How Important Is Undergraduate Teaching In Public R1 Universities? How Important Should It Be?

Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

I ended my previous post by arguing that (1) if teaching is at least as valuable as research, and (2) nontenure-track (NTT) faculty teach at least as well as tenure-track (TT) faculty, then the very large pay disparities between the two classes of faculty that characterize American universities today violate a basic principle of workplace fairness: equal pay for equal work. When conditions (1) and (2) are met, then, all an institution can do to defend current practice is plead poverty: we can’t afford to do what we ourselves must acknowledge to be “the right thing."

But what about places like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where I work? Is condition (1) met in what are sometimes called “R1” universities like mine? If not, maybe big pay disparities are warranted by the fact that, in such universities, research is a much higher institutional priority than undergraduate teaching. If teaching is a low enough priority, current pay inequalities could be justified by the fact that NTT faculty are not paid to do research and publishing – even though many of them do it – and, conversely, that most TT faculty pay is for their research and publishing, rather than their teaching.

We can estimate what we might call the “implicit” value of teaching at a place like UM-AA, by starting with the unrealistic assumption that TT and NTT faculty are paid the same to teach a course. At my university, the median full-time NTT faculty member, if they start (as most do) as a Lecturer I, will be paid an average of $38,289 to teach six courses. That is about $6,381 per course. The median Assistant Professor will be paid $80,361 to teach three courses. Three courses at $6,381 per course is about $19,144. This implies that the value of the median Assistant Professor’s non-teaching work (mainly research, though there is some service work here too) is $80,361-$19,144 = $61,217.

Survey work conducted for a recent study by my union – Teaching Quality: What the Principle of Equal Pay for Equal Work Means for Lecturer Pay at the University of Michigan (2012) – shows that TT faculty at UM-AA spend about half their time on teaching-related activities during the academic year. So an hour of TT faculty time spent on teaching is worth about 15 minutes spent on research (or service) according to our illustrative estimate of the implicit value of teaching at my institution.

Does that assessment of the relative value of undergraduate education and cutting edge research make sense for a public R1 university? I don’t think so, for two basic and inter-related reasons. First, it is radically out of whack with the way the university’s academic activities are funded -- a disjuncture that is only likely to grow. Second, it is not aligned with the core mission of the public university, which says that research and teaching that contribute to the understanding and solution of pressing public problems must be prioritized over other kinds of research and teaching.

On the financial side, tuition fees – the bulk of them from undergraduates – now account for almost 68 percent of the UM-AA’s General Fund, the fund that pays for almost all academic activities (i.e., compensation for faculty and staff, internal research funding, scholarships and subsidies to students, library expenses, heat, light, building maintenance, etc). Only three significant university activities are funded without much General Fund money: the UM Hospital, our sports teams, and research that is directly supported with outside grant money. This last category is quite large – projected to be about $850 million in FY 2013 -- but it is important to understand what that sum supports.

Part of it – overhead charges for the use of university infrastructure (aka “indirect cost recovery”) – goes to the General Fund, where it accounts for about 11 percent of the total revenue, as indicated in the 2008-09 estimates in the figure below (roughly $200 million out of $1.8 billion overall). The rest supports project-related expenses: extra salary for the principle investigator(s), the hiring of grad research assistants and other support staff, lab equipment and so on.

While this money enables us to support a much higher level of research activities than we could conduct without it, these grants mainly pay for research. They do not subsidize non-grant activities such as teaching, with the important exception of its contribution to financing the PhD training of graduate research assistants. On the contrary, teaching heavily subsidizes research by paying the lion’s share of TT faculty salaries, while demanding only half of their time during the academic year. This is so even in an R1s like mine, which get more outside research grant funding than all but a handful of universities.

The graph also shows that this was not always so. In the late 1960s, state transfers accounted almost two thirds of UM’s General Fund revenues. But those days are long gone, and the data make clear that the share of all revenues accounted for by tuition has been steadily rising since the late 1970s. It is not likely to shrink any time soon, even if worries about student indebtedness and accessibility to higher education restrict further growth. Given that reality, we ought to give more recognition to the contribution of undergraduate teaching to the fiscal viability of our university, and more respect to the NTT faculty, who specialize in undergraduate teaching, and account for about 30 percent of all undergraduate student credit hours on the Ann Arbor campus.

Turning to our mission as a public university, the fact that we are an R1 means that research plays a more important part in our mission than for non-R1 public universities. But we are still tasked with providing an “uncommon education for the common man," as UM’s longest-serving President, James Burrell Angell (1871-1909) once put it, at a price that students whose parents are not rich can afford to pay without going deeply into debt. As things stand now, only about 15 percent of our undergraduate student body comes from families at or below Michigan’s median family income of about $50,000. Many from the bottom half of the state’s income distribution no longer even apply – they see the sticker price and conclude UM-AA is far beyond their reach. And many of our students – including those from families between $50,000 and $100,000 -- like their counterparts around the nation, are going deep into debt to fund their time here. Student debt – most of it accumulated in the last decade, during which tuition fees have sky-rocketed – now surpasses the sum of all credit card debt in this country (see the stories by Andrew Martin in the New York Times, May 12 and 14, 2011).

