Out of Sync: America’s University Faculty

By Richard Vedder

Every three years or so, the highly regarded Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA surveys large numbers of faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation.  This year’s survey of some 30,000 faculty reminds us of how different university faculty are from ordinary Americans.

Take politics. In the latest survey, for the 2010-2011 academic year, 62.7 percent of faculty said that they were either “far left” or “liberal,” while only 11.9 percent said they were “far right” or “conservative.”  The notion that universities are hot beds for left-wing politics has a solid basis in fact.  Moreover, the left-right imbalance is growing –a lot.  The proportion of those on the left is rising, on the right declining. In a HERI survey three years earlier, there were 3.51 professors on the left for each one on the right; in the latest survey, that ratio rose sharply to 5.27, not likely explainable solely by sample variations. Meanwhile, the middle-of-the-road professor is becoming less common (the proportion fell from 28.4 to 25.4 percent in three years).

Contrast this with the general public. In an article written earlier this year, Atlantic senior editor Richard Florida concluded Americans were becoming more conservative (opposite the trend amongst academics), with 40 percent labeling themselves conservative, and only 21 percent liberal–one one-third the proportion of the faculty. Also, the 36 percent of Americans who call themselves “moderate” contrast with a much smaller proportion of faculty who are “middle-of-the-road.”

Professors Work Less

University professors differ dramatically from other folks in another way — in work habits.  A majority (56.2 percent) in the UCLA survey report they teach eight hours a week or less — for about 30 weeks or so a year. Moreover, teaching loads are plummeting, with the most recent campus rage being the one course obligation (usually three hours a week). Three years ago, only seven percent taught one to four hours weekly — now 15.8 percent do. Roughly 22 percent of faculty teach little or not at all.

My faculty colleagues are quick to remind me that we spend hours in class preparation, grading papers and tests, etc. Yet the HERI survey reports over 63 percent of faculty spend 12 hours a week or less on these functions. How about advising students? Most spend little time (one to four hours weekly) on that.  It appears the typical (median) professor works maybe 19 hours a week on all student-related functions. Does that mean they are doing a lot of research? The survey says 62.6 percent report they spend eight hours a week or less on research activities, with the median probably being about 5.2 hours. Adding together all these student and research activities together, you get a bit over 24 hours a week for the typical professor. Add a few hours for minor administrative tasks and committee meetings, you might get to 30 hours. That also, coincidentally, is about what surveys show students work each week on academic matters.  So the typical faculty member truly works maybe 900 hours a year, about one-half the work load of the typical American.

In fairness to faculty, averages and medians mask important differences, and some work long hours and are highly devoted to students and/or their research — but others do even less than these numbers suggest. Moreover, universities are quasi-medieval in character, and just as there used to be lords, knights and serfs, so today there are deans (the old lords), tenured and tenured track faculty (the knights), and adjunct and part-time professors and teaching assistants (the serfs).  The academic serfs often are poorly — the HERI survey says fewer than half of them are even given a computer to use by their university.

Fondness for Big Government

The bigger question is: why are faculty so different? Regarding politics, while some devise esoteric theories how the inquisitive mind leads to non-mainstream political views, historically intellectuals have sometimes been largely oriented to what today would be called “conservative” views. I think today’s leftish-faculty orientation is easily explained: the academy, even at so-called private schools, is heavily dependent on public funds, and liberals tend to be more disposed to larger government. Liberals like big government, and big government means a better, more secure life for more faculty.

Since the gateway to the professoriate is through professors themselves, right-leaning prospective faculty are sometimes turned off by the usually correctly perceived need to suppress their views in order to get an appointment and tenure. Those who do not share the affinity for big government are often shunned, leading conservative/libertarian groups such as the Charles Koch Foundation to fund little campus enclaves  where right-minded professors can teach and do research without harassment. Attempts to form those enclaves are often bitterly fought by the faculty.  Promoting “diversity” in higher education means supporting relatively trivial variations in physical attributes of humans (such as skin color or gender differences), not the far more important differences of the mind manifested in verbal and written expression.

All of this is reinforced by the survey data on work habits. Faculty, more or less, do what they want to — the perfect job. Third party largess has given them the ability to live a life that few others can afford. The independence of universities limits external oversight, and as dollars are dropped on universities, the largely unaccountable campus community spends them on what it wants — falling teaching loads, lots of administrative support, etc. Government has been good to academe.

As the faculty and broader community increasingly diverge, however, there is a growing possibility that this divergence will have unintended consequences. People love higher education, but are increasing chafing at rising prices, mounting student loan burdens, and a growing perception of how goofy universities appear to the average citizen. This leads to tepid state support for public universities, and even occasional discussion about limiting tax-exempt status for gifts to rich public schools. Universities may be becoming too different for their own good.

Richard Vedder directs the Center on College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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