Sunday, August 20, 2006

Teaching Loads

By Richard Vedder

I have taught in the Economics Department at Ohio University (OU) for over 40 years, and a few weeks ago the Department decided to reduce its teaching load by about 17 percent. It simply agree amongst itself to do it, with no strong oversight or review by superiors, such as deans, the provost or president.

In 1960, the teaching load in the OU economics department was 12 hours a week When I started work in the mid 1960's, it was already reduced to 9 hours. In 1967, in moving to the quarter system, we reduced it to eight hours. Now, it is the equivalent of 6.7 hours, a 44 percent reduction in roughly 44 years. That is not at all atypical. Quality liberal arts colleges these days very often have a 6 hour load --two three hour courses per semester. Top research universities have still lower loads.

When my department voted to go from six courses a year (two per quarter) to five, it essentially eliminated at least 10 classes a year from being taught. To make up for that, my department could have hired two professors, at a cost of perhaps $200,000 a year (counting fringe benefits). Or, it could turn away more kids from classes needed to graduate, increasing the length of their education and thus the cost of it. Or, it could increase average class size. In fact, it is probably doing a combination of all three of these, for example, adding one professor at a total cost of perhaps $100,000.

Why are they doing this? Supposedly, to increase the research output of the faculty. My prediction is the departmental output of articles may rise from 15 to 16 or 17 a year - roughly 10 percent. Is it worth $100,000, bigger classes, and more closing out of students in classes to publish perhaps two more papers per year, each one of which will probably be read by a best a few dozen readers? Is anyone doing a cost-benefit analysis of the advantages of this move? The answer, of course, is no. Universities simply do what they want, namely the things they like (writing papers which help get faculty promoted and tenured), rather than the things the public that is paying the bills thinks is most important, teaching students. No one is accountable, the decisions are hidden from the public, and the returns on many of those decisions are very low in relation to the costs.

In picking on my own department, I am a tad unfair, because this behavior goes on all the time on hundreds of campuses and in many different academic disciplines. It contributes to rising costs, a downplaying of undergraduate instruction, and the arrogance, isolationism, and elitism that is the hallmark of the modern American university.


Ken D. said...

There is an interesting discussion of the history of the changing status of University teaching vs. research in Robert Nisbet's 1992 autobiography Teachers and Scholars, (pgs. 200 - 211). Here is a quote:

"Thus the contemporary research university was born of World War II and its immediate aftermath highlighted by the Cold War. Administrators relished the money, cheered on of course by professors dazzled by the new sources of money and the new titles and statuses that went with the new era. There was, to be sure, a large vein of naiveté found in universities -- naiveté rooted in administrations. Since every new research grant to a professor or research center or institute could be skimmed — that is anywhere from forty to sixty percent of the dollar value taken by the administration in compensation for the building space and services utilized by grantsmen and institutes — couldn’t, just possibly, universities so enrich themselves that they could steadily reduce the amount of tuition paid by students, or enlarge salaries of those such as classics professors, poor souls, once the mainstay of all universities, now virtual beggars by dint of their not being a Policy Science? "

"It was a noble dream or hope on the part of university trustees and presidents. But in the end a gigantic and costly illusion. We have seen the financial problems of universities double and redouble since the Era of Research was born. And as hundreds of thousands of middle-class parents know, tuition costs rise correspondingly. Even worse, if that is possible, is the status on campus of the individual professor who, without disparaging, or flinching from, research, who in fact enjoys research, especially the kind of research that he can manage alone, thank you, without the bureaucratic impediments constituted by elaborate research institutes and centers with their iron hierarchies of research managers and fundraisers operating on the fringes of’ academic government. And, believe it or not, there are still professors at Berkeley and Harvard who actually enjoy, who want, undergraduate teaching— including introductory courses. But they have to be very careful. Too great a familiarity with undergraduate courses might arouse suspicions in the minds of peer’s that they aren’t serious about their research. "

Here is another interesting quote from the same book:
"It was this aspect of the newfangled (Ph.D.) degree that aroused most of William James’s contempt for the degree and led him to refer to it as “the octopus.” He fairly hooted at the requirement of “originality” for the dissertation, predicting, not inaccurately over the last century, that the search for originality by a babe in the woods would necessarily culminate in triviality."

superhiker said...

A couple of questions.

What was the rationale for the change? Surely the department didn't just get together and say "let's teach less because we feel like it".

And what is the rationale on the part of the dean and provost for going along with this? It's not just that didn't exercise strong oversight; they made a decision not to object. They must have had a reason.

This is left out of the post. I can think of a couple of possibilities off the top of my head: because they were uncompetitive with other economics departments that Ohio U. thinks it is competing with; or to bring in more grant money (the overhead and tuition from which would help compensate for the need for new teaching staff).

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