[New guy here, by the grace of Will. I teach political science and political economy at a small private college.]

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has proposed budget cuts for the University of Wisconsin system and suggested that faculty could help balance the budget by teaching an extra class.

In the future, by not having limitations of things like shared governance, they might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class a semester.

There are multiple problems with this statement. First, I wonder if Walker is confusing shared governance with unionism, thinking that the elimination of public sector unions in Wisconsin eliminates shared governance at the university? But unionism is about working conditions, whereas shared governance is about the overall organization, operation, procedures and focus of the organization (e.g., the process for proposing new courses or changes to degree requirements). The boundaries between the two are undeniably blurry–at my own school we often have to pause and reflect upon whether the particular issue we want to address is most appropriately dealt with in the Faculty meeting (shared governance) or in the Union meeting (unionism). It’s a bit amusing, since the two bodies almost wholly overlap, but nonetheless the forum matters. And from my non-expert but not wholly ignorant perspective, teaching load is purely a working conditions issue, not a shared governance issue at all.

Second, Walker makes the basic error of assuming people are just reactive, instead of active: that they will just do as the rule tells them to do, instead of finding ways around the rule. (One of my standing rules of policymaking is to make policy for the people you have, not the people you wish you had.) The top researchers especially will be able to avoid this rule, because they are in demand and will be welcomed at other institutions. In 2009 UW-Madison ranked 9th in the country for federal research funds – receiving almost $600 million – and ranked 3rd in the country for most research and development expenditures, at over $1 billion. Damage UW-Madison’s research program by forcing those professor to spend more time teaching, and you’ll damage the reputation of the state’s flagship institution.

And teaching does take time, not just the hours in the classroom. Even for my most well-prepped class, American Government, I normally put in about 1/2 hour of prep for every hour in class. I know the material, but without review I may not remember all the elements of it that I want to address, or my presentation may not be as orderly and coherent. Imagine memorizing a speech, then giving it twice a year–if you could do it well each time without reviewing it again, my hat’s off to you. New courses, or courses I teach only occasionally, require more than 1 hour of prep per hour in class. That greatly cuts into the time available for research, which is one of the primary reasons faculty at teaching-oriented colleges and universities produce less research than those at research-focused universities.

Then there’s the time spent just thinking. On any given day at any given time someone peering into my office might assume I’m just browsing the internet for cat videos, reading for pleasure, or just staring blankly at the walls. But keeping up with developments in my areas of focus takes time. I not only have to read about them, I have to think about them. I’m familiar with faculty (and administrators) who have skimmed a book or research paper, pulled out an idea couched in memorable phrasing, and then proceeded to misapply it because they didn’t really take the time to think about it. (In one memorable case, as a graduate student I pointed out that a professor had misapplied an important idea from a notable economist, to which he replied, “I guess I ought to read that paper.”)

Thinking takes up just as much time when trying to write a research paper, or any document really. My department completed our program review document last week. On Tuesday I spent most of the day just writing the one page executive summary. (Have you ever tried summarizing a 100 page document in one page, while emphasizing your own tremendous awesomeness and how any imperfections could be solved easily if somebody outside your department would do the right thing while not offending that person who could do that right thing by making it sound like it’s their fault?) On Friday I spent 5 hours reviewing and editing the final draft. And today, Sunday, I am working on a new assignment for my American Government class that will require them to work with real data, which requires long pauses in writing while I think about how to make the directions clear to non-data oriented students.

Teach another class? I’ve actually done a fair amount of that lately, kinda sorta. That is, I’ve taught some overloads lately, but they involve 1/2 courses where I co-teach with someone else, so in a sense I’m only developing 1/4 of a course. It still takes time, though.

This is not to say “pity us poor college profs.” It’s not a bad gig. I worked a lot harder, at much greater personal risk, and for much less pay as a bike messenger. One of my own profs had previously worked at a nitroglycerine factory, until the old guys there–who all had occupational-induced emphysema–told him to get out and go to college so he didn’t end up like them. It’s just to say that the job takes time; that classroom-hours are not synonymous with workload; and that Walker can only get what he wants by damaging the impressive reputation of UW-Madison and thereby diminishing the reputation of the state as a whole.

