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Jill Kronstadt, an associate professor of English at Montgomery College, was in the middle of grading papers Sunday when she came across a Washington Post opinion piece questioning whether college professors work hard enough.

She was upset.

Kronstadt spent the next few hours writing a rebuttal to the piece by David C. Levy, president of the education group at Cambridge Information Group, a management and investment firm, who said in his article that faculty members spend 9 to 15 hours a week teaching, 30 weeks a year, and then get a long summer break, as well as time off during spring and winter. He argued that while this is appropriate for research universities, professors at teaching institutions do not deserve such cushy arrangements.

He pointed out that the average full professor’s salary is $88,000 at Maryland’s Montgomery College, a community college. “Since faculty salaries make up the largest single cost in virtually all college and university budgets (39 percent at Montgomery College), think what it would mean if the public got full value for these dollars,” he asked. (A recurring theme in criticism of the piece was that he took examples that have some truth for some institutions and neglected to point out how atypical some of his examples were. For example, Montgomery is located in an expensive county in the Washington suburbs. Average pay nationally for full professors at community colleges is $74,000, according to the American Association of University Professors -- and it is not uncommon for adjuncts to be paid $2,000 per course.)

Fish? Check. Barrel? Check.
Dean Dad takes David Levy
(and some of his critics)
to task in Confessions of a
Community College Dean.

Kronstadt found Levy's rhetoric insulting -- and not fair even when applied only to her college. “It gave me a picture of how out of touch people are with what our jobs entail,” she said. In her blog, Paper Balls, she challenged Levy’s reasoning and said that using the average salary of a full professor to illustrate his argument was misleading because only about half of the teaching faculty at Montgomery College are full-time and, of them, only a few are full professors. She also contested Levy’s interpretation of the faculty workload, saying that professors spend another 13-20 hours a week grading papers, with additional time spent on office hours and preparing for classes.

Kronstadt was not the only professor angered by Levy’s observations. The blogosphere, or at least the part dealing with faculty life, seemed to be seething Monday. One post on a blog called Lawyers, Guns and Money said that Levy did not understand the “basic structure of the profession,” among other, more caustic remarks. Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University, suggested in a blog post that Levy was ignorant, and said that The Washington Post should have done some fact-checking on the article. (Confessions of a Community College Dean also weighed in, criticizing both the column and some of the critiques being made of it.)

By Monday night, the Levy op-ed had attracted more than 1150 comments on the Post website, many of them critical of the piece.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors, said that Levy seems to have constructed “a fictional higher education system in which faculty members are like the mythical faceless bureaucrats, doling out certificates according to formulas and quotas, all the while keeping an eye on the clock. That’s not the real world of higher education as it exists now, and it’s not the kind of higher education our students and our communities want or deserve."

Curtis said that salaries of full-time faculty had been stagnant for years, and the proportion of courses taught by underpaid part-time faculty members keeps rising. "It's definitely not faculty pay that is driving up the cost of tuition," he said.

While the Levy piece suggested that faculty members were being paid at levels appropriate for those with significant educational credentials, a previous AAUP survey found that real faculty salaries between 1986 and 2005 barely increased, while the salaries of physicians went up by 34.41 percent, and those of lawyers grew 17.73 percent.

Though Levy’s piece may have angered faculty members, others have made similar arguments. Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden waded into trouble after he said that college tuition was going up because of high faculty salaries.

Faculty-baiting might exist because people have certain perceptions of how college professors operate, some experts said. “I do not think we do a good job of explaining what we do,” said Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobs, who has researched faculty life, said that students often graduate from research universities without a clear understanding of what a professor’s job entails. “Meanwhile people see that the costs of college are going up and to them, faculty at colleges don’t seem to work 40 hours a week like high school teachers do,” he said.

In a 2004 article in the Sociological Forum, Jacobs found that full-time faculty members spend an average of just above 50 hours a week working. The data for his analysis came from the 1998 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty by the U.S. Department of Education and the faculty sample included 819 colleges and universities. “As a point of comparison, the average work week for men in the U. S. labor force is 43 hours per week and 37 for women. About one-quarter of men work in the labor force work over 50 hours per week (26.5 percent), along with one in ten women (11.3 percent),” Jacobs said. Many academics, of course, report working far more than 50 hours a week -- and for adjuncts, the pay is a fraction of the figures cited by Levy, and many work without health or retirement benefits, or any job security.

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Neil Gross, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who also studies academic life, said some of the attacks on faculty could be because of the extraordinary coming together of several factors: the economic downturn, rising college costs, the high rate of unemployment of recent college grads and rising international competition.

“The American higher education system happens to be extraordinarily complex. And I think the article downplayed that diversity…. It was kind of one-size-fits-all,” Gross said.

Levy, who previously was the chancellor of the New School University and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (and its art college), said that he could not get into all the nuances of faculty life because he was writing a short article. He said that academic experts who are not faculty members had told him that his piece was very balanced. “We have a model that we might not be able to continue,” Levy said. “If anybody has a better idea, more power to them.”

Higher education can become more accessible, he said, only if the model is changed. Levy said he is sympathetic to college professors but the higher education system in the country seems to have developed such that most institutions mimic the “research-university” model. “But, as you know, there are significant distinctions between a professor's job description at a research university and at other places,” he said.

High-skilled, labor-intensive industries tend to become more expensive over time, said Kevin Carey, policy director of the think tank Education Sector, but in higher education that trend has been mitigated by the “adjunctification of the professoriate.”

Federal data do not suggest that spending on faculty has been increasing and is leading to a hike in college costs, Carey said. “A fruitful discussion to have might be to ask if professors are teaching enough students well with the new tools to reach them, rather than saying that college professors are lazy,” he said.

Kronstadt, the Montgomery College associate professor,  has a different kind of discussion or experience in mind for Levy. “I invite him to shadow a community college professor. Or come work as an adjunct,” she said.

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