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Myth: Faculty Members are Underworked and Overpaid


Nancy A. Marlin


I am reasonably certain I have been asked this question every year of my academic career, from my first appointment as an assistant professor through my current role as provost.

Sometimes, this message isn’t posed as a question but a cheery affirmation: “It must be great to work at the university and have the summer off!” Despite my intense exasperation with such comments, I recognize their origin: The image most people have of faculty is the person standing in front of the classroom.

Not surprisingly, such an image yields a limited perspective of teaching. The general public and even our students aren’t aware that standing in front of that classroom requires not only disciplinary expertise acquired through many years of graduate education typically culminating in a doctorate, but also course preparation, grading of assignments, and often curricular development and the extensive use of technology. Increasingly, it also requires formulating assessment plans and documenting learning outcomes. In conjunction with teaching, faculty meet with students about matters from mundane requests for make-up exams to extensive mentoring and advising.
At most institutions of higher education, teaching is only one faculty responsibility. Depending on the type of university, faculty to a greater or lesser extent conduct research and provide service. Research requires publishing and, in many disciplines, securing extremely competitive research funding. A successful research program necessitates not only maintaining currency in the field and a commitment to the pursuit of new knowledge, but also the oversight of what is essentially a small business involving grant administration; compliance and regulatory affairs; and supervision of staff, graduate, and undergraduate students. Professional service is the category for a myriad of activities ranging from participation in shared governance on the campus through work in professional organizations and community outreach, usually with a focus on assisting with pressing regional problems such as economic development or improving the K-12 system.
To fulfill these responsibilities, faculty consistently report working 48-52 hours per week. Furthermore, despite public misconceptions, most faculty do indeed work during the summer. This is work for which they are typically uncompensated, save for summer school teaching or grant-funded activities. Yet for all this professional effort, the 2009-2010 average salary for faculty in four-year institutions in the United States was $74,600, according to the United States Department of Education. Just as in any sector, there are a few faculty members who enjoy bidding wars for their employment and earn far higher salaries. These faculty members may receive extensive publicity because of their notable work, but their salaries are certainly not the norm.

As a reader of this publication, you know all this and more. You’ve probably made the same arguments, and attempted to convince donors and legislators and board members of its veracity through “A-Day-in-the-Life-of-the-Professor” videos and testimonials. Why, then, despite these efforts, does this myth remain so pervasive? Why have we been unsuccessful in convincing the public and our various external constituent groups about the actual workload of faculty?

The public familiarity with only teaching responsibilities is one part of the reason, but there are more fundamental issues involved. Faculty work in the intellectually demanding realm of creativity and ideas, which requires autonomy and freedom to pursue their work. Such scholarly work is not necessarily place-bound; given technology, many faculty can now write at home, rather than in their offices or library carrels. The necessity of such autonomy means universities rely on the intrinsic motivation of faculty and their commitment to their discipline, university, and students.
For whatever personal or professional reasons, there are some faculty who are no longer intrinsically motivated. They have academically disengaged and become disillusioned, if not embittered. Although these individuals are only a small subset of our faculty, they are often highly visible to the public in that they may be doing consulting or other work, or be proverbially “mowing their lawns.” To judge the profession by these exceptions is to misunderstand the nature of academic work.

The overwhelming majority of faculty are extremely hardworking, and their workloads in these current budgetary circumstances are only increasing. Indeed, a persuasive counter-argument could be that faculty are overworked and underpaid, especially given that class sizes and research expectations have increased, while salaries over the past few years generally have not. For instance, at my own university, the only change in salary in the past four years was a 10-percent decrease for the year we were all on mandatory furlough!
As leaders in higher education, we must continue to explain and defend the work of our faculty. But we also need to address, preferably through preventative developmental approaches, the academic disengagement of faculty. Such disengagement not only diminishes our institutions through the loss of the contributions of these faculty, but negatively affects public perception and perpetuates such pernicious and damaging myths.
Nancy A. Marlin is provost at San Diego State University.