A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector, “Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities,” assigns tenure-line university faculty a remarkable amount of blame for the high price of college. As the report states, bemoaning faculty labor costs is common practice among critics of the academy, who frequently assume the single largest university budget category (usually faculty compensation) holds the most fat. To his credit, author Andrew Gillen moves beyond that simplistic assumption and seeks evidence of ineffective faculty spending. In doing so, he tells a compelling and concerning narrative about university products and faculty priorities: the instructional mission of American higher education is being short-changed, particularly for students and taxpayers. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions ultimately overreach and overshadow its main value—generating greater policy discussion around the costs and products associated with faculty work.
Gillen uses federal data to demonstrate reductions in tenured and tenure-track (TT) teaching loads across institution types, between academic years 1987-1988 and 2003-2004. He provides a cohesive synthesis of factors widely thought to contribute to this outcome, with some emphasis on Massy and Zemsky’s concept of “the academic ratchet.” The academic ratchet explains that as faculty seek reputational prestige and career mobility through increased attention to their research responsibilities, they must, and readily do, decrease attention to instruction and other responsibilities. The report neglects to mention the other half of this framework, (“the administrative lattice”), which explains how administrators enable faculty to restructure their work: they expand their ranks, also at added cost. Data show administrative growth, both in terms of expenditure and added employees, has been prodigious in recent years.