard. While students are digging into their pockets for tuition or the professional parents that I work with everyday struggle to come up with tuition money for their kids this fool exemplifies what is really wrong with the picture. Whack down the salaries of waste-of-time professors like this one and maybe all universities would not be in trouble. Sorry—but this is what the neighborhood observes MOST weekdays which does not fare well for professors boasting they have a tough work life as compared to most people these days. No..we don’t sit home with binoculars watching this fool–at 5 am his house is dark while we all head into rush hour traffic.
    The neighborhood gardeners (who get cancelled by their boss in the rain) work harder than this fool. No doubt a tenured six-figured salary in a (waste of time) major he teaches. Try medicine—-or law—-where you have no time to barely breathe during a stressful and hectic day. We come home to watch this illustrious, tenured professor fooling around in the garage or mowing the lawn or using his skill saw in the back yard. We come home–his car is in the driveway. Tough day. Fraud. Dishonesty? Is Levy all wrong…..heck no! Oh sure, jump on the bandwagon all you educators ashamed to admit this DOES exist in your profession. It does, stop kidding yourself. There are plenty of rotten eggs in every profession——teaching too. Especially, with tenure and an easy ride the rest of your career.
    Students/parents do NOT deserve to fund a salary for this self-centered fool. What a rip to the educational system.
    Universities begging alumni for money while we watch this waste of a salary. Parents digging into pockets for tuition! Shame on Universities for allowing this. Shame on this university for allowing this

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