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Should Professors Teach More to Avoid Program Cuts?

At one campus doing so, many adjuncts will lose positions, but departments aren't being eliminated.

November 1, 2018
 
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Faced with steep budget cuts, several University of Wisconsin System campuses have targeted academic programs to try to save money. The Superior campus announced last year that it was suspending 25 programs, including nine majors -- sociology and political science among them. The Stevens Point campus said it would cut 13 majors, including English, history, political science and sociology -- and expand programs it says are more job oriented and in demand. In many cases where colleges take this approach, humanities and other liberal arts disciplines face some of the deepest cuts.

The Oshkosh campus is taking a different route to solvency: it’s asking tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the College of Letters and Science to teach more.

“I fully understand the hardship that this change may present to faculty and instructional academic staff,” Colleen McDermott, dean of the college, wrote to faculty members in a recent letter about the change. “We have exhausted every other route of cost cutting for the college (short of laying off faculty or closing programs).”

Currently, tenure-line faculty members in the college teach 24 credit hours per year, or 12 credit hours -- typically four classes -- per semester. But most professors apply for and get what’s known as a curriculum modification to teach 18 credit hours per year, or three classes a semester, to spend more time on research.

Starting next year, however, professors will all teach a minimum of 21 credit hours per year, or four classes one semester and three the other. That’s regardless of where they are in their curriculum-modification schedules, which last three years.

McDermott explained in her letter that the college is approaching the harshest year of a three-year plan to close its $9.5 million budget deficit. About half of the gap will be closed next year alone, and getting professors to teach more is supposed to save the college about $1 million in adjunct instructor pay. It’s not yet clear how many adjuncts counting on reappointment will lose their positions. McDermott said the adjustments are temporary and will be reassessed after one year.

The university has previously said that its budget deficit is caused by a declining state birth rate-related dip in undergraduate enrollment -- about 15 percent in the six years leading up to fall 2017, with a slight but not fully corrective uptick this year. Other factors are massive state funding cuts to higher education in the 2015-17 budget, frozen undergraduate tuition and a state policy maxing out tuition at 12 credits a semester, even if students take more.

Through a university spokesperson, McDermott stressed via email that faculty reassigned time away from teaching is for scholarship that goes above and beyond standard campus research expectations. “We chose this method because it did not require suspension of majors/programs and does not negatively impact students' ability to access classes,” she said, noting that faculty feedback has thus far been mixed.

David Siemers, professor of political science at Oshkosh and an executive board member of the campus’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty and staff union, expressed concern for the adjunct instructors who will not be rehired under the plan.

“Some of these academic staff have taught here full-time for more than 20 years,” he said, calling the idea “a serious drain on morale, which was already low.”

Taking aim at the Wisconsin Legislature’s actions on higher education in recent years, Siemers described the current climate as the result of a “deliberate plan to starve the state university system of revenue through funding cuts and a long-term tuition freeze that decreases our revenue year by year.” The university system that was once a “crowning achievement of the state of Wisconsin” is suffering from “serious neglect,” he added.

Stephen Bentivenga, professor of biology and Oshkosh’s Faculty Senate president, said that while some may perceive the change as an increased teaching load, it’s really a reduction in the time allotted for research or scholarly activity.

That said, Bentivenga said many professors, staff and administrators are upset about the policy shift, since it’s a blow to already low morale over the budget, and there is widespread concern for the “highly educated, talented and dedicated” adjuncts who stand to lose appointments.

Asked whether Oshkosh’s solution to its budget woes was at least better than the elimination of departments seen elsewhere in his state, Bentivenga said it is a matter of opinion. His view is that the college’s solution is “much better than cutting programs,” especially given the timeline. The savings need to be realized next year, he said, and there was “not sufficient time to make those decisions.” Cutting could also have resulted in fewer adjunct contracts and faculty layoffs, he said.

“The chancellor and vice chancellors are taking measures to improve our budgetary outlook. Everyone is hoping that our financial situation improves and that this is a short-term problem.”

Teaching loads are a particularly touchy subject in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker has suggested that professors do more work to offset budget shortfalls, and professors have responded by saying that he misunderstands what faculty work entails. Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the Madison campus, also has been criticized for saying that she sometimes gives professors with outside job offers course releases to get them to stay at her institution. Madison is a research university, of course, and Oshkosh is primarily a teaching institution.

Course load issues are touchy outside Wisconsin, too, however. They expose disparities in institutional resources and working conditions, and many professors already feel time starved. And teaching load increases have been elsewhere suggested to address budgetary concerns. One example, at Missouri State University’s two-year West Plains campus, is contentious not only due to questions about how faculty members will balance teaching and research, but also about how it will affect their take-home pay.

Like Wisconsin university campuses, West Plains faces state budget cuts and declining enrollment -- about 5 percent this year over last. But a former chancellor’s plan to up all faculty members’ teaching loads from 12 credits, or four classes per semester, to 15, or five, didn’t go over so well. The Faculty Senate rejected it flat out.

The new chancellor created a task force to come up with various options for closing a budget gap, and the faculty and administration recently approved a compromise: professors may opt out of the 15-credit system and teach 12 credits in the fall and spring, but they’ll no longer be eligible to teach “overload” courses for extra pay.

Those faculty members who opt in to the new plan will get a modest pay increase and still be eligible to teach overload courses. All new faculty members hired from July 2019 onward will be expected to teach 15 credits in the fall and in the spring. Instructors who earn full professor status may be able to apply for a three-year course load reduction, teaching 12 credits in the fall and the spring, to work on research.

Dennis Lancaster, dean of academic affairs at West Plains, said, “I don’t think anybody wanted to do this. But this is another piece of the puzzle of trying to make things work. And many of the faculty who voted to approve this alternative realize that we need to do this in light of our financial situation -- and that overload would probably have been another thing curtailed anyway.”

Those faculty members who didn’t approve of the compromise plan, meanwhile, felt as if, “Hey, I’m not giving in to this change to the culture and the way things have been working for 50-some years,” Lancaster said, noting that eligibility for overload pay was another big concern among professors. “So it hasn’t been easy.”

Shirley A. Lawler, campus chancellor, stressed that the institution had already made some additional budget trimming, such as reductions in staff and cuts to programs including respiratory health. But she and Lancaster said that the associate of arts in general studies program remains the campus’s primary source of degrees, and that no academic cuts to it are planned.

Like McDermott, Lawler said she hoped the financial constraints on her institution were just temporary. “We believe state appropriations will improve and we’re working hard to increase enrollment numbers. We’re also looking at our foundation to raise more funds. We’re being very optimistic instead of reactive.”

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