More Work Than Pay

If your college expects you to take on 12 months of work for 9 months of pay, what's a principled response? C.K. Gunsalus reviews the choices.

August 25, 2010

Dear Survival Guide:

I have been at my institution for a number of years, having started as an assistant professor. Our faculty salaries lag far behind both regional and national averages. We have a 2-2 teaching load and are strongly encouraged to teach summer courses. We are expected to provide service, and conduct research and present and publish in national venues (as any graduate faculty member should). Our dissertation chair advising loads are brutal, disproportionately far above faculty in our discipline across the country. Our programs have faculty members designated as "coordinators." These are significant administrative appointments with responsibilities that require faculty to work full time 12 months each year; no additional remuneration or course releases are provided for these appointments. The insinuation is that if we want our program to thrive, we'll work 12 months on 9-month contracts. The concept is that these coordinator responsibilities are rotated among tenured faculty in academic programs, and my faculty colleagues and chair have requested several times that I "take my turn" and serve as coordinator. I have always declined because I am unwilling to work 12 months but only get paid for 9 months. My refusals have angered my faculty colleagues to the point that palpable tension is present in our meetings, and my efforts to contribute to program leadership encounter consistent opposition that I attribute to this situation. I believe that I'm taking a stand against the low pay and crushing workloads at my institution by refusing to be taken advantage of in this way. Am I wrong for declining to serve as coordinator without additional remuneration? I'm starting to question my sanity in this situation.

--Defending My Line in the Sand

Dear Defending:

Your questions place you at dead center of a major identity crisis we are facing across higher education: Who are the faculty and what is their role? We’re not even certain anymore what the missions of our institutions are. Against that backdrop, you are trying to find the line between pulling your weight as a member of the community and being exploited. These are important questions, and they’re critical for your department, college and university, not to mention the quality of your daily life.

Before we hone in on your particular situation, let’s remind ourselves of the bigger picture. It’s not been all that long since it became fashionable for university and college leaders to include among their goals making us more business-like. At the same time, many presidents and boards decided that economic development was a core element of "our" missions, in addition to teaching, research and service. While all that was going on, there were several boom-and-bust cycles for research funding and colleges and universities across the country simultaneously set out to move up tiers, usually aiming to become research institutions. This meant more people vying for a share of the research funding and an increased emphasis at many institutions on producing publications. Sometime in there, the ranks of part-time, nontenured faculty started an enormous expansion. All of this was in full swing when the national economy took a nose dive and many state budgets were hit hard. It’s not a pretty picture.

Back in the olden days, like when I started my first job 30-plus years ago, it was taken for granted that service -- even extensive service -- was part and parcel of the job, a part of shared governance. While we weren’t necessarily paid more for specific duties, performing them well clearly mattered in terms of the respect and raises we received. Over time, tenured faculty have become ever more protective of their time, and it became at first less unusual, and then even common, for faculty to start negotiating for release time or extra pay to take on onerous service obligations. When faculty members, for example, first started negotiating for course release time when asked to chair IRBs or major search committees, it set off shock waves. Today, it’s unremarkable, and it is completely consistent with the messages from top leaders that we need to become more business-like in our practices. What could be more business-like than focusing on where the greatest rewards are, and asking for compensation for the still-needed burdensome chores?

All of that provides reinforcement for your sense that it is unreasonable for you to take on significant, time-consuming extra duties without being compensated for them. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin: These duties were there when you took your job, and your colleagues are taking turns performing needed work to make your programs run. One way to interpret your stance is that you are acting as a free-rider in the system. From this perspective, while you are approaching these things alone as a personal matter of principle, the people who are paying for your choices are your colleagues and your program.

I'm sympathetic to your concept that you shouldn’t have to work 12 months on 9 months' pay. What troubles me about your stance, at least in what you shared with me, is that you’re resisting alone when it affects everyone, and you don’t mention trying to form a united front to analyze the situation and develop alternatives. If you were seen to be working with your colleagues -- as concerned about the burden on them as on yourself -- then I suspect this situation would feel different to all concerned. As it is, your stand is coming out of the hide of others. No wonder there’s tension in your environment.

If you want to contribute to your program leadership, this is an issue that’s ripe for you to approach in a constructive, problem-solving way. Broaden your concern beyond your own exploitation to the larger issue of the crushing workloads faced by your colleagues. In this economic environment, it might not be possible to change those much, but maybe the coordinator job could be redesigned in ways that would lighten the load. If you take a turn and, at the same time, express to your colleagues that one of your goals is to do a workload analysis and seek efficiencies and ways to improve things for everyone, that might lessen the tension around you. Beyond that, is this an institution-wide problem? Are all the tenured faculty feeling crushed by the workload? Is there any room to start studying that, and improving the situation? You might not be able to add bodies to lessen the load, but are there economies of scale to be achieved if duties were shifted around? Are there tasks that are being done just because That’s The Way It’s Always Been Done that maybe, now, it’s time to eliminate?

Leaders look beyond themselves. Show your leadership by doing just that.

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