The dynamite issue in Maryland public colleges and universities this year is one that no one on the inside wants to talk about.
It is faculty workload. How much work should professors do in return for the taxpayer-paid salaries they receive.
The issue was raised rather quietly in Annapolis this winter as lawmakers wrestled with the state budget. Although no legislator asked for a guarantee that x-appropriation needed to be matched by x-hours of work by professors, the General Assembly did request in its budget language that state higher education officials assess the productivity of professors and produce "appropriate" guidelines for their work load.
There are no state-wide guidelines on faculty workload. Each campus has its own regulations, and some are enforced more rigorously than others. In general, community college teachers ought to teach five three-hour classes a week, while state college and university professors, who, in theory, have more research responsibilities, should teach four or three three-hour courses. This is in addition to preparing for class, advising students and engaging in professional and "self-development" activities such as attending conferences and preparing papers.
State Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery says her office is at work preparing the guidelines.
But it is a sensitive matter. And the Chronicle of Higher Education, the national newspaper of higher education, reported a front-page story April 15 that it isn't confined to Maryland. Under pressure from state legislatures across the nation, higher education is under a great deal of pressure to monitor -- and increase -- the time professors spend in the classroom.
There's widespread suspicion, little of it well-founded, that the workload of professors has decreased in recent years. Such conservative and "neo-conservative" observers as Charles J. Sykes, author of "ProfScam," argue that the real workload of professors (that is, the time spend actually teaching) has declined from nine to six hours a week and that many profs are teaching one class -- or none at all.
Professors desperately want to be freed of teaching undergraduates and graduate students (in that order), Mr. Sykes and others charge, and will do anything to palm their teaching duties off to teaching assistants and part-time faculty. Meanwhile, each segment in higher ed's pecking order wants to achieve the lower "class load" of the segment above it.
Meanwhile, the University of Maryland System's Faculty Council put out a report in January that went to the other extreme. It painted faculty members as veritable saints who work 53 hours a week (citing a 1988 survey). A 13.75-hour "day in the life" of a "typical" Maryland chemistry professor cited by the council begins with 9 a.m. phone calls and concludes with the reading of Civil War history before retiring.
The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere between. Higher education is a hugely complex enterprise. Some people in it aren't required to do much more than teach. Others aren't required to do much more than research. Should the University of Maryland professor in physics who brings in $30 million a year in research funds feel guilty if he or she teaches no courses? Indeed, the guidelines Dr. Aery is developing will have to be tied to the missions assigned to each campus, and the missions vary widely.
Dr. Aery and Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore, chair of the Senate budget subcommittee that handles education, both say colleges and universities are like other enterprises: They have their bad apples and their good, their deadbeats and their faithful toilers.
"A lot of people work extremely long hours," says Dr. Aery. "Then there's the professor who chooses to play tennis on a weekday afternoon."
"In a way, the whole issue is a red herring," says Senator Hoffman. "The issue is much more complicated than how many hours you teach. I think the more people know about how colleges and universities work, the less they'll get excited about faculty workload. I hate to see people get hung up on how many hours a professor has to teach."
The issue isn't going away. It will be back next year and the year after, particularly if the state budget crisis doesn't go away. And higher education is at least partly at fault. It has always surrounded itself with a rather mystical aura. It has never really wanted to interpret itself to the public.
"We've never really told people what faculty do," says Dr. Aery. "Now we have to do just that."