Pressuring professors to put in more face time

Decades ago, a tenured professor might stride through the halls evoking awe among undergraduates and a tinge of inspiration in junior faculty.

How the mighty have fallen. Tenured professors aren't at the bottom of the public-opinion heap with used-car salesmen and politicians, but they may be soon. "Tenured Weasels" is the title of a scholarly essay posted on the Web by Patrick Moore, associate professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His missive accuses some colleagues of "laundering time" the way crooks launder ill-gotten gains.

"Professors don't steal money," he writes. "They steal time." He cites professors who earn release from teaching to do research, but who "exploit their many freedoms and their lack of accountability to steal time from the public."

While a bit extreme, such views are more mainstream than they might first appear. With college costs having risen ahead of inflation for years, legislators and university boards are under pressure to prove that undergraduates get their money's worth. And both groups are taking aim at faculty productivity.

At least 30 states in the past decade have adopted post-tenure review requirements for public universities to put pressure on tenured professors to produce or perish - even if few are fired as a result. (Early retirements are more common.)

Now some may be going further. A committee at Boston University has proposed a tough post-tenure review with annual performance targets that, if not met, could result in smaller pay increases or a shift out of research to teaching.

Alone, this would not be unusual. But the group also made a controversial proposal to fix the problem of professors spending too much time on off-campus projects: Expect all professors to spend at least four days a week on campus. Whether this would cut the estimated 5 percent of faculty "deadwood" is unclear.

Dennis Berkey, BU's provost who ordered the review of tenure, denies that the report is an attack on faculty or tenure.

"This committee was attempting to address issues not unique to BU," he says. Still, he endorses the faculty panel's recommendation about being on campus four days as "a point about normative expectations, not any hard and fast rule."

But some faculty at BU told the Monitor they'll fight the measure when it comes up for debate this month.

"What's the point of asking us to sit long hours in an office?" asks Eugene Green, a professor of English. "It does nothing really to require people who sit in their offices to do any work. It all depends on what they're doing there."

But there's little public sympathy for faculty - and administrators know it.

"When white-collar workers' and even executives' jobs aren't safe, the public is wondering why faculty should have a sinecure," says Cathy Trower, senior researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project on Faculty Appointments. "There's more and more parents and students asking: What are we getting for our money?"

Still, mandating days spent in one's office, if enforced, would be "out there" - far outside the norm, she says. Others agree.

"I don't know of another institution with the quality or standing of Boston University that has sought to do this," says Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors in Washington. The image of the college professor, he says, "has been seriously tarnished," making it harder to preserve tenure.

Professor Moore's "Tenured Weasels," for instance, is one of a litany of indictments in recent years. Another more prominent and influential one was Charles Sykes's 1990 book, "Profscam," which purports to document violations of public trust by professors. It's still selling reasonably well for a 10-year-old book.

One person who read it cover to cover is James Carlin, the influential former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education who argues institutions nationwide must clamp down on tenure.

"A professor teaches between six and nine hours a week, 29 weeks a year," he told the Monitor in an interview last year. "Even if you say, well, they spend 10 to 15 hours every week preparing, that still adds up to 22-23 hours a week. Most Americans work more than [that]."

Tenured professors say Mr. Carlin's account, while popular, is mostly myth.

"I get up at 6 a.m. three days a week for my 8 a.m. lecture for 150 students," says Charles Levy, a professor of biology who has been teaching at BU since just after World War II.

He says BU is getting its money's worth out of him - and most of the faculty. He has published more than a dozen books and about 50 scholarly papers.

Mr. Levy says he's not doing as much research as he used to. But he's teaching two classes three days a week. That keeps him busy with office hours. Right after the morning class, students line the hall waiting to talk. He takes a short break at 11:30 to go over notes for his next class.

"I update my lectures every year," he says. "Sure, there are a few people who come in with the same old yellow notes. But they're very rare. I have too much ego to walk in and give a crummy lecture."

More office hours follow his afternoon class. By the time the sun sets, he says, "I want to go home, but ... I have to meet with those that run the labs, go over exams, and I've got a couple of books in the works - but I don't do that on university time."

He calls BU's crackdown a "public relations gimmick." "The undergraduates are consumers who are very demanding," he says, "so this is part of placating them."

Michael Berube, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, says the attack on tenure is part of a national shift by universities to a corporate-style work model.

"Yes, there is deadwood," he says. "Tenure was never intended to shield the incompetent. But it's also still critically important to higher education." If universities remove the flexibility that makes up for lower pay (compared with business), they take away a key incentive, Mr. Berube says. "I work about 60 hours a week - but I get to choose when I work," he says. "From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. is a great time. Requiring four days a week in an office is ludicrous."

E-mail comments to claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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