Lower teaching loads have benefits, especially the increased time that faculty could theoretically devote to preparing for and planning classes. However, they also have costs. In practice, the increased discretionary time of faculty is used for non-educational purposes, primarily research. In addition, unless class sizes are increased accordingly, lower teaching loads require more faculty members to teach the same number of students, causing a corresponding increase in instructional costs. Overall, the current trend is sacrificing affordability and possibly educational quality for benefits that are primarily seen by individual professors and the institutions.
In order to reduce costs for students and increase the quality of instruction, professors should return to their primary role as classroom instructors and teaching loads should be increased. An increased emphasis on teaching, combined with a de-emphasis on research and other activities not related to educational outcomes, would benefit both students and institutions by stressing the educational mission of colleges as well as lowering the costs of providing an education.
The Decline of Teaching Loads and the Causes
Faculty time for teaching-related activities is in constant competition with other professional and personal interests. For the past several decades, teaching has mostly lost this competition, resulting in increased discretionary time for faculty, a phenomenon that scholars William Massy and Robert Zemsky call the academic ratchet. What do faculty members do with all this extra discretionary time? For the most part, they do more research.
Research is systematically favored over teaching, so it is not surprising that teaching loads have been falling, or that the time freed up is used for research. The increased emphasis on research has radically altered the behavior and attitudes of many professors and colleges, as described by one college dean:
Teach well or badly, whatever -- the kids will sort themselves out, and the cream will rise to the top. Meanwhile, there's prestige/fame/grant money to chase! Teaching is for adjuncts. We speak of research 'opportunities,' but of teaching 'loads' -- the language tells you what you need to know.
Why is it that there has been a continual increase in emphasis on research over teaching? Mostly, it is because for both institutions and individual faculty members, research is more richly rewarded than teaching.
Institutions Are Rewarded for Research, Not Teaching
That institutions are placing more emphasis on research is clear to most observers. Even liberal arts colleges and professional fields such as business and law that have traditionally downplayed research have been increasingly devoting resources to the area. This trend toward research has much to do with the fact that institutions receive more rewards for research than they do for teaching. These rewards come in two primary types: reputational and financial.
The quality of teaching cannot serve as a determinant of a colleges’ reputation for the simple reason that without a measure of the value added provided by a college, we simply do not know the quality of the teaching provided. As a result, reputations in higher education are determined primarily by the research prowess of the institution. Since there are numerous advantages to having a better reputation (better students, better faculty, more pricing power, increased grant revenue, etc.) most colleges and universities seek to improve their reputation. Devoting more resources to teaching and instruction will not help in this regard, but devoting more resources to research will. Given the choice, universities will therefore devote available resources to research rather than instruction.
In addition to the reputational rewards of research, there are financial rewards as well. Since the middle of the last century, the federal government has made scientific research a high priority, and has provided increasing sums of money for research projects. Unlike the financial aid funds provided to encourage access to college, research funds are distributed through a competitive process. Thus, the quality of research is very important in determining research revenue, while the quality of teaching is not very important in determining revenue from financial aid for educational services. Institutions that excel at research bring in staggering amounts of grant money compared to those that do not, while institutions that excel at teaching bring in very similar levels of money compared to those that do not. In other words, bad research doesn’t bring in grant funding, but bad teaching still brings in financial aid funding. Universities therefore have a much stronger incentive to establish and maintain excellent research capabilities than they do to establish and maintain excellent teaching.
Thus, for institutions, high-quality research is rewarded more than high-quality teaching in terms of both reputation and finance. This trend pushes colleges and universities to favor research over teaching.
Faculty Reward Structure Favors Research, Not Teaching
Since institutions of higher education are rewarded for research, they have provided incentives to encourage the desired behavior among their employees - in this case, more research. The primary means used to encourage more research among the faculty is the granting of tenure. By setting different requirements for tenure, institutions can influence where aspiring professors direct their energies. As the years have gone by, institutions have put more and more emphasis on research when granting tenure, and less on teaching. A publish or perish mentality has overrun academia, and given those choices, most young professors opt for the former.
But tenure is only one of the incentives that encourage faculty to focus on research instead of teaching. While the system is far from perfect, academia has largely agreed on a somewhat objective measure of research quality. Scholars who have more publications in higher-quality journals are generally agreed to be better researchers than those with fewer publications in lower quality journals. No such agreement exists for evaluating the quality of teaching. Currently, the best metric to assess teaching quality is student evaluations. While these are almost universally used, there are enough questions about their validity (for example, those who grade tougher receive worse evaluations, and those who are physically attractive receive higher evaluations, neither of which reflect the quality of teaching) that they are not used for much even within an institution. Moreover, the fact that most colleges have their own unique evaluation system makes comparisons across institutions difficult.
