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Cal State system: It's time to get back to teaching

Teaching at California colleges and universities is mostly farmed out to part-timers, while tenured professors' time is occupied by research and publishing. With even more budget cuts looming, it's time to stop this nonsense.

June 15, 2011|By Naomi Schaefer Riley

California State University, facing the possible loss of $1 billion in state funding, could close 10 campuses, turn away 85,000 students or eliminate financial aid for 100,000. In times like these, colleges and universities must consider their core missions and prioritize. Cal State is a teaching university, as opposed to the University of California schools, which are classified as research universities. But you'd never know that training students to take their place in the world was the point of the Cal State system.

The incentives for American professors are the same at every institution. Promotion and tenure decisions are made based on a record of publication, not teaching. A 2005 article by James Fairweather in the Journal of Higher Education collected the data: College professors actually get paid less the more time they spend in a classroom. This is true not only at large research universities but also at teaching universities, and even at small liberal arts colleges.

Professors will offer any number of explanations for this — like the claim that it is easier to measure the quality of research and scholarly writing than the quality of teaching — but few dispute the basic claim that teaching is not valued by the institutions. It's a running joke on many campuses that professors who get teaching awards never get tenure.

On large state university campuses, it is "adjunct faculty" who do the bulk of the teaching. Consider one political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. In the fall of 2009 she received $567 per month for leading a class of 60 students. She had a teaching assistant for five hours a week, but for three of those hours, the TA was in class.

The adjunct was responsible for all the lectures and grading of papers and exams. In other semesters she had been paid up to $1,200 a month for teaching two courses or one "super-section" of 250 students. She hadn't earned more than $15,000 a year yet. Her daughter, she told me, "a server in a nice restaurant," earns more than that. A starting tenure-track professor in the department could count on at least three times that much, for handling smaller classes of more advanced students.

In 1997, the documentarian Barbara Wolf chronicled the lives of adjuncts in a short film called "Degrees of Shame: Part-Time Faculty: Migrant Workers of the Information Economy." The most revealing interview wasn't one of the many with tired-looking part-time faculty, it was with the chair of an economics and business department at an unnamed public university in California who described why his department employs 35 to 40 adjunct professors at a time. Sometimes the tenured faculty, he says, "are not available to us."

It brings to mind a quip by Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkeley: "The nice thing about part-time faculty is that they're around part of the time." Which is to say, the tenured faculty are often missing in action altogether.

But even when faculty are genuinely interested in teaching at the front of the classroom, the situation for students is pretty bleak. In some cases, he or she is with more than 200 students in a class.

Murray Sperber, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, has noted that professors in this situation generally offer few comments on students' papers because anything more extensive would be too time-consuming. But jotting down "good job" or "needs work" at the end of one or two five-page papers (because you'd have to be crazy to assign 10 pages to that many students; many classes only get multiple-choice exams) isn't going to improve students' ability to make an argument or organize their thoughts.

Most freshmen on Cal State campuses need personalized attention if they are going to learn the reading and writing skills they need to get good jobs. Despite a 3.29 grade point average in high school, in 2009 nearly half needed remedial English. Almost 40% were placed in remedial math. About 20% of Cal State Fullerton's full-time freshmen drop out at the end of their first year.

Most adjuncts can't spend enough time with students to bring them up to speed. Adjuncts often don't have an office on campus in which to meet with students. And to make even a meager living, they have to run to another assignment on another campus as soon as class is over. Little wonder then that some studies suggest that a higher percentage of adjuncts teaching at a school leads to a lower graduation rate for students. The tenured faculty, meanwhile, are busy doing research or teaching advanced classes for the students who have already made it past their introductory courses.

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