Overload Economics

Does it make sense for colleges that can't create new faculty lines to pay current professors more money to teach extra sections?

December 8, 2011

What can a college do when enrollments exceed faculty capacity to teach sections and state budgets are limited? One answer can be overload pay, in which faculty members are paid more to teach extra sections, rather than, for example, hiring more instructors.

But a debate in Iowa raises the question of whether these payments are good for students, faculty members or institutions.

Last week, The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, following an open records records request, that the three state universities in Iowa paid out $3.4 million in overload payments for the 2011 fiscal year. The figures for the University of Iowa showed an 8 percent jump from 2008, when policies were changed at the university to make overload pay more restrictive.

The report, quickly picked up throughout the state, led to headlines about "bonuses" that frustrated many academics because the professors involved were essentially getting the equivalent of overtime pay and not any extra money for their regular work. Further the strategy of relying on overload has exposed differing perspectives between faculty members and administrators, and between those academics who already have full-time jobs and those who don't.

Traditionally, this kind of pay has been seen as a stopgap measure that is cheaper than hiring new faculty. But the issue of overloads can get faculty groups curious and even angry, especially since the sums involved, and the growth in this spending, suggest that overloads are becoming the norm.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the  American Association of University Professors, said colleges across the country use a patchwork of systems when it comes to overload pay. “There is no real standard. It often is a mixed-in arrangement where teaching could be involved or administrative work, coaching or payments for developing a course,” Curtis said.

The advantages of overload pay: the faculty members are already there and know the department and the university. Moreover, there is no hiring to be done. And to faculty members – like many these days – working with minimal raises or salary freezes, overload pay can provide a way to bring in extra money.

But teaching more than the normal load is never an ideal situation. “If there is a sufficient amount of additional teaching and there is continued demand, it is not feasible to have a patchwork system with faculty covering one extra course here and another extra course there,” Curtis said. “You risk weakening the entire educational framework.”

At best, it might be a temporary way to keep costs down. “If you have a situation where there is a fairly heavy teaching load … something is going to have to be neglected,” Curtis said.

The Impact on Adjuncts

A decision to use overload pay also frequently means a decision not to hire an adjunct (or add a course to an adjunct already working at the institution, but lacking enough work to make a decent living).

Maria Maisto, president of the board of directors at New Faculty Majority, a coalition of non-tenure-track faculty members, said that overload pay in theory is supposed to be used only when absolutely necessary. “Increasing use of overload is a clear signal that there is a problem, just like a huge number of adjuncts screams out that there is a problem,” Maisto said.

Overload pay is fraught with complicated issues related to states and other entities not providing enough money to higher education, she said. “When there are good unions in place, and they treat their contingent faculty well, together they can negotiate a reasonable policy on overloads,” Maisto said. (Sometimes, however, faculty unions representing adjuncts may fight with those representing full-timers over this issue, as was the case last year at Madison Area Technical College.)

Overload pay, she said, could be more harmful to students than beneficial to a university, because the quality of instruction might suffer as faculty members are teaching more courses than an institution considers optimal. Her alternative: better analysis of staffing needs, with the primary motivator being the best interests of students. “Ultimately, it is how we understand the nature of our work and how we define full-time and part-time,” she said.

Peter D.G. Brown, another board member at NFM, and emeritus professor of German at the State University of New York, New Paltz, said one solution could be converting adjunct positions to permanent ones. “What we need is a stable and better-paid work force,” Brown said.

A Failed Attempt to Limit Overloads

At the University of Iowa, the rules were changed in 2008 to limit the overload work faculty members could do – to eight semester hours a year. A university official said that three-credit courses are the norm, though there are several four or even five-credit courses. (Though courseload at the university varies by department, many faculty members in the liberal arts and sciences teach two courses per semester.) But the money spent on overload at the university increased from $1.75 million to $1.90 million even though some faculty members had previously taught more than eight credits of overload.

“We have more students, undergraduate enrollments have gone up and we pay based on a proportion of the salaries, and salaries have gone up,” said Tom Rice, associate provost for faculty at the University of Iowa, explaining the increase.

There are 200 faculty members teaching overload at the University of Iowa, compared to 140 two years ago. Rice said the dollars went up, in part, because overload pay is tied to base salaries, and over time the dollar amount goes up even if the number of classes stays the same. Rice said the increase in the dollar amount was “relatively flat.”

As for quality concerns, Rice said the rule changes a few years ago restricted overload, and about 10 percent of the university’s faculty members now get overload pay. “It becomes a problem when the overload work affects the quality and time of regular classes. That is why we limit faculty to eight semester hours a year. Any exceptions have to be approved by the dean,” Rice said.

Iowa State University spent only $138,000 on overload pay in the last fiscal year.

At Iowa State, instead of overload pay, faculty members with an online component in their courses and their department get an incentive dollar amount that can be used to pay for conferences or hire graduate assistants. “The incentive is split with the instructor, 50 percent goes to them and 50 percent goes to the department,” said Tom Brumm, the professor in charge of online learning at the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State.

This system had led to discussions about teaching load and an effort to make the system fairer, Brumm said. With the incentive system, a graduate class with an online section of 20 students would bring about $12,000 to the instructor and the department.

Sometimes difficulty in finding the right adjuncts can boost overload pay. One example is the  University of Northern Iowa, which racked up nearly a million dollars in overload payments in the last fiscal year. “Our philosophy is that when it is necessary for taking additional work, we should compensate that additional work,” said Virginia Arthur, associate provost for faculty affairs at Northern Iowa.

Arthur said since the university is located in a rural area of eastern Iowa, it is much harder to find adjunct faculty than would be the case elsewhere. “We are not heavily adjunct-dependent,” Arthur said. “This is an opportunity available to all faculty. We also have a strategic plan to do more distance education.”

At UNI, faculty could earn about $4,400 as overload payment for teaching a three-credit course, or $1,000 per credit for developing a new online course, she said.

A new policy, adopted by the university in late 2010, limits overload payments to 20 percent of base pay for professors. Members of United Faculty, the union representing faculty interests at the university, said they were never told about this new policy.

“Overload pay is a mandatory topic for collective bargaining but none of us knew that this policy had been instituted,” said Cathy DeSoto, the president of UNI’s United Faculty. She said the overload pay at UNI could hurt faculty with lower base pay since they have lower dollar limits (based on the 20 percent ceiling) that they may earn.

The United Faculty of UNI filed a complaint with the state in November and asked that the university abandon the new policy. “One of the good things about collective bargaining is that you cannot have secretive policies,” DeSoto said, adding that the university has broken the rules with this new policy.



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