Why Scott Walker is Wrong—And Right—About Teaching Loads

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker made headlines last week by demanding that academics work harder. In response to criticism of his proposal to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system while giving it more autonomy from the state, Walker contended that faculty could help make up the shortfall by teaching extra classes.

Professors have almost universally denounced Walker. In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, the historian John Sharpless (who has run for Congress as a Republican) explained that most academics work as many hours as other professionals, often for considerably less pay.  A study at Boise State found that faculty members work over 60 hours a week.

So Walker was wrong to suggest that professors are underworked. This was probably because, like most Americans, he has little idea what academics do when they aren’t in the classroom. But teaching and related tasks such as grading papers are actually only part of academics’ job, even at public universities. According to the Boise State survey, these comprise only about 40% of their time.

But Walker wasn’t wrong about everything. As the Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes observes in a summary of some recent studies, professors at major universities teach fewer courses than they did in past decades. At any given time, moreover, many members of the full-time faculty aren’t teaching at all. They’re on research sabbaticals, which make it necessary for temporary instructors or graduate students to cover their classes.

The real issue, then, isn’t whether academics should be required to put in more hours. It’s how those hours should be balanced. Due both to the standards they have to meet for hiring and promotion (which are overwhelmingly focused on publication) and to the quasi-monastic character of many graduate programs, professors tend to see research as their primary responsibility. Students, members of the public, and politicians, on the other hand, would like them to spend more time in the lecture hall and less in the lab or archive.

There’s nothing crazy about that preference. But it’s important for critics of academia to understand that putting into practice would require much bigger changes than increasing teaching loads. In the first place, hiring and promotion standards would have to be modified. It is neither reasonable nor fair to expect faculty members who teach five or six courses a year to publish as much as those who teach two or three.

As a result, it would be more difficult to recruit or retain the kind of academic superstars who bolster their peer rankings. That’s a disadvantage in the ongoing prestige arms race. It’s easy for outsiders to laugh at this competition, in which the stakes often seem vanishingly small. But that’s because they don’t understand that most universities’ financial model depends on attracting a precisely calibrated mix of students, who balance ability to pay with academic ability in the appropriate measure.

Graduate programs would also have to shrink. Professors who had to teach more undergrad courses would have less time to devote to graduate seminars and advising. More importantly, the university would have less need for the cheap instructional labor that liberates the tenured faculty from teaching.

Applied unilaterally and over time, these policies would alter the culture of the UW system, particularly the flagship in Madison. What the faculty like to think of as a “world class” research university would become a more regional, teaching-focused institution. And that’s not what many of them were originally trained or hired for.

In short, Walker isn’t just challenging scheduling practices. He’s challenging the labor model on which the modern research university depends. There’s a good case that this model is financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive—and it would be nice to hear a politician make it explicitly. But making ill-informed jabs at lazy professors is not the way to do it.


One thought on “Why Scott Walker is Wrong—And Right—About Teaching Loads”

  1. The governor should establish a parallel institution where faculty workloads mimic the governor’s preferences. If he’s right, students will flock to the new institution (because it will have better teaching and lower costs) and the problem he perceives will fix itself.

    If the governor is wrong, the new institution will fail, and he won’t have harmed the flagship institution of the state.

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