An English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, Cynthia Stretch is used to meeting after hours with her students, many of whom work full time while in college.
It was at 8 one evening that a woman Stretch advises admitted she was having trouble catching up with three unfinished courses from a previous semester while taking a full load of additional classes and struggling to earn enough to pay tuition.
“I had to make a decision about whether I was going to spend the rest of that night grading papers for my composition class the next morning or writing a letter to the special fund the university has” so the student could avoid having to take a second job.
Stretch put off grading, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote the letter.
It was an example of the kind of unseen obligations faculty say they juggle outside the classroom — and among the reasons Stretch considered it “a gut punch” when her university system proposed that faculty teach more courses, raising their workload from four per semester to five while also doubling their required number of office hours to 10 per week.
Administrators “see an opportunity in the discourse that we’ve been surrounded with for the last four years and even before that,” she said, referring to attacks on elites and “eggheads” such as academics. “They see that opening, and now the opening with Covid, where they can be thumping their chests about reducing labor costs.”
And not only in Connecticut. Citing financial problems worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, colleges and universities nationwide are quietly increasing the number of courses faculty teach and the number of students in them as a way to lower costs.
Such changes are primarily occurring not at selective private or public flagship universities, but on campuses that largely serve low-income students who often come from poorly resourced public high schools or whose parents never finished college, threatening to further widen the quality divide between the educations rich and poor Americans receive.
“These are not self-directed learners with fabulous preparation who are in college to explore the world,” Stretch said of the students at her institution, an unusually high number of whom have disabilities and nearly half of whom are low-income, based on their eligibility for federal financial aid. “Most of them need a lot of support, not only inside the classroom but also professors who see them, who know them.”
Because it will make that support harder to provide, increasing faculty workloads “just consolidates the inequality that’s already out there,” said John O’Connor, a sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University. “There’s a fundamental disrespect for these students.”
Meanwhile, top faculty who chafe at such conditions, said Stretch and other critics, are prone to leave for better-endowed institutions.
A spokesman said the Connecticut State University System has withdrawn its proposal that faculty teach five courses a semester. The faculty union disputes this. It said the system agreed to withdraw this demand only on condition that the union abandon its request that the teaching requirement be reduced to three courses per semester.
Similar battles are raging elsewhere.
In some cases, workloads of faculty have increased because they’re filling in for temporary, part-time and even tenured colleagues who have been laid off during the pandemic. The number of full-time faculty fell during the last year at about two-thirds of universities and colleges, according to the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP.
This, too, varied by type of institution; top research universities slightly increased their numbers of faculty, the AAUP found.
At most other schools, however, “We have a lot more work to do with fewer faculty,” said Evelyn Stiller, a professor of computer science and president of the AAUP chapter at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where a fifth of tenured faculty accepted an early retirement buyout over the last year.
“We love our students,” Stiller said. “But if you’re teaching more and have more administrative responsibilities, something’s got to give. You have to make compromises.”
The push to increase faculty teaching time began before the Covid-19 pandemic — most notably in Wisconsin, where then-Gov. Scott Walker said public universities should offset state budget cuts by asking faculty to teach more, and the legislature in 2017 ordered that the working hours of every faculty member be tracked and made publicly available, by name and campus, through an online dashboard.
The number of full-time faculty fell during the last year at about two-thirds of universities and colleges.
Some universities, colleges and systems are now formally renewing calls for faculty to take on more courses or more students per course, in addition to such responsibilities as advising and serving on committees. Several have already effectively done this by reducing the number of “releases” they allow — exemptions from teaching for faculty who have extra administrative responsibilities, such as department chairmanships, or who are conducting research.
A few months before the pandemic descended, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh cut the number of part-time adjunct instructors it was using. To help make up for this it reduced by half the number of course releases full-time faculty were allowed to take for research. A spokeswoman said the university planned to reverse this change “as financial difficulties are addressed and resolved.”
Even before that, Eastern Kentucky University responded to drops in both its state budget allocation and enrollment by, among other things, lowering the number of course releases granted to faculty and raising the number of students per class — from 22 to 25 in English composition classes, for example. Upper-division courses, which tend to be small, were offered less frequently, freeing up faculty to teach larger classes.