[Disclosure: I do not teach in Wisconsin or at a public college/university.]

Category: School

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10 Responses to Take a Governor to Work Day

  1. That’s the type of critique of Walker that I like because it actually focuses on what’s wrong with what he’s saying. It’s a lot better than simply pointing out he doesn’t have a college degree.

    • James Hanley says:

      I don’t like the “he doesn’t have a college degree” response, either. It’s cheap and irrelevant. Not having a college degree says nothing about a person’s intelligence, and most college graduates have little idea what their profs are really doing when they’re not in the classroom.

  2. trumwill says:

    When I think of the things that cost schools like UW-Madison money, I don’t think of instructor salaries as being a critically high one.

    • James Hanley says:

      Where, specifically, “instructor” means adjunct, or PhD candidate. Unless Walker’s suggesting they fire some untenured faculty.

  3. fillyjonk says:

    Yeah, generally those who declare “college is too expensive and costs must be cut” wind up looking in the wrong directions.

    Things I see:

    – unfunded mandates and new regulations for which new people must be hired, in order to be sure the university is in compliance

    – the growth of the administration, which can partially be blamed on the first point. (An administrator here makes about twice, at the lowest level, of what a tenured full professor makes)

    – the fact that stuff just plain costs money. Parents want a new workout center for their kids attending the school? Great, if you can find an “angel” to sponsor it. The computer lab needs upgrading? Of course, but those things cost money. Inflation in heating/electricity/other infrastructure also hits college campuses

    – declining state appropriations, if we’re talking a public university. You can argue whether or not higher ed is something tax dollars should support, but it is part of the equation here

    On my campus, 3-4 classes a semester is the norm. (For those of us in the lab sciences, 3 is the minimal amount but those each carry with them a 2-3 hour lab, for which we get one “contact hour” of credit – you have to have a minimum of 12 hours to be full time). I taught two overload classes (a total of something like 17 hours) last semester and it was challenging. As Prof. Hanley noted: there’s an awful lot of “invisible” work faculty do, prepping and updating and grading and meeting with students and advising and serving on committees. I wouldn’t get any research done at all if I regularly taught five classes, and I’d probably refuse to teach summers, because I’d need that time to recuperate.

    Also, with an increasingly unprepared student body, you do wind up doing more in-office-hours “remediation, and “hand-holding” and stuff like dealing with crying students in your office. That’s the part I personally find most exhausting: just the interpersonal stuff. And more classes mean more people.

    • James Hanley says:


      You sound like you could be at my school. Every detail fits, down to the accounting for lab time. I hang out with a set of natural scientists more than with any other group, and every one of them would be nodding in agreement with you.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    How many universities have many tenured professors who currently have no research grants and who teach one or no classes. It seems that the easiest way to cut costs would be to create conditions so that the tenured track professors either have to get a grant to teach more classes.

    • James Hanley says:


      I get your point, but the difficulty is that some people do research that doesn’t require grants. The philosopher setting the world straight on utilitarianism, the legal scholar explaining why the Supreme Court’s recent Mungojerry v. Rumpleteazer ruling marks a distinct departure from their prior practical cats jurisprudence, or me, currently taking a brief break from tediously entering state population and # of Representatives data from each Census into Excel so I can do some analysis for a paper I’m writing on malapportionment in the U.S. House. This stuff doesn’t need grants because there are no monetary costs for the researcher, but it still consumes time.

      The real difficulty is that without the hard proof of a grant, it’s easy for a guy like me to claim I’m busy doing research, but not so easy to demonstrate that I’m actually doing the work.

  5. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    Dr Aitch, welcome.

    (I am ScarletNumbers at the other place)

    • James Hanley says:

      Thank you.

      Something you or Will said at the other place recently led me to figure out that connection. But it’s nice of you to make the link clear.

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