As a result of having a somewhat objective measure of research quality but no such measure for teaching, there are numerous non-institutional rewards for outstanding research, including monetary grants, scientific awards, and worldwide recognition and fame, but no corresponding rewards for outstanding teaching. Most institutions have grant professor of the year awards, but winners are rarely rewarded for receiving the honor. In fact, for professors at many research universities, there is a sense that winning a teaching award amounts to a "kiss of death" by sending the signal that the professor is spending too much time on her teaching, and not enough on her research.
Given the prevalence of professional and personal rewards for research and the dearth of rewards for teaching, it is not surprising that faculty tend to devote more time and effort to research than to teaching when given the choice.
How the Academic Ratchet Works
The academic ratchet – the drift towards lower teaching loads – is driven by competitive pressure among institutions and faculty. Many colleges want to move up in the influential U.S. News and World Report rankings. One way of doing this is by improving their reputation, and as pointed out above, reputations are derived from the research prowess of an institution. Thus the first step in the academic ratchet occurs when academic administrators put pressure on departments to improve their research ranking.
The second step occurs when departments (professors) retort that the current teaching loads are too high for either 1) the recruitment and retention of the best professors (somewhat counter-intuitively, lower teaching loads are a main attraction for jobs whose ostensible purpose is teaching) or 2) to expect current faculty to conduct more research. An example of this argument is a proposal by DePauw University’s faculty, who maintained that a 3-2 schedule (three courses the first semester followed by two in the second) is needed for “recruitment and retention of a strong faculty.”
The third step is when administrators agree to lower teaching loads for highly desirable faculty and/or new professors with the goal of freeing up their time to conduct more research. The final step is when internal departmental politics take over. The lower teaching loads for some but not others creates friction within the department, and following the path of least resistance, the department fights to reduce teaching loads for everyone else.
Thus, the desire of a university to improve by strengthening research, combined with the competition for high quality researchers (who are attracted by low teaching loads), results in less time spent teaching as course loads are continually ratcheted down.
The Problem with Diminished Teaching Loads
The two main problems with diminished teaching loads are that it results in higher costs and potentially detracts from the education of students.
If individual faculty members are teaching fewer classes, then unless class sizes increase, more instructors are needed. The hiring of additional instructors increases costs, so from a financial standpoint, the most significant consequence of lower teaching loads is higher costs per student. As Dennis Jones and Jane Wellman point out, “states, and students -- pay for this, so costs per student increase even as the amount of faculty time available for teaching goes down.”
De-emphasis on Teaching Hurts the Student
We know that the de-emphasis of teaching has shifted the discretionary time of professors towards research and other non-educational activities in which personal and professional rewards are greater. What we don’t know yet is what impact this has on students.
There are a number of mechanisms by which student learning could be harmed by these trends. The first is that good teachers are at a disadvantage in a tenure system where tenure is awarded for research. Tenure as currently implemented has the counterintuitive result of ensuring that permanent teaching jobs go to individuals who do good research and usually have a preference for research over teaching, while simultaneously ensuring that individuals with a preference for teaching over research are ineligible for jobs whose ostensible primary responsibility is teaching. This reality could negatively affect students if good teachers selfselect out of the profession or are weeded out by the tenure process.
A second mechanism by which students could be harmed is that when professors continue to teach while largely preoccupied with research, students lose out because those professors spend time that could otherwise be spent planning courses, hosting office hours, etc. on their research. Madhukar Vable, a professor at Michigan Technological University stated that:
If you can bring research into your classrooms, that adds excitement to your teaching. But unfortunately it's become structured as an either-or proposition. To spend time in the lab, you don't have time to do teaching. And that, to me, is where the problem is.
Another way in which students could be harmed is the increasing practice of hiring non-tenure track adjuncts to teach the classes that many tenured professors never wanted to teach to begin with. While effective as a cost-saving measure, this model is widely believed to be unstable. Adjunct professors typically receive only a few thousand dollars per course, leading many to take on a large number of courses to try to make ends meet. In addition, some argue that the average quality of teaching by adjuncts is lower. As Charles Sykes, author of the book ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education puts it:
In pursuit of their own interests—research, academic politicking, cushier grants— [professors] have left the nation’s students in the care of an ill-trained, ill-paid, and bitter academic underclass.
It should be noted that there is considerable debate over the relative quality of adjunct teaching, with recent research indicating that students learn no less when primarily taught by adjuncts. Either way, however, charging students thousands of dollars to be taught by graduate students and adjuncts and using the savings to do more research by tenured professors is a questionable practice, to say the least.
If teaching loads have indeed been falling over time, the fact that such a trend has occurred while professor salaries have increased at an average annual rate of more than four percent (as they did between 1999 and 2007), then this suggests that (as far as instruction is concerned) professors are being paid more to do less. To the extent that this may drive up costs for students, it is difficult to argue that students are undoubtedly better off because teaching loads have not maintained their historical level.
