Reining in UNC Faculty & Higher Education as a Space for Critical Thinking and Dissent

UNC faculty don't work hard enough as it is. That thinking seems to explain why State Senator Tom McInnis (R-Richmond) introduced a bill the Thursday before last that would require UNC system professors to teach a minimum of eight courses per academic year (i.e., a 4-4 load over two semesters). Or, else, have their pay docked.

This faculty workload bill particularly targets research universities like UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State; their faculties “only” teach, on average, two courses per semester . This teaching load stems from the fact that the scope of duties for faculty members also includes significant research and/or creative activities and mentoring of advanced students, not to mention extensive service to their departments, institutions, and professional associations. Faculty at other system campuses, such as Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University, which are more teaching-intensive, already teach four-four loads.

Senate Bill 593 is the latest in a full-throttled effort by state legislators and their allies to dismantle our higher education system. The recent decision by the UNC Board of Governors to close three system centers, most controversially UNC-Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work, & Opportunity, is but one example. These actions are intrusive and unprecedented in their challenging of conventional notions of governance over matters (such as workload and curricula) that have previously been the purview of faculty and administrators. They reflect a radical, destructive, and myopic view of the purpose of higher education, who should make critical decisions about it, and to whom its workers (most especially, faculty and academic staff) should be accountable.

These efforts are allied with similar ones nationally. Facing years of steep budget cuts, public universities are increasingly reliant on private donors, many of whom wish to shape curricula and faculty speech. These neoconservative efforts seek to the concept of academic freedom and, with it, tenure; more broadly, they are intended to hamper the ability of institutions of higher learning to be spaces for critical thinking and dissent.

McInnis's proposal and others like it don't just affect tenured and tenure-track faculty members (who are increasingly rare on campuses, anyway), and their adverse impacts aren't limited to higher education: The bill also is embedded in a broader neoliberal move to diminish protections, security, and jobs for the workforce as a whole (especially, the public sector) and to privatize public institutions (e.g., schools, prisons, transportation systems, and universities).

Ironically, the bill is titled, “An Act to Improve the Quality of Instruction at the Constituent Institutions of the University of North Carolina.” In a statement, quoted by Richmond County Daily Journal McInnis said, “There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students. I look forward to the debate that will be generated by this important legislation.” This lauding of faculty is suspect when you consider the disrespect that he and his colleagues, and their supporters, have shown faculty and university workers , overall, in recent years. Massive budget cuts, layoffs, scant pay raises, furloughs, increased work loads, program eliminations, and a demonizing discourse have diminished morale and led to fewer faculty lines overall.

It is difficult to comprehend how teaching four courses a semester improves instructional effectiveness or contributes to desired educational outcomes. I should know. I recently spent five years working as a faculty member at a small public liberal arts institution within the University of Wisconsin system. The school was designated a teaching-intensive institution, and faculty were expected to teach four courses a semester. While our classes were small (usually numbering about 24 students), the workload was still brutal. My weeks consisted of non-stop course preps; grading; advising; holding office hours and other meetings with students; responding to emails; writing student recommendation letters; doing committee work (inside and outside of the department); supervising and evaluating student research projects, internships, and theses; attending professional development seminars; participating in program review and assessment activities; and so on. The hours I spent on these activities were on top of significant time spent every week in class..

With a workload like this, I had scant time during the academic year to carry out research activities, which was distressing to me for multiple reasons. Researching, writing, and presenting one's work is intellectually stimulating, to be sure, but these activities also provide crucial and invigorating connections to others in your field, which makes life less isolating. (I felt very isolated at my former institution; geographic and cultural reasons contributed to these feelings, as did my workload.) These activities also buoy your sense of making a meaningful contribution to society and to fulfilling your work as an academic. At least for me.

Becoming a teaching robot was also distressing to me for other, more pragmatic reasons. Research productivity was expected and built into my contract – it ostensibly comprised 35 % of my workload -- and it was part of how my work performance was assessed. With scant gas in the tank during the school year to go to scholarly conferences, let alone conceptualize, research, and write academic papers, and little energy during the summer (when I was ostensibly off-contract – i.e., not being paid), I was always worried about keeping my job. On top of this worry, I knew that the less time I had for research, the less job mobility I had, the knowledge of which only increased by distress and sense of precariousness.

Moreover, I knew that my teaching effectiveness was being compromised by the lack of time or institutional support (e.g., conference funding, which decreased every year I was in Wisconsin) that I had for research. This knowledge was distressing, both because I wanted to keep a tenure-track job in a poor job market and because being good at my job was and is part of my personal and professional identity.

Teaching and research/creative activities go hand in hand, I believe, whether one works at a teaching-intensive or a research-intensive institution. My research activities kept me abreast of new developments in my field, which I was able to pass on to my students and advisees. I also often picked up new teaching ideas and techniques from attending scholarly conferences. I think that most people with jobs that are multi-thronged, where they're evaluated on multiple dimensions, would say that they need some sort of functional balance between their duties. They need sufficient time to practice, develop, and refine skills, but they also time away to reflect and complete other duties and develop other skillsets. This balance increases overall job satisfaction and job performance more globally.

