David Levy’s Faulty Attack on Professors

The following is a guest post by Michael DeCesare, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Merrimack College.

Yet again, the professoriate finds itself under attack from a misguided and misinformed administrator.

David Levy, in a March 23 op-ed piece in the Washington Post, asked the very tired question of whether college professors work hard enough. At the heart of Levy’s argument is his complaint about the existence of “outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules.” His question, really, is: “Do college professors teach enough?”

Predictably, his answer is “no.” It is becoming nearly impossible for professors to teach enough to satisfy the demands of career administrators like Levy. Unless we’re in the classroom for thirty-five or forty hours per week—the equivalent of a full-time job in the corporate world—the likes of Levy will never be happy.

Levy asserts that during the first half of the twentieth century, professors’ comparatively low salaries were purposely counterbalanced by “the relaxed atmospheres of academic communities” in which they worked—“retreats from the pressures of the real world” is how he condescendingly describes colleges and universities prior to the 1970s. Such perks as “tenure, light teaching loads, long vacations and sabbaticals” were intentionally put into place to make up, as it were, for professors’ low pay.

This is an unfortunate, and entirely erroneous, interpretation of the history of American higher education. Tenure is, of course, the means to a particular end; namely, academic freedom. Without tenure, one cannot tread inconvenient and uncomfortable paths in one’s teaching or scholarship. A sabbatical also serves as a means to a particular end; namely, the advancement of knowledge. As for light teaching loads, Levy deflates his own argument by using a community college as his sole example. After all, it’s common knowledge by now that community college professors have the heaviest teaching loads in all of academe. And long vacations? As anyone who is or has been a professor can attest, “vacations” don’t exist. Time away from campus certainly exists, but a “vacation”? If one defines a “vacation” as a period of uninterrupted leisure, then I don’t know of a single professor who has enjoyed a “vacation” in the last century.

Levy blames the advent of collective bargaining for professors’ exalted status. Faculty salaries suddenly skyrocketed and were brought “roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees” (an embarrassingly imprecise claim that any student in an undergraduate research methods course could easily refute). At the same time that faculty salaries soared, Levy claims, our “accommodations” remained unchanged: we continued to teach only nine to fifteen hours per week and, apparently, lounged by our private pools the rest of the time.

It’s difficult to tell exactly who Levy is going after in his piece; is it professors generally, professors at teaching-oriented institutions, or professors at Montgomery College (MD) in particular? And then one reads: “An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.” This bit of corporate-speak indicates that Levy is going after the entire professoriate.

By doing so, any reasonable person must conclude that he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

One thought on “David Levy’s Faulty Attack on Professors

  1. Michael DeCesare’s response to David Levy uncovers both the fallacies and the inherent disingenuousness of Levy’s opinion piece. I would only add that in no other profession is a forced two-month layoff for which employees are neither paid nor eligible for unemployment benefits, and during which they are expected to hone their skills, called a vacation. If it weren’t so offensive, it would be hilarious.

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