A week or so ago, while slurping watery soup from a styrofoam cup and taking a twenty-minute break from grading the fifty portfolios on my desk, I came across an article in the Washington Post titled “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?” by David Levy. The author’s answer to that question was a resounding no. It’s taken me a whole week to find time to rebut Levy’s argument, because my quarter grades were due on Tuesday, and it took me another full day to dig out of the accumulated pile of tasks undone and emails unanswered during the grading rush. At this writing, it’s Thursday, and I haven’t yet prepared my syllabi for classes that start on Monday. This is my Spring “Break.”
It was probably a mistake to read that article during the busiest week of the academic year. Not only did it accuse me and my ilk of not earning our keep, but it made its case based on a lot of faulty logic, anecdotal evidence, and woefully outdated notions of what it means to actually be a college professor.
The first problem is that Levy bases his argument on these numbers: senior faculty earn $80,000 to $150,000 annually, and “average” salaries are roughly $88,000.
Ok, stop right there.
Since he fails to cite his sources (other than naming one “excellent” community college in Maryland), I have no idea how he came up with these numbers, but I can guarantee that they in no way represent the vast majority of higher education faculty in the vast majority of the country. (Spend twenty minutes on the Chronicle of Higher Education website looking up salaries if you don’t believe me.) His choice to focus only on full professors is telling and deliberately misleading.
Besides, Levy tosses out averages as though public/private, associate/baccalaureate/doctoral, or geographical distinctions make no difference. And, he never mentions anything about median income, which, as any statistician or economist will tell you, gives a far more accurate picture of who makes what.
I work at a very large community college in the Midwest. The average full-time faculty salary is roughly $58,000, which is nowhere near the lofty number upon which Levy bases his argument. Even selecting only “senior” faculty (i.e. full Professors), that average is only $76,000 -- not a paltry sum, to be sure, but nowhere near Levy’s casual estimate. To approach the numbers he talks about in my state, you’d have to look only at four-year colleges, and then only at ones with doctoral programs, not the “teaching” colleges at the heart of his criticism.
In a ridiculously patronizing tone, he says that he has no quarrel with teachers making an “upper middle class wage.” In fact, his problem isn’t with research institutions at all, but with those whose primary mission is teaching.
Let’s start with the first half of that absurdity. In what universe (and in what geographical area) is even the more generous $76,000 figure “upper middle class?” When one of my colleagues was first hired into the rank of assistant professor seven years ago, her salary was half that, and her status as a single mother of four actually qualified her public assistance for heating oil. With a promotion under her belt, and because she teaches during the summers, she is inching closer to 60k now, but it will be many years before she approaches anything like an “upper middle class” income, even by Levy’s definition, and even working year round.
The second half of the absurdity is this: In a bizarre twist of logic, Levy goes on to say that the senior faculty at research institutions do actually deserve these sums, since they are doing important work furthering technology, scholarship, etc. Apparently it’s just those greedy buggers at “teaching” colleges who are slacking and eating bon bons and not worth their salt. He fails to mention that the salaries at “teaching” colleges are significantly lower than those at research institutions, because doing so would completely gut his argument.
In truth, Levy has just about everything upside down. The very professors who (he says) deserve their pay are the ones who do the least teaching. Most teach 2-3 classes per semester, and have graduate assistants to take care of labs, discussion sections, and the bulk of the grading. (The indentured servitude of graduate students is another subject entirely.) Clearly, Levy’s real point is that teaching undergraduates -- the bread and butter of any educational institution -- is not worth paying for. The irony is that the most expensive institutions pay their faculty the most (to bring in grant money and scholarly accolades) and rely most heavily on underpaid labor. If I were paying $40,000 in tuition to one of those colleges, I might be a little miffed that it cost me the same amount per credit hour to have my kid taught by a novice as by a full professor.
At “teaching” colleges such as my own, there is no such thing as a graduate assistant. For their modest public school tuition, students at my college are taught by people with at least a master’s degree. For my salary (currently in the upper 50’s, after seven years full time at my institution and 15 years of adjuncting and teaching high school before that), I teach four classes a term. I’m one of the lucky ones; composition classes are weighted due to the grading load. Most of my colleagues in other disciplines teach five. Add to that labs and clinicals, and the 12-15 contact hour figure Levy cites doesn't even come close to approximating the amount of time most faculty spend with students.
In the average week, I probably spend fifteen hours grading papers. In the two weeks before and during finals, that number is easily double. Levy patronizingly acknowledges that planning and grading is part of the job, but even if it’s equal to the amount of time spent in class, he says that still does not justify the cushy vacations and long summers and “30 week” academic year.
I don’t know of a single institution with a 30 week calendar; typically, semesters are sixteen weeks long (x2) and quarters eleven (x3), but what’s two or three weeks’ difference when you are playing as fast and loose with numbers as Levy does? The 32 or 33 weeks classes are in session do not include mandatory professional development days. (Next year I will have to be on campus starting August 16 for department and division meetings, Provost’s welcome, and any number of other administrative duties, even though the first class of fall semester isn’t until the 27th.) Levy also asserts that the “upper-middle-class professionals” he’s so fond of comparing us to work 50 weeks a year. Show me a doctor, lawyer, or executive without at least four weeks of vacation (whether they take it or not) and I’ll eat my hat.
But number of weeks and workdays and skewed notions of salary notwithstanding, Levy’s argument is based on two very false and more insidious premises: that the duties of a professor at a teaching college are limited to planning, teaching, and grading, and that the number of hours one spends doing a job is the sole basis for its value.
In order to move up in rank, (i.e., to get anywhere close to the salary ranges Levy mentions), faculty are expected to sit on committees, advise students, do community and workplace service, develop innovative curricula, mentor at-risk students, attend conferences, present workshops, write articles, network with other colleges, serve as club and activity advisors, write grant applications, serve on statewide boards, host speakers, and perform a host of other “duties in support of the college mission.” All of these things are being done with less and less administrative and financial support from institutions with already tight budgets.
But I should not have to justify my existence or my value by giving an hour by hour breakdown of my typical work week. There are not many professional, salaried positions where the number of hours on the job has a direct correlation to the amount of work done or even the value of that work. Many of us know that time spent in meetings is in many cases inversely proportional to amount of productivity, yet many professionals will insist that a full Outlook schedule means they’re working hard. In an age when we can teach classes from our laptops, answer student emails at 11pm, and attend entire conferences via Skype, number of hours becomes difficult to quantify, and, I’d assert, largely irrelevant. And the value of that work, especially when that work is education, is impossible to quantify.
In any profession, higher education included, there are people who more than earn their salaries, and there are people who get paid far more than they are worth. We all know of workplaces where admins who are the real brains of the organization make half what the upper middle class professional in the corner office does. To single out education and make generalities about an entire profession across a vast array of variables using false analogies and questionable math is teacher bashing at its finest.
*You can read more about my cushy job at my blog, Notes from the Professor.
- Dayton, OH
- April 19
- Associate Professor
- Sinclair Community College
- Late bloomer. Writer. Teacher. Procrastinator. Lover of lost causes.
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