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Slacker U

April 6, 2012

It’s been two weeks since the Washington Post printed an opinion piece with the faux inquisitive title, “Do college professors work hard enough?” The widely criticized op-ed by David C. Levy, former chancellor of the New School University, argued that professors at teaching-focused universities don’t work very much, they’re grossly overpaid, and the two factors together are a major cause of the university funding crisis. Levy wrote:

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 [excuse me?], their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

As many bloggers pointed out (among others, here, here, and here), Mr. Levy’s article is incredibly ill-informed. University faculty obviously spend far less time in the classroom than preparing, grading, and advising, not to mention university service (committee meetings), community service, and research.

As one critic wrote, “Measuring faculty workload solely in terms of classroom time is like measuring athletes’ workload based on how long the event takes. By that measure, sprinters are the laziest people on earth — they work only seconds per day!”

Unfortunately, Levy’s ignorance about what academics do all day is fairly common – as anyone knows who has read the online reader comments when the local newspaper prints a story about university faculty.

Facts alone won’t overcome popular assumptions of faculty sloth, but it’s worth mentioning a 2004 study (discussed here) by Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania (using 1998 data from a national cross-section of four-year public and private nonprofit institutions). The study found that full-time faculty at U.S. universities worked an average of over 50 hours per week (men: 54.8 hours/week, women: 52.8 hours/week). By comparison, men in the U.S. labor force worked an average of 43.1 hours per week, and women 37.1 hours per week (outside the home). Male professionals and managers worked 46.0 hours per week, and female professionals and managers an average of 39.5 hours per week. That means university faculty worked between 8.8 hours (men) and 13.3 hours (women) more hours per week than managers and professionals.

Jerry A. Jacobs, "The Faculty Time Divide," Sociological Forum 19:1 (2004): 3-27, at p. 8.

It’s also crucial to remember that adjunct faculty actually teach the majority of U.S. college courses, usually in exchange for terrible pay and low job security. As Laurie Essig points out, “According to an AFT survey of teaching positions from 1997-2007, ‘contingent faculty’ rose from 2/3rds of all positions to 3/4ths. In other words, only about 25% of faculty are tenured or tenure-track.”

In response to the op-ed, Lee Bessette called for a “Day of HigherEd” on which faculty would “record, in minutia, what we do as professors from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep.” Read about faculty days here, here, and here. And read about a university staff person’s day here, and the day of a community college dean here. Here’s a wrap of the exercise. I get exhausted just reading them.

As Chris Newfield wrote:

These descriptions of everyday faculty life describe an industry which is structurally understaffed. It describes a professoriat whose creativity is under continuous pressure and where invention in fact requires exceptional effort. This is at bottom a management problem, [but] for at least a generation management has defined productivity entirely through the cutting of labor costs: working conditions and hence work output, that is, research and learning, have during my career never been seriously discussed.

Despite all this, most faculty love their jobs – which makes us even more frustrated that we increasingly lack the conditions necessary to do our jobs well.

Many other workers are also frustrated, of course, especially those who have no work at all. Whatever your situation, it’s rarely difficult to find someone else who is worse off. University faculty enjoy flexible schedules and creative opportunities that most workers lack. But those features of our profession are eroding, as are the conditions under which they benefit not only faculty but also our students and the general public.

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