'Publish or Perish' Becomes 'Teach or Perish'
Many legislators want professors at state universities to teach longer hours and research less
As a professor of biology at Ohio's Central State University, David Rubin regularly works 60-to-65-hour weeks. But only 12 of those hours are spent teaching students in class.Skip to next paragraph
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The state of Ohio, which pays Professor Rubin's salary, wants teachers at public universities to spend more time with students. The legislature has passed a law requiring a 10-percent increase in teaching at the state's 13 public universities.
As state budgets have dwindled and tuitions have soared during the past five years, the question of faculty productivity and accountability has attracted widespread interest. Tuition-paying parents are outraged about the number of graduate-student teaching assistants lecturing in state universities, and lawmakers are seeking ways to get more for less by increasing teaching loads.
At least 12 state legislatures have mandated studies of faculty workload at public institutions in the past several years. In addition to Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, and West Virginia have passed laws demanding that public-university professors spend more time teaching. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Colorado are considering such measures this year, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Maryland, the legislature has threatened to withhold more than $21 million in state-college funds until higher-education officials show a renewed concentration on teaching.
''The public is increasingly insisting on exercising accountability over higher education,'' says Barbara Walvoord, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. ''They're not willing to buy as large amounts of research as they've bought in the past. They want more teaching, and they want more attention to the quality of undergraduate teaching.''
But quantifying quality teaching is proving tricky. The Ohio law was sparked by the discovery that professors spent 10 percent less time teaching in 1990 than they did in 1980. So the law called for a 10-percent increase in teaching at all state universities this year over 1990 levels.
''It was a difficult law to interpret,'' Professor Walvoord says. The legislation does not require all faculty members in the state to teach the same amount of time or do the same amount of research. But overall in a department, university, and ultimately across the state system, the mix needs to yield 10 percent more teaching time.
''My gut feeling is that little has happened at most institutions because of the vagueness of the guidelines,'' says Rubin, of the Central State University. ''There was probably some shuffling of numbers done to satisfy the regents' guidelines.''
In August, Central State's chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) filed a lawsuit against the state challenging its authority to impose increased teaching loads. ''What the law did was make the faculty at the four-year institutions the only public employees who could not bargain over workload,'' says Rubin, past president of the Ohio conference of the AAUP, a faculty union group.
Beyond the collective-bargaining issue, Rubin says the mandate for increased teaching could actually hinder quality instruction. ''What most people don't realize is that there is plenty of work for professors other than being in class,'' he says. ''There's the preparation of making exams, grading, lab setup and takedown, and so forth. That often amounts to two to three hours outside of class for every hour that is spent in class.''
More time, not quality
Teaching more classes could easily translate into less time for students, Rubin argues. ''Because I would have a bigger load and a larger number of students to serve per week, I would have less time per student,'' he says. ''What we anticipate happening is reduced effectiveness and increased attrition rates.''
Walvoord says the Ohio legislature's appeal for a renewed focus on teaching falls on ''fertile ground.'' The University of Cincinnati, for example, has established faculty-development programs emphasizing quality undergraduate teaching.
But changing the traditional reward system is a slow, arduous process. ''It's very difficult for universities that have spent decades building up the capacity to do top-notch research in the nation's interest to stop doing that,'' Walvoord says. ''On the one hand we're being just as pressured as before to contribute to the knowledge in our disciplines, and then on the other hand, there are demands to teach more and to teach better.''
The problem stems from the way the American higher-education system has evolved over the decades, says Gene Maeroff, a fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N.J.
''As higher education expanded, the research-university model was simply emulated by all kinds of institutions,'' he says. ''You've got a whole structure that is predicated on an assumption that everybody is going to do research. But everybody is not a researcher, so the system is distorted.''
Public-university officials have talked about rewarding faculty teaching as well as research for years. ''But if you look at the actual practices, I don't think they've changed markedly,'' Mr. Maeroff says.
''Ideally, academia itself would find better ways of doing this, and then legislators wouldn't get involved,'' Maeroff says. ''The Ohio approach comes out of frustration that the higher-education system is not doing more to correct itself, which would be a preferred route. But this is the kind of thing that doesn't change very quickly.''