Summer Course Kerfuffle with Some Broader Implications

 

POSTED BY MARTIN KICH

The following News Brief has been distributed by Education Dive:

A professor at Youngstown State University has decided against teaching an optional summer class for students because the institution decided to cut his pay for the class by 43% after fewer students enrolled than the required 15, according to WKBN First News.

In a letter to students explaining his decision, Dr. Chet Cooper, a microbiology professor, said he felt it would be wrong to accept the pay cut because it is as difficult and time-consuming to teach eight students as 15 and agreeing to the terms would be both an insult to his expertise and a tacit acknowledgement that he is overpaid during the school year.

None of the students need the course to graduate, Cooper said. Though he received one response from a father who was critical of the decision, Cooper said that several students and fellow faculty members had responded in support of his letter.

The News Brief is followed by this Dive Insight:

Some believe that since the most significant budgetary item within departments tends to be full-time faculty, the way to increase cost efficiencies without layoffs is to get as many students in front of those faculty members as possible. At Carroll Community College, administrators found $1.2 million in savings available if the institution could rely more on its full-time faculty as opposed to adjunct or part-time professors.

However, something must be said of the cost savings associated with retaining faculty. Most faculty members value climate over just about any other factor, and asking faculty members to take a pay cut because a course didn’t reach capacity will certainly not bode well for morale. In fact, in the Carroll Community College example, faculty members were actually given a nominal pay increase as administrators were asking them to work harder to fill their sections. If more professors are offered the type of agreement Dr. Cooper was and choose to follow his approach instead of teaching the class, it could have a cumulative and negative effect on the schools—canceled sections mean the revenue isn’t available at all.

I appreciate the assertion by the author, Pat Donachie, that hiring a full complement of full-time faculty is preferably to and can be more cost-effective than continuing to exploit large numbers of part-time faculty. I also certainly agree that nickel and diming faculty on their compensation is the surest way to make them less amenable to embracing initiatives that benefit the institution and the students it is supposed to serve.

That said, the Dive Insight seems to me to be very off the mark in several respects.

First, it introduces the issue of whether a faculty member is full-time as if it is at the crux of the discussion about whether summer courses are offered or not. All faculty members can decide whether or not to accept a summer course assignment, depending on the compensation offered. Part-time faculty may be much more financially desperate than full-time faculty—though let’s not overstate what many full-time faculty do earn—and because in most cases, part-time faculty depend almost entirely on the goodwill of administrators to be rehired, they may be more willing to accept reduced compensation for teaching a particular course. But, having said all of that, whether a faculty member is teaching or not during the summer is almost always outside of what he or she is getting paid to do as a full-time faculty member. To even imply that summer teaching is part of a full-time faculty member’s contractual responsibilities is simply a major misrepresentation.

Second, the Dive insight ignores the reality that most summer courses that are cancelled because they are under-enrolled are cancelled by administrators without any input from faculty. Even when faculty are unionized and summer teaching is addressed in their contracts, the decisions on whether under-enrolled courses are offered typically remain an administrative prerogative. And what also goes unaddressed in the Dive insight is why, when the full-time faculty member declined to teach the course, the administration simply did not find another full-time faculty member or a part-time faculty member to teach it or, if it could not find a qualified alternative, why it did not reconsider the compensation that it offered the originally assigned faculty member.

Lastly, the minimum enrollments for summer courses are often extremely arbitrary. Let me provide an example from my own university. As you may know from my previous blog posts on these matters, Wright State is trying to address a major, largely self-created budget mess. The many counter-intuitive ways in which this has been attempted are illustrated by what happened with this summer’s courses. Our contract states that if a course has 15 students enrolled in it, it must be offered. Anything below an enrollment of 15 allows the administration to decide whether or not the course will run, and since our contract does not allow for pro-rated compensation, the administration has typically looked at where a particularly course becomes revenue-neutral—which can range from a handful of students in a graduate seminar to eight or nine students in a general-education course. This year, however, the administration decided that it would not run any courses that have had fewer than 15 students enrolled in them. For the most part, the deans did not object to this decision because each summer instructional budget has been based on the revenue generated the previous summer, and so the decision to limit the number of courses being taught this year has made it easier for the deans to reach budget targets for the coming fiscal year. But the university as a whole has undeniably lost significant revenue, both directly and indirectly: directly because summer enrollment is down significantly and indirectly because a significant number of students who could not get certain courses at our university have almost certainly gone to other regional institutions—at least for the summer but perhaps beyond. Indeed, unless the budgeting practice for the summer changes, the deans will have to pillage other monies to increase enrollments next summer because that budget will be based on this summer’s reduced enrollment. So, very clearly, many of these decisions are not only well beyond any faculty control but they demonstrate how a bad administrative decision can have extended, if not self-perpetuating ramifications for faculty and, most importantly, for students who are trying to expedite the completion of their degrees.

None of these complexities would be apparent to anyone reading this item or the news item on which it has been based. Instead, a “general reader” will have certain negative stereotypes reinforced—most notably that full-time and especially tenured faculty are unduly privileged and both over-paid and under-worked. In an era in which administrative salaries are becoming many multiples higher than faculty salaries, not matching but certainly paralleling the exponential increases in the salaries of corporate executives in comparison to those of average workers, we are losing the talking point—and the very valid point–that though our salaries are higher than the average workers’, we are also being affected by income inequality and all of its institutional ramifications, not just including but starting with the quality of the education that our students are receiving and the time that they take and the expense that they incur in completing their degrees.

 

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