The 'New Leisure Class'?

March 30, 1994

The General Assembly has come up with a sure-fire way of getting the attention of the University of Maryland. If the university is slow in responding to legislative requests for information, or if it seems to be stonewalling, the lawmakers simply withhold a portion of its budget. Budget panels want to put on hold $21 million of UM's 1994-95 budget until it develops a policy on faculty workload.

There is good reason why faculty productivity has become a major issue in statehouses across the land. Budgets are perpetually tight. Even in the long run, there is no chance that higher education will return to the days of annual sky's-the-limit increases. Constituents of Maryland legislators are complaining about tuition increases just to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, the university until recently had only a vague idea of the actual productivity of its faculty, and it still has no systemwide policy on workload.

It is a complicated issue, in part because campus missions vary so widely, and education isn't simply a matter of how many hours a week a student spends in class. A research professor in physics at the University of Maryland College Park ought to spend fewer hours teaching than one at, say, Catonsville Community College. Legislators like Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, who criticized the university harshly at a hearing last Thursday, should ask themselves how much time they spend actually making laws. Yet there's no question some professors abuse their privileges egregiously, reflecting poorly on those who work conscientiously. (A University of Maryland prof named his sailboat "Protected Day," after the one day of the week on which he never works.) The national media have had a field day with the abusers, too, dubbing college teachers "the new leisure class."

The question is not whether the university can or should crack down on the abusers. It can and it should. The question is a larger one: Professors now teach an average of 9.8 to 10.5 hours a week. They earn between $40,000 and $70,000 for a nine-month year. Given the financial pressures on higher education, can they work harder without harming the quality of the services they render for the taxpayers and tuition payers of Maryland?

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