This weekend the Washington Post ran an interesting editorial by David Levy, former chancellor of the New School. Levy apparently believes that the reason college costs are increasingly is because college professors are just not working hard enough. It’s a little unclear how more work from professors could actually reduce the price of college, however.

As he writes:

College faculty…. deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

This makes sense at a research university, Levy argues, but now these luxurious schedules extend even to faculty who exist primarily to teach. Full-time professors at Maryland’s Montgomery College, a community college, earn an average $88,000 a year.

Of course professors could work harder. Everyone could work harder. Let us ignore, for a minute, the validity of asking them to do so. Does it matter? Are faculty salaries responsible for increasing college costs?

In sort, no. In the last 30 years, tuition rates have increased between three and fourteen times as fast as full-time faculty salaries. Full-time academic employees also aren’t even the major players here. About 60 percent of college instructors are actually part-time employees. And faculty don’t account for the major growth in college expenditures. Between 1975 and 2005, as more Americans began to go to college, the number of academic administrators increased by 85 percent. The number of staff employed by colleges increased by 240 percent. The number of college professors increased by only 51 percent during the same period.

Even at Montgomery, the college Levy used as an example, it’s pretty clear that faculty aren’t much of an economic drain. The institution employs 587 full-time faculty. That sounds like a lot, especially given that $88,000 a year figure cited earlier. But that’s only about one-third of the total employees. The institution employs 1780 people total.

There, in fact, two things driving the increase in tuition. The first is the rapid growth in highly-paid administrative staff. The second, more important change, is declining state support for higher education. (About 80 percent of college students attend public institutions.)

Total state fiscal support for higher education nationwide declined by 7.6 percent from fiscal year 2011 to FY2012. The cuts occurred in 41 states, ranging from 1 percent in North Carolina and Indiana to 41 percent in New Hampshire. Arizona, Wisconsin, and Louisiana all saw funding drop at least 20 percent.

This is also true over a longer period of time. In inflation-adjusted dollars, total state support for the top 101 public universities declined by 10 percent between 2002 and 2010. This is why tuition is increasing.

While there is, no doubt, some waste at state universities, there’s no evidence that increasing tuition has anything do with low faculty productively. Nothing indicates that professors are getting paid much more, or teaching less, than they were 20 or 30 years ago, when tuition was much lower.

Levey writes that:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase.

But this is misleading. Professors already work 40 hours a week, at least.

As Robert Farley writes at Lawyers, Guns, and Money:

In case you’re wondering, 12-15 hours per week is a 4:4 load or a 5:5 load; I have NEVER encountered anyone able to undertake such a load on less than fifty hours per week of actual work. Indeed, I’d guess closer to sixty hours. I simply cannot believe that Levy is ignorant of this; he’s just lying. He wants his readers to believe that an assumption of 1:1 inside-outside the classroom is standard, which is simply absurd, even if faculty do their best to ignore student e-mails and grade completely through scan tron. And it should be noted that research and service requirements are ON TOP OF THIS load.

In truth, trying to adjust that wouldn’t result in greater efficiently; it would just result in crappier instruction and less research productivity.

Leaving aside all of the things he got wrong here, perhaps the most troublesome is the premise for the whole thing: Professors were originally given the research and teaching load distribution they have now, coupled with summers off, as a way to provide them with a nice enough lifestyle that would compensate for the low pay they originally received. This isn’t true. In fact they were given the teaching and research expectations they have because that‘s what universities believed best allowed them to still be productive researchers.

Making professors teach more, which is essentially what this amounts to, just means they’ll research less. Perhaps Levy thinks this is okay, but then be up front about it. It’s inappropriate to hide behind irrelevant discussions of relative workload of professors compared to business executives. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer