In an opinion essay published recently in The Washington Post , former university chancellor David C. Levy placed much of the blame for rising college costs on college faculty and, in particular, on the professors who teach at public universities like the College of Charleston. According to Levy, those professors need to work harder to earn their relatively high salaries.
Because Levy’s essay was provocative, I can understand why it was published, but his piece was ill-informed and misleading. Levy lacks executive experience in the public university sector, and that may explain the errors in his analysis.
After 35 years as a public university professor, dean, or president, I cannot allow Levy’s mistakes to go uncorrected.
Levy begins by asserting that professors only spend part of each week teaching, with many hours left over after all teaching duties are met. He thinks this situation is acceptable at research universities, like Clemson or the University of South Carolina-Columbia, where full-time faculty perform research duties that are critical to the nation’s economy. But Levy complains that faculty at public teaching universities — College of Charleston, Winthrop, and The Citadel, for example — are getting paid top dollar for too little work.
Levy asserts that faculty at teaching universities have no research responsibilities and should have their teaching workload increased, without any change in their salaries. By realigning faculty workloads at teaching universities and at community colleges like Trident Technical College, Levy thinks the states could save large sums of money and lower college costs.
What’s wrong with Levy’s essay?
First, he makes significant factual errors, as when he asserts that “senior faculty at most state universities” earn generous annual salaries of “$80,000 to $150,000.”
In fact, the most recent survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors shows that average annual salaries for associate professors at bachelor’s- and master’s-level public universities don’t reach $80,000, and full professors are barely over $80,000. At community colleges, full professors have average salaries well below $80,000.
Levy’s argument relies on a single example: A Maryland community college with unusually high salaries. But that community college is the exception, rather than the rule.
At the College of Charleston, unfortunately, our average salaries for senior faculty are not and have never been competitive with our peer institutions. As a result, our salaries fall well short of the mark described by Levy.
For example, only 9.8 percent of the full-time faculty in our largest academic school, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, earn over $80,000 a year, and those faculty generally have outstanding teaching and research records and two or more decades of experience.
Levy’s assertion that senior faculty are making upper-middle-class salaries simply isn’t true for most public teaching universities and community colleges. The highest-paid faculty in the public sector work at research universities like Clemson, but, again, Levy isn’t worried about salaries or workload at those institutions.
The bottom line is that faculty are highly skilled knowledge workers, who should be paid according to their value on the open market.
A second problem with Levy’s analysis is that he fails to recognize the significant quantities of research produced at teaching universities.
At the College of Charleston, our funded research has doubled recently to over $11 million last year. While research universities always will do most of South Carolina’s research, the City of Charleston would be a worse place without the research expertise of our faculty, which provides critical support for local industries, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.
Further, our students benefit because our full-time faculty conduct research and bring cutting-edge knowledge into the classroom. At the College of Charleston, research makes our faculty better teachers.
The third problem with Levy’s essay is that, despite his experience in higher education, he mischaracterizes the work done by college faculty. Yes, a professor might spend nine hours a week in the classroom, but that same professor might spend 20 or hours a week in preparing for those classes, grading student work, and meeting with students. Some of those students might also be completing independent research projects to fulfill an honors or graduate degree requirement, and directing these individual projects is very time consuming for faculty mentors.
In addition to teaching duties, professors also are responsible for much of the administrative work of their departments, especially at teaching universities, which have fewer staff and administrative employees than the better funded research institutions. Some of this work is required because of burdensome federal regulation.
And what about those long summer vacations, for which professors aren’t paid? They often are not vacations at all, as most professors spend much of their summers preparing for fall classes or conducting research they must complete to earn raises and get promotions.
Faculty at teaching universities, including the College of Charleston, work very long hours, often far beyond the 50 hours of week Levy attributes to upper-middle-class executives in the private sector.
Of course, Levy is right about one important point: College tuition needs to remain affordable. Public universities owe it to the taxpayers to make wise use of state funding and tuition dollars.
At the College of Charleston, I believe we are efficient and becoming more so. When we measure cost per student completing a degree, a database published by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows the College of Charleston is the most efficient and lowest-cost public university in South Carolina.
Given the facts described above, blaming our hard-working faculty for tuition growth is inaccurate and unfair. College professors, most of whom have seen their real wages decline over the past several years, are not the cause of rising college costs.
George Benson is president of the College of Charleston.