Miami University of Ohio, which laid off about half its 220 full-time, non-tenured “visiting” faculty this year, also cut back on course releases for those who remained, essentially increasing their workloads, said Cathy Wagner, a professor of English and president and treasurer of the AAUP chapter there.
Miami faculty are required to teach three courses per semester or three one semester followed by two the next, depending on the discipline. Until now, however, that load was typically reduced by course releases.
Three-quarters of Miami faculty say they are teaching more hours now than they did last year, the AAUP found in a survey. They also say that losing course releases for administrative tasks will cause delays in necessary work.
“We love our students. But if you’re teaching more and have more administrative responsibilities, something’s got to give. You have to make compromises.”Evelyn Stiller, professor of computer science, Plymouth State University
Wagner said she understood the pressure to cut budgets. But “the educational quality declines” when faculty spend more time teaching and less time performing their other roles.
“You’re going to end up affecting graduation rates and things like that, which is really counterproductive,” she said. “I know that I’m not giving my students the time I was formerly able to give them.”
This has not been lost on students. “Miami’s reputation for being a top school for undergraduate teaching is in serious jeopardy if this continues,” the student newspaper editorialized in March. “Students will stop coming here if they are not going to get the academic experience they’re paying for.”
While teaching loads at Miami are up, they do not exceed what’s set out in university policy, the university’s provost, Jason Osborne, said in written answers to questions. Osborne acknowledged that enrollment in some classes has grown higher, but said that more than 40 percent of undergraduate courses on Miami’s Oxford campus have fewer than 20 students in them. He did not answer how many fewer course releases had been granted to faculty.
It’s hard to track trends in the number of courses faculty nationwide are required to teach, largely because it differs so much from one institution to the next and many academic calendars have changed over time from terms and quarters to semesters.
But there are plenty of stories about professors who teach as few as one course at a time, and deans at highly selective institutions concede that teaching workloads for the most senior faculty on their campuses have been declining as universities use that perk to compete for talent.
It was a comment to that effect by University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank that helped ignite the debate in her state over faculty course loads. Blank started a political firestorm by saying that, when top faculty got job offers from other institutions, she sometimes reduced the number of courses they had to teach as a way to get them to stay.
Some critics say that faculty in less popular disciplines cost universities more than the schools receive in tuition for the courses they teach.
But faculty say this is a misleading way of looking at the costs and benefits of instruction. An analysis developed by the education consulting firm Gray Associates shows that even students in less-popular majors take large lecture classes in other subjects and often pay for dorm rooms and dining plans, all of which bring in more money than they cost to provide.
Amid the controversy in Wisconsin, Blank wrote in a blog post that faculty at her university reported doing an average of 63 hours of work per week and helped bring in three and a half times more money from outside grants than the state spent on their salaries.
It’s hard to gauge how cost-effective it is to squeeze more class time out of faculty. At Eastern Kentucky, raising class sizes and reducing course releases saved $250,000 a year, a spokeswoman said. The university’s total budget that year was $356 million.
While the University of Wisconsin System faculty workload dashboard wasn’t necessarily meant to make faculty teach more, it shows that faculty class time actually declined slightly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison between the time the legislature ordered the figures to be made public and the last time they were reported, in 2019, to just under six hours a week.
There’s room for more instructional efficiency at universities and colleges, said Donna Desrochers, who as an associate at the education consulting firm rpk GROUP helps them find it. But Desrochers said that rather than measuring this by time spent in the classroom, institutions should calculate faculty efficiency by student credit hours — the number of students multiplied by the number of courses taught and the number of credits per course.
The average faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, taught 202.5 student credit hours in 2019, the last year for which the figure is available. That is also down since the dashboard was formalized by law in 2017.
“We’re looking at a lot of institutions where their courses have very few students in them, and it’s really not efficient to be offering sections with five, 10 or 15 students,” said Desrochers. “We want to see a greater fill rate.”
Reducing the number of sections can accomplish this, she said. “There can be some labor savings there,” Desrochers said. “It’s not about asking faculty to do more. It’s about asking the institution, what should you be prioritizing and where is the institution not working as well as it should?”
