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.