Gov. Scott Walker Thinks Professors Should Be Paid the Same as Baristas

February 7th 2015

Editor’s note: Significant controversy pervades the Wisconsin higher education world as its Governor Scott Walker (R) is currently vying to institute more control over the University of Wisconsin system. The New York Times reports that the proposed changes would allow the state’s Board of Regents — 16 of 18 whom were selected by the governor — to have more control over the university system’s curriculum and professor tenure. Walker, who became Governor in 2011 and made his name by sparring with public employees and cutting collective bargaining, is expected to launch a 2016 bid for the White House.

This is just part of Walker's proposed educational changes, which are included in his budget proposal. The governor wanted $300 million in cuts to the system and to implement a “quasi-governmental” authority. The "quasi-governmental" program was rejected by a legislative committee, and the budget cut was reduced to $250 million. However, the committee did approve the board's control of tenure and curriculum. The plan has yet to go to the state's Senate or House. The worry is these proposals would force the university system to act more like a for-profit business than a non-profit environment for learning.

Scott Walker is running for president. You can tell, because he's saying things that people want to hear from a presidential candidate. Like this week, when he announced a plan to drastically cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin by $300 million over the course of two years. National voters like to hear about cutting budgets and making tough decisions, and its good move for his campaign. It is not, however, a good move for the University, or Wisconsin. 

When asked how the university was going to balance the budget after such a drastic cut, Walker answered, "Maybe it's time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work." ...Does he think lazy professors are costing the university $150 million dollars a year?

Needless to say, students should be very concerned with the falling budgets of colleges and universities. As schools make professors less of a financial priority, students are being cheated out of the full educational experience.

How do college and university professors actually spend their time?

According to research done by the University of Wisconsin, UW professors work an average of 63 hours a week, of those, 14.2 hours are spent on classroom teaching. Which means that for every hour they spend in the classroom, they spend an average of four and a half hours doing supplemental work (grading papers, meeting with students, conducting and keeping up on research in their field, writing lesson plans, attending department meetings, writing grants to bring money into the university, etc.). Sounds like they're already working pretty hard.

If each professor were to add one three-hour class to their schedule — without changing their habits — they would actually be adding 13.5 hours to their week. Meaning, they would be working 76.5 hours a week on average. Asking someone to go from 63 to 76.5 hours per week without a pay increase is pretty ridiculous. And since most full-time, tenure-track faculty have contracts that already dictate the number of classes they are required to teach, they won't be asked to teach more. Instead, the university announced layoffs. UW will likely have to do what other schools in similar situations have done: stop hiring more expensive full-time faculty and rely more on part-time or adjunct professors who are paid less.

Currently 18 percent of the faculty at the University of Wisconsin—Madison are adjunct; the national average is 48.1 percent. One of the selling points of UW—Madison, up until this point, was the low number of adjuncts on faculty. If budget cuts cause the UW system to increasingly rely on adjunct professors they will lose this distinction, as the percentage of adjunct faculty has become a measure of education quality. This is generally because the way adjunct professors are compensated (more on that below), which makes it more difficult for them to interact with students productively.

When faculty isn't fairly compensated, students suffer.

Adjunct professors teach on short term contracts and are not considered full-time — even if they work full-time hours. Often, they do not get health insurance, nor are they in line for tenure or have any real commitment from the university itself. Many don't even find out they are teaching at all until the first week of classes. Typically, adjuncts are only paid for their hours spent in the classroom, which means a professor who works at the same rate as the UW faculty surveyed — and is only paid for classroom time — is compensated for one out of every five and a half hours they work. Adjuncts are typically paid between $1,000 and $5,000 per class. That may sound reasonable, but once you factor in all of the unpaid hours, they may actually be working for less than minimum wage.

The increasing reliance on adjuncts doesn't only hurt the professors, it also hurts students. Many students can't learn from classroom instruction alone: they need extra tutoring, mentoring, and conversations with their teacher outside of class to understand the material. When students email their professors for help, they expect an email back. It doesn't matter to them if their professor is paid for this correspondence or not.

Adjunct faculty work equally as hard for much less.

Most adjuncts are incredibly committed to their jobs though, and do outside work to support their students despite not being compensated for it. But, half work more than one job to make ends meet (and to pay off the student loans they incurred getting their PhDs), so they're probably not performing at the level they could be if they had adequate compensation. Adjunct professors also don't tend to stay at one school long, going where the work is rather than forming long-lasting educational relationships with students that so often make a pivotal difference in the college experience (and also lead to letters of recommendation).

I asked a current adjunct professor about her workload and what would happen were her school to ask her to teach an additional class as Walker is suggesting. She's chosen to remain anonymous — not because I am revealing her salary, but because her university is under no obligation to rehire her at the end of each year, and many schools frown upon teachers who reveal the conditions under which adjuncts work.

In a given week, I teach between 6 and 12 hours in the classroom (depending on whether I'm teaching online courses as part of my teaching load); spend 8-12 hours on lesson plans and preparation; 12-18 hours responding to student emails and meeting students in person, whether in office hours or special conferences, including providing feedback on drafts of their writing; 12-18 hours grading both small and large projects; and 3-6 hours dealing with the course management system my university uses (Blackboard), including explaining to students how to use it. If I'm teaching online courses (which I spend weeks preparing at the outset of a semester and which saves my university money and allows for increased enrollment) then I spend far more time on lesson plans and preparation, emails and virtual student conferences, and responding to small projects. ...the bottom line is that if you ask me to take on an extra class (which I've done in the past as a favor to my department), I end up having to reduce the amount of time spent on student communication and draft feedback, both of which are essential to student retention and success, to supplement the extra prep, grading, and in-classroom time, none of which is flexible.

Then I asked her how much money she makes. She'll make "just under" $37,000 this year. So I did the math: she works between 41 and 66 hours a week — between 1,968 and 3,168 hours a year (based on whether or not she works that extra class). If she takes the extra class, her rate of pay drops from $18.80 an hour to $11.67 an hour. To put this into context, a Starbucks barista starts out at $10 an hour.

Would you still do extra work, if your pay went down $7 an hour through no fault of your own? Because that's what many adjuncts are doing when they answer emails and help students draft their papers.

Students and professors deserve better.

Obviously this type of contract-based teaching is not ideal; adjuncts are supposed to be teaching "extra" classes, giving the administration the flexibility to see how many students enroll and how many classes are needed before committing to hiring another professor. However, budget cuts and misplaced financial priorities have many schools increasingly relying on adjuncts to do a greater percentage of the teaching, with many agreeing to adjunct positions in the hope it will eventually lead to a full-time job. But budget cuts like the one Scott Walker is proposing result in schools cutting full-time positions and making up the difference with more adjuncts. With each cut, the increased number of adjuncts becomes the "new normal," allowing budgets to get slashed even further.

Tuition at UW will likely increase to cover the budget shortfalls. The university has already announced there will be layoffs as a result. You can't lay some professors off without either increasing the workload of others or hiring cheaper adjunct teachers to replace them. This means students will be paying more money to go to an institution with a lower quality of teaching. And that's not just at UW, it's happening at schools across the country.

So since teachers are already working pretty hard, maybe its time for politicians to start learning about what actually happens at universities before they're put in charge of their budgets.

Share your opinion

Do you think states should increase funding for higher education institutions?

No 9%Yes 91%