That’s one of the things that’s happening at regional public universities like Plymouth State, said its president, Donald Birx: a rethinking of the number of programs they’ve been offering, which stretch faculty too thin.
“You’re going to end up affecting graduation rates and things like that, which is really counterproductive. I know that I’m not giving my students the time I was formerly able to give them.”Cathy Wagner, professor of English, Miami University
“Regional institutions have to say we’re not going to be able to do everything,” Birx said. “No one likes to let go of some things, but if you’re going to be good at these things and not kill people by overworking them, you have to pick what you should do.”
While that process is under way, he said, some faculty may feel overloaded, but the work will balance out over time.
How much of a lightning rod the idea of faculty efficiency remains is evident from how few universities were willing to discuss it in depth.
The University of Wisconsin System office, for example, would say only that, by reporting individual faculty classroom time, it was following the law and being “consistent with UW System’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”
Faculty at all of these universities and colleges acknowledged that they face a public perception driven by popular culture images of professors sitting in quiet offices reading books, and getting summers off.
In fact, said Stiller, at Plymouth State, “It’s not kicking your feet up and having a leisurely life. And now [universities] are turning the thumbscrews.”
State legislators and governors who have been cutting public university budgets “can defund higher education more popularly if they can demonize faculty,” said Michael Bernard-Donals, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate, or PROFS.
They know that public anger about the cost of higher education continues to intensify, Bernard-Donals said. “It makes it easier for the argument that some politicians are making about faculty not working hard enough.”
What the public doesn’t see is what faculty do outside of class, said Joel Berkowitz, a professor of foreign languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Limiting the conversation to the hours faculty spend in a classroom without considering their other obligations is like ignoring all the practice and preparation Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers goes through and instead judging him solely on his playing time, Berkowitz said.
“You’re getting paid all this money and you have, what, 16 games a year and maybe a few more if you go into the postseason?” he said. “What’s that, like, 20 hours of work?”
In the end, the losers are the students, said Irene Mulvey, national president of the AAUP. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions,” Mulvey said. “So when faculty are being forced to do an unreasonable amount of work, the student experience suffers.”
She called the push for higher teaching loads a case of university administrations “taking advantage of a crisis to force through changes that will maybe save a little money but ultimately harm the educational missions of their institutions.”
“We’re looking at a lot of institutions where their courses have very few students in them, and it’s really not efficient to be offering sections with five, 10 or 15 students. We want to see a greater fill rate.”Donna Desrochers, associate, rpk GROUP
Some faculty are fighting back. After heated negotiations, unions representing faculty and others won a new contract with Rutgers University in April that does not increase faculty workloads, said Todd Wolfson, an anthropology professor and president of the faculty and graduate workers’ union there. In exchange, full-time faculty agreed to a furlough of one half-day per week through June.
“We know the direction of the managers of the university over the last couple of decades, and that trend is toward less tenure-track faculty, less secure work and higher teaching loads,” Wolfson said.
Rutgers did not respond to questions.
Faculty have been under fire in other ways, too. Florida’s legislature passed a bill in April under which public universities and colleges in that state would have to report the “viewpoint diversity” of their faculty. A similar bill is under consideration in Iowa.
Nearly 60 percent of universities and colleges froze or reduced faculty pay; while salaries overall rose by 1 percent this year, according to the AAUP, that was the smallest increase in the 50 years the figure has been tracked; accounting for inflation, real wages of faculty declined.
“Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. So when faculty are being forced to do an unreasonable amount of work, the student experience suffers.”Irene Mulvey, president, American Association of University Professors
Some institutions are taking a softer approach to helping faculty get the most out of their teaching time. The University of Nebraska started a workshop in 2019 showing them how to reduce the amount of time they spend on grading, for example.
“The motivation is not to do with anything budgetary. It’s to do with our perception of the pressure faculty are under with respect to their teaching load and research duties,” said Nick Monk, director of Nebraska’s Center for Transformative Teaching.
“We help them to be more efficient,” Monk said. “That’s come in for a lot of scrutiny recently.”
This story about college faculty workloads was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.