Over the longer haul, unless we get much more substantial financial support from state governments, public R1s are going to have to scale back their research ambitions. This will likely happen in two ways, and signs of both are already visible: first, we will have to scale back the share of our faculty who, as members of the tenure-track research elite, are allowed to devote half of their time to doing research; and second, we will have to stop competing with richer private R1s to attract and retain the most highly prized members of this elite, across all domains of academic research.

On the first point, the latest AAUP data show that TT faculty in 2011 made up just 24 percent of the higher education faculty workforce nation-wide, down from 32 percent in 2008. UM-AA is a relatively rich university, so these trends are less pronounced: in 1995-6, Lecturers in Ann Arbor constituted just 17 percent of teaching faculty; by 2010-11, their share had increased to 24 percent, still much lower than the national average. Nonetheless, this was a 41 percent increase in the share of all UM-AA faculty who are nontenure-track.

On the second point, the gap in pay for tenured profs in public and private R1s has grown significantly in recent years: on average, private R1s can now afford to pay their faculty 25 percent or more than their public R1 competitors (Tamar, “Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds," New York Times, April 8, 2013). They can do that because they have much bigger endowments and/or are willing and able to charge their students much higher tuition fees, which is itself enabled by the fact that they do not have the same mandate to provide affordable education to working and middle class students. Yes, the top private R1s claim that anyone they admit will be provided with sufficient financial aid to attend their schools. But they do not admit nearly enough such students to fulfill the equality of higher educational opportunity mandates to which public universities must adhere.

The changes at the UM-AA, like other top-tier public R1s, are less dramatic than they have been for lower-tier publics, but we are nonetheless moving in the same direction. And we are already at the point where we can predict with some confidence that, for all but a limited number of research domains, the public R1s are going to have to cede research pre-eminence to the private R1s. The public R1s’ real choice is not whether they can halt this trend, but whether they respond to it by redefining their mission and the balance among their teaching and research priorities, or by clinging to their traditional ambition to match the private R1s in competition for research eminence across the board.

So far, we have pursued the latter path. The longer we do that, the greater the inequalities between our TT and NTT faculty we will have to create, and the greater the financial burden we will have to place on our students and their families, in order to fund this competition.

We in the public R1s need to re-think the relationship between our core mission and our priorities. We need to define more precisely the kinds of research and teaching that public universities ought to prioritize, giving primacy to the development and dissemination of knowledge that helps us to better understand and respond to our most pressing social needs. What are these?

First, we must identify and promote ways of reversing the profound inequalities of income and wealth that are undermining the quality of our democracy, delegitimizing our system of government and betraying the promise of equality of opportunity. Second, we must find ways of reducing inequalities that are compatible with making our economy ecologically sustainable. Finally, but most important of all, we must nurture our students’ commitment to democratic principles and the public good. It is they who will (or will not) turn the solutions that we discern through our research, and share through our teaching, into realities. If they emerge from our universities as careerists pursuing their self-advancement above all else, our research and teaching alike will not contribute nearly as much as they could to the public good.

We need to pay attention not just to research agendas and the content of course syllabi but also to our “hidden curriculum." If we want our students to commit themselves to build a more just and ecologically sustainable world, we must model what that looks like in the community that we ourselves constitute and lead. Our failure to acknowledge and address the injustices associated with the creation of a major new subordinate class of nontenure-track faculty is a tacit but powerful lesson for our students. By asserting, as UM’s current Administration does, that Lecturers ought to be paid “whatever the market will bear," without reference to the principle of equal pay for equal work, we are teaching our students that the highly unequal way in which we organize the UM’s labor market is perfectly appropriate, not only here but in the wider world. It is as if we built vast, energy-guzzling buildings while preaching conservation in courses and public statements.

To conclude, we must reconsider the priorities of the public R1 university in light of the profound historical shifts in our funding sources, and in our political, economic and ecological contexts. Among the most important changes needed is the recognizing the centrality of undergraduate teaching, and the faculty who do it, to the mission of public R1s. We must give our teaching faculty the resources they need to do a very challenging job, and the respect they deserve for doing it with excellence. From this vantage point, it makes good sense to treat an hour of faculty time devoted to teaching as equal to an hour of time devoted to research and writing. If we do that, the principle of equal pay for equal work implies that we must substantially reduce the pay inequalities between TT and NTT faculty.

- Ian Robinson