Too Many Teaching Waivers?

At the University of Missouri at Columbia, half the faculty don't meet the annual minimum teaching load. Does that matter?

December 8, 2015
U of Missouri
A class at U of Missouri at Columbia

From Wisconsin to Iowa, it’s become somewhat typical for state legislators to question to the productivity and general usefulness of faculty members at public institutions. Their current campus climate troubles notwithstanding, the University of Missouri System and the University of Missouri at Columbia in particular are the newest targets of a legislative inquiry, and the finding that one-half of faculty members don’t meet the system’s minimum teaching load requirement has a prominent lawmaker threatening to withhold state funding. But the data point asks the questions of just who is seeking such teaching waivers, and how else faculty members with waivers are spending their time. Faculty advocates and additional data suggest that when professors seek waivers, they’re not shirking their responsibilities. Rather, they’re doing other kinds of work that contribute to a research university’s mission -- sometimes financially.

Earlier this year, Missouri State Senator Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked the state’s university system for a report on faculty workload and productivity over the past several years. “Universities have to look internally and see what they are doing and what they are delivering,” Schaefer, a Republican from the Columbia area, told the Columbia Daily Tribune about his interest in the matter. “There are truths at the university that must be addressed, and this productivity issue is a big part of it.”

A memo prepared by the university for Schaefer revealed the following: for the past two years, more than one-third of tenured and tenure-track faculty members on the flagship Columbia campus did not meet the minimum teaching requirement of two classes with at least 15 students each in the fall and spring semesters, or 180 student credit hours per academic year (meaning, for example, 60 students in three-credit courses).

Excluding highly specialized disciplines, such as music and medicine, which do not require teaching waivers, half of tenure-line faculty members received special exemptions each year.

Schaefer wasn’t impressed. “If these were statistics of a football coach, they would have been fired,” he told the Daily Tribune. “How do you justify the continued growth of public dollars when these are the statistics?” He said that examining teaching loads should be part of determining whether a university is moving toward its goals for improvement, and that Missouri lawmakers might be reluctant to approve Governor Jay Nixon’s planned 6 percent funding increase for higher education in the next budget in response.

So how exactly do the numbers break down? According to a copy of the Schaefer memo, obtained by Inside Higher Ed via a public records request, there were 884 tenure-line, waiver-eligible faculty members at Columbia in 2013-14. Of those, 445 taught at or above the minimum load. Some 439 others -- about 50 percent -- received waivers. The numbers were nearly the same in 2014-15, with about 51 percent of 874 waiver-eligible faculty members receiving teaching requirement exemptions.

Waiver rates at the university system’s three other non-research-intensive campuses included in the report -- Science and Technology, St. Louis, and Kansas City -- predictably were lower, from about 25 to 40 percent. That's because waivers were most commonly awarded across the system for research.

At flagship Mizzou, 37 percent of waivers last year were awarded for research or scholarship -- by far the biggest share (totaling 198 of 535). Some 15 percent were granted for service emphasis and miscellaneous reasons, respectively. Thirteen percent were granted for doctoral supervision. Other reasons equaling much smaller shares included new faculty teaching reductions and off-campus or extension campus exemptions.

Not included in Schaefer’s memo was just who received these exemptions. According to additional, preliminary 2015-16 data provided by Mizzou, some 199 of the 445 faculty members who received waivers so far this year are conducting research. Of those, 50 percent (99 of 199 total) are natural science and engineering faculty -- important, as these faculty members tend to bring in the biggest external grants from federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Health sciences faculty made up 14 percent. Business, education and journalism faculty made up 16 percent of the research-waiver recipients, while humanists made up 13 percent. Social scientists made up 8 percent.

According to average teaching load data for this year, the mean teaching load of those faculty members who did not obtain waivers was 25 section credits and 485 student credit hours for the year -- well above the 180-credit-hour minimum. Among those faculty members who did receive waivers, the mean teaching load was 129 student credit hours, meaning that most were still teaching some courses and students.

Mary Jo Banken, a university spokesperson, said via email that “although teaching is, of course, one of the top priorities of faculty members, they also are involved in a wide range of research, teaching and service endeavors.” Professors sometimes relinquish teaching responsibilities to take on “other important faculty roles, such as serving in administrative positions, pursuing research projects or serving in other service roles,” she said.