Increasing teaching loads will be difficult to accomplish. Government-imposed mandates on teaching loads would probably be much too heavy handed, so any changes will need to be made voluntarily by the institutions themselves (though this doesn’t mean that the government couldn’t provide incentives that would encourage colleges to choose higher teaching loads). This needed change is problematic because with the current state of affairs, it is in the interests of colleges and universities to reduce teaching loads, not to increase them. This situation means that mere publicity or attitude shifts will not reverse the trend; something fundamental needs to change to give universities an incentive to increase teaching loads. Since the primary driver of lower course loads is the need to do more research, reducing the need to do more research will at least arrest the trend, and perhaps even lead to a reversal.
Increase Institutional Rewards for Teaching Relative to Research
There are three situations that could lead institutions to choose to focus more on teaching. The first is financial survival. Lindenwood University provided an excellent example when it initiated a major turnaround in the late 1980’s after nearly shutting down. Lindenwood, a mid-size private university, currently costs $13,260 per year for tuition and fees, which is a fraction of the cost of most comparable schools. This difference in cost can be at least partially attributed to Lindenwood’s high teaching loads, which were increased during its 1989 reformation. Dr. Edward Morris, a Lindenwood dean, describes his teaching responsibilities at the school:
[When] asked how I spend my time, I explained that, like the great majority of Lindenwood professors, I was in the classroom about 15 hours each week, teaching five separate classes of between 25 and 35 students.
Fifteen hours per week spent in the classroom is extremely high when compared to the rest of academia, equating to five three-credit-hour courses. The average professor at a private liberal arts school in 2004 taught a mere 2.4 courses per semester, well below Lindenwood’s 4 or 5 course load. Lindenwood serves as an excellent model for what ought to be expected of professors in higher education.
A second situation that could provide colleges with an incentive to set higher teaching loads would be changes in their state funding. For instance, if a state decides that teaching loads are too low at some of the institutions it provides appropriations to, it could simply lower appropriations to the level that would cover expenses if the college adopted more responsible teaching loads.
The third situation that would provide increased incentives for teaching relative to research would be the establishment of an alternate assessment scheme for colleges. Because the quality of teaching is not measured but the quality of research is, institutions are evaluated primarily based upon their research record. This system is problematic, since the overwhelming purpose of most colleges is teaching. In effect, we are forcing all colleges and universities to compete based on research, even though their main function is to teach. Needless to say, this puts universities without massive endowments at a distinct disadvantage. However, if methods of evaluating the quality of teaching were devised, many colleges that are rated low now due to lack of research prowess could focus more exclusively on teaching, where they very well may excel.
Increase Faculty Rewards for Teaching Relative to Research
The primary method of deemphasizing research for faculty is by reforming tenure to put less weight on research, which is currently the most important factor at the majority of schools. There are three main ideas for how to reform tenure to put more emphasis on teaching.
The first is to establish a tenure track for those specializing in teaching. These individuals would be eligible for tenure, just like their more research-intensive counterparts, but they would be judged based on their teaching record and would have higher teaching loads (since they wouldn’t need to devote so much time to research). A second idea to limit the importance of research is for university tenure committees to limit either the number of publications or the number of pages that would be considered when evaluating a candidate for tenure (this idea is discussed in more detail in the chapter focusing on research).
A third option that would increase the rewards for teaching is to provide substantial awards for good teachers. Some schools, like the University of Oklahoma, have started offering cash incentives to professors with high marks on student evaluations at the end of the term. Professors at Texas A&M University can earn bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 based on evaluations at the end of the term. While not sufficient to reverse the importance placed on research by faculty, if done for big enough stakes and on a wide enough scale, these types of awards could go a long way in changing the indifferent/negative views that typically accompany teaching awards.
The widespread and dramatic decline in course loads over the past few decades have contributed significantly to the rise in the costs of college as well as the public perception that the productivity of higher education is diminishing. It is also plausible that the quality of teaching has declined. The continual drift in professor focus from teaching to research has been a costly one for students and taxpayers alike.
As a society, we cannot afford for the trend of lower teaching loads to continue. To head off draconian mandates, academia would be well advised to devise methods of arresting and reversing the trend itself. As an anonymous institutional financial officer said:
[W]e need to find a way to get the whole faculty to say, “How are we, together, going to engage in a conversation about how to increase productivity without screwing up the pretty good thing we got going right now? Because if we don’t come up with an idea, somebody’s going to tell us how to do it and we’re probably not going to like it.”
The incentives for both institutions and faculty need to be altered to reward teaching more and research less. For institutions, this would likely require either their funding from government to be related to teaching loads, or for the reputation of universities to be based on teaching rather than research. For faculty, tenure reform - either in the form of a dual tenure track for teaching specialists, or a limitation of the scholarly work considered during reviews - is needed to reduce the importance of research and increase the emphasis on teaching. Such reform need not consist of the radical step of totally eliminating tenure; it can be accomplished through more modest steps such as increasing the weight given by the tenure review process to a demonstration of quality teaching. Regardless, however, of the precise mechanism by which institutional and faculty reforms are accomplished, teachers need to spend more time in the classroom if we hope to be able to continue to finance higher education for the masses.