McInnis may not actually intend for his bill to pass, and, as the News & Observer reports, the bill was sent last Monday to the Rules Committee, where “many bills go to die.” SB 593 seems unfeasible, at least at this point, given (1) personnel rules specifying work duties that are in place for faculties across the UNC system and (2) the sheer financial value of UNC researchers' contributions to the state and corporate sector. But, it is a warning sign and is meant to further the ideologies and tactics associated with neoliberalism and neoconservativism.

Legislators such as McInnis know that faculty members who want to stay active in their fields and who see their research/creative work as part of their personal and professional commitments and identities will try to remain productive. So, one purpose of the bill might be simple wage theft. Eliciting more productivity (often, demanding it) while offering no additional remuneration is a tactic of employers eager to increase profits while controlling their bottom-line costs. At the same time, the bill reinforces the view that the only job of a faculty member is to teach, something that is highly disrespectful and which contributes to job dissatisfaction and, ultimately, the deprofessionalization of the profession.

As we know, “de-tenuring” the professoriate is a goal for many campus administrators and state legislators, even if they occasionally sing the praise of professors. Already, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 75% of the teaching at U.S. colleges and universities is being done by contingent instructors (e.g., adjuncts, full-time, non-tenure-track faculty, and graduate teaching assistants).

This restructuring of the academic workforce yields clear cost-savings (at least in the short-term). But, it also is propelled by other reasons. In reinforcing the view that the only work of a faculty member is to teach, the bill clearly targets certain types of faculty research and public intellectualism. Many people believe that the Board of Governors acted to close UNC-Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work, & Opportunity because of center director and law professor Gene Nichol's fiery editorials critical of state legislators.

McInnis and allies clearly want to foment the view that educators (especially, tenured faculty members at research-intensive universities) are privileged, with limited time in the classroom and summers “off,” and in need of reining in. They strategically rely on the fact that most people only see certain types of academic work (i.e., teaching) as visible evidence that faculty are actually working. They also rely on the fostering of class antagonisms. Their efforts affect all workers, not just academic ones. And, they affect students and the public, too. Requiring that faculty at research-intensive universities like UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University teach four classes a semester does a lot of people a disservice.



An idle mind is the devil's workshop

More time in the classroom means less time in front of a computer writing pieces that might very well be sent to media outlets and newspapers such as the News & Observer, Charlotte Observer etc.

This is perhaps the one single piece of control that the current GA cannot get their hands around. And they know it.

Credit for attempting to dismantle any system of education is a worthy consideration but there's two things to remember.

1) Most of the bills coming out of the GA do not originate with the named sponsor. The sponsor(s) are lap dogs for someone else.
2) Refer to #1.

Nothing more than childish behavior ie. punishment for the likes of Gene Nichol.

Great post

The only question in my mind is whether or not the faculty will stand up to this attack. Don't see much evidence of that happening so far.

Who put the bill before McInnis?

Thanks for pointing out that most legislators' bill come from 'special interests.' I wonder who suggested or wrote this proposal for McInnis.

That's a good question

but I'd have to turn my comment (opinion) into a post because it would be lengthy. There are a number of characters in play here along with their designs, pettiness and outright ignorance. While this might appear as an attempt to dismantle institutions of higher learning, I'm just not on board with that (at the moment) anymore than I concede that the public school system in NC has been gutted as some have expressed.

Thinking that legislators (mainly Republican) in the GA are skillful at what they do is a pipe dream in my opinion. They're not even skillful at screwing things up.

Thanks for detailing your

Thanks for detailing your work, Tara. I would like to see every professor go public with a list of what they do on the job and how many hours it takes.

No one cares about facts like

No one cares about facts like those you're asking for. This is all about ideology.

I hope this bill passes and is signed into law. Maybe then the faculty will take a stand.

Thank you both

Thanks for your comments. Vicki, I agree, it would be nice to have more truth-telling about what people do "on the job."

Can't say I agree with you, James, about wanting the bill to pass. But, I see what you're saying about wanting to see faculty more vocal (though, I have to say, it's MUCH easier for me to write/speak now that I'm not a professor). I have more time and energy, yes, and I'm less afraid of retaliation.

Here's my thinking.

Here's my thinking.

1. There's so much damage being done that it will take an extraordinary change in the legislature to set things right.

2. That change won't happen until people are so upset, so angry, and so motivated that they actually vote the bastards out.

3. That anger won't happen as long as we keep winning trivial victories. Every time the GOP walks back their most ludicrous bills, the net effect is that they look reasonable. They are not reasonable. They have no ability to moderate themselves. We should give them all the rope they want.

Document the crazy? Of course. Ridicule their agenda? Of course. Point out the dire negative consequences? Of course. Fight them? I don't see what that gets us.

I've written about this several times, and I haven't yet encountered any good reasons to change my thinking.