Higher education in America faces a slew of serious problems. Discussions in blogs and journals and at academic conventions show that professors around the country are well aware of these problems and find them deeply troubling.
One problem however is never discussed, for the good reason that it is the academic world’s most inconvenient truth. Widely known but almost never acknowledged (at least publicly), the issue of academic productivity lies at the heart of almost every major issue our colleges and universities now face. Data culled from the University of Colorado-Boulder’s official websites show how very serious this problem really is.
The average salary of a Boulder professor is $103,513, about $125,000 with benefits. In reality, even these figures understate the matter. Forty-two percent of the faculty are full professors—an army with lots of generals! —and their annual compensation averages about $150,000.
One supposes the professors work hard to earn such generous pay, but the facts strongly suggest otherwise. Teaching in class and being available to students for office hours together take up less than five hours of the average Boulder professor’s week during the academic year. In all, the typical professor is in contact with students for 150 hours a year.
Yet in the past academic year, nearly a full third of the professors did not teach at all.
Faculty often claim they spend more time preparing for a class than teaching it. The truth seems closer to retired professor David Rubenstein’s recollection recorded in The Weekly Standard:
“[At first] writing lecture notes to cover a semester takes effort. But soon I had abundant material which could be reused indefinitely and took maybe 20 minutes of review before class. Adding new material required hardly more effort than the time to read what I would have read anyway.”
The astonishingly light teaching loads cannot be explained by claiming that the professors spend a large amount of time on scholarly work instead. Boulder’s professors publish an average of one scholarly work every two years. Almost always that scholarly work comes as an article rather than a book.
Most of what the professors publish is not considered very relevant, even among academic circles. At Boulder and other American universities the quality of a publication is measured by how often it is cited by other professors in their publications.
In the past six years 75 percent of the Boulder faculty received an average four or fewer citations a year. Twenty-two percent (a quarter of them full professors) in fact had no citations at all.
In other words, almost all the scholarly output of Boulder professors is without any value.
On the other hand, a mere 5 percent of the faculty averaged 98 citations a year, and accounted for 40 percent of all citations. This small group comprises the real scholars on campus. Their peers recognize their work as valuable. It deserves to be supported fully.
CU-Boulder ought to face up to the fact that most of the faculty are not scholars. If they merit any place in a university, it is as teachers. They should no longer receive the massive amount of free time inappropriately allocated to them for research and writing.
Instead, as teachers, they should work like most Americans: 40 hours a week for at least 48 weeks of the year. The productivity of the average campus instructor would increase approximately twelve-fold. This gain could be translated into daily classes for each course, into courses taught in greater depth, into increased support from teaching assistants, and into an abundance of remedial help for faltering students.
Students would learn much more in three years than they now learn in four. The increased teaching load would require fewer teachers on the payroll. As a result, tuition fees would be reduced dramatically, freeing graduates from the decades-long burden of paying off expensive student loans at rates higher than most mortgages.
Enhancing academic productivity now could head off real problems in the future.
Michael Selzer acquired a doctorate in political science and deep misgivings about higher education at a large American university. The founder of Bibliofind, a major site for the sale of old, used and rare books, he currently resides in Colorado Springs.