Banken noted that Mizzou faculty members lead national groups, publish 1,600 books and journals per year on average, and typically attract 70 percent of the external research funding flowing into Missouri public universities.

“Most of our faculty members who conduct research also involve students in their research projects, which adds to the experience of our students,” she added.

Ben Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law at Mizzou and president of its Faculty Senate, said, “You’re not going to find a lot of professors laying about. If you look at who’s getting waivers, these are people who do other things for the university” -- primarily research and administrative tasks.

At the same time, he said, “there are faculty members who teach more than the standard number of student credit hours because they have fewer other responsibilities.”

Trachtenberg said he was the recipient of a partial waiver this year for his work with the Faculty Senate. But even though he’s not teaching four courses, he said, he’s still teaching more than 180 student credit hours due the large size of some of his classes. More students in a course doesn’t always mean more work than for a smaller class, he said, but sometimes it does. A good department chair will help an academic unit find a workload balance among its members, with some teaching more than others at any given time, he said.

How does Mizzou fare among its peers? Not all research institutions have stringent teaching load requirements, but a two-course-per-semester, or 2-2, load tends to be the default expectation, said John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher for the American Association of University Professors. Over all, Barnshaw said such requirements -- and judgments such as Schaefer’s -- tend to be “completely arbitrary.” They ignore the fact that class sizes at research institutions vary wildly, from hundreds of students in a lower-level course to fewer than 10 in graduate-level courses, and give the impression that being a professor is one-size-fits-all kind of job, he said.

“The only concern should be whether you’re balancing your books at the end of the day,” Barnshaw said, making the best use of teaching, research and administrative talents and resources across a department.

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, said Schaefer’s argument neglects the way that universities often welcome the opportunity to buy professors out of their teaching loads. Often, she said, a professor has an external grant to pursue research and wants to buy out of teaching a course that would have otherwise cost the university a significant portion of the faculty member’s salary. In many cases the university will be happy to make the trade, since it can then hire a non-tenure-track faculty member to teach the course for a fraction of the original salary.

Kezar, who studies the impact of the non-tenure-track faculty employment on student learning, didn’t endorse the practice, since data suggest that students learn best from instructors with strong institutional supports and stable jobs. But she said outside criticisms that teaching waivers for tenure-line faculty members cost the university -- at least financially -- are misguided.

And for the faculty members getting waivers? “There is no workload reduction -- [it] usually increases,” Kezar said. “So when I have grants I generally work summers and other times, so my load goes up, but the institution doesn’t pay [for it].”

Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, agreed that institutions are eager for buyouts, since the grants include overhead payments that regularly amount to more than 50 percent of the total funding. Increasingly, that’s an “important source of funding for state institutions whose Legislatures have been divesting from public higher education for the last two decades,” he added.

Aside from buyouts, Mathews said, professors do occasionally take a sabbatical, and newly hired faculty members may also have lower teaching loads -- as is the case at Mizzou -- to help them jump-start their scholarship and prepare for future courses. There’s committee work, task forces and administrative services that can be an important check on quality control, such as being a department’s director of undergraduate education.

“When faculty take on such heavy responsibilities, they might receive a reduction in their average teaching load,” he said. “But they are still expected -- sometimes beyond reason -- to keep their research productivity high.”

Mathews said personal circumstances should play a bigger role in faculty workload negotiations, such as stop-the-clock policies for new parents on the tenure track. Without them, he said, the “historical barriers keeping women from having the same career opportunities as men will remain.”

Like Barnshaw, Mathews said that outside observers don’t always understand that a professor's workload may vary from person to person, semester to semester, department to department and institution to institution. Some colleges and universities are more teaching centered, while others -- such as Mizzou and other land-grant universities -- are more committed to research and public dissemination of research. (At the same time, he said, research-centered universities would be happy to see more state funds earmarked for teaching.)

Time and space to think is “what makes the great discoveries happen,” Mathews said. “The cure for cancer, the solution to world hunger, faster computers and the next great American novel -- none of these will be discovered by a professor on a 4-4 load.” But instead of what might happen or not happen if faculty members were teaching more, Mathews said he wondered “how much stronger, how much richer would our nation be if we had more faculty over all, each teaching fewer classes?”


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