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Republicans are pushing professors to spend more time teaching, less time researching

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) announced last month “a system to reward professors who spend more time teaching.” The budget proposal has received some pushback from those in academic circles. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has joined a nationwide push among some conservatives to force public university professors to spend more time in the classroom and less time researching.

Provisions in Walker’s state budget proposal would reward faculty who spend more time in front of students and make state aid to universities contingent on the number of hours faculty members spend on instruction, The Associated Press reported.

During his 2017 budget address last month, Walker announced “a system to reward professors who spend more time teaching.” According to the governor’s Higher Education Fact Sheet, the budget will require the creation of a “faculty workload policy” to track how professors spend their time, mandate administrators to report faculty course loads “to increase transparency,” and offer institutional performance funding to institutions “whose professors spend more time teaching.”

“This will reverse a nationwide trend where professor time in the undergraduate classroom is down while tuition has gone up — about four times the rate of inflation since 1978,” Walker said in February.

PolitiFact report from 2016, when Walker made a similar claim about tuition costs, determined the governor’s claim to be true. In 1978, tuition and fees at all institutions averaged $1,073. By 2014, that cost increased more than 1,000 percent — topping $11,000. And based on data compiled by the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation, the index increased around 246 percent from 1978 to 2014.

While Walker offered no data to indicate classroom time is down, he has frozen the tuition rate for the University of Wisconsin system for the past four years in an effort to meet the financial challenges students face.

But is it possible this latest push to regulate classroom vs. research time — an effort to give students what they’re paying for — is an answer beyond the question? Some professors think so.

In an interview with TheBlaze, Dr. William Brown, chairman of the department of strategic communication and journalism at Regent University, a private Christian college in Virginia Beach, Virginia, suggested Walker’s proposal is a one-size-fits-all attempt to solve a nuanced problem.

“It’s not an either/or kind of thing. It’s kind of like a bad dichotomy — you’re either doing research and writing and you’re good at that, or you’re teaching,” he said. “I think the two are integrated.”

Brown, who has been at Regent in various capacities for 25 years, said he’s “a better teacher” when he’s splitting his time between instruction and research “because that means I’m learning new stuff, new knowledge, and I know what’s going on now — not 10 years ago.”

While the Regent professor made clear there is room for improvement, specifically among those in state-funded institutions that have earned tenure and maintain light teaching loads, he argued the issue has many more details than can be appropriately addressed with a statewide mandate that seems unfavorable toward research faculty.

According to data compiled by the UW system, faculty spent an average of six hours per week in the classroom in 2015. And the average academic teaching load breaks down into four separate, generalized subsections.

There are faculty members who teach four courses per semester and are, therefore, not expected to do any research. Other faculty teach three each semester, which is more commonly seen in smaller, private institutions. At research universities such as UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, professors will often teach only two courses per semester because they are expected to exhibit high levels of research.

Lastly, there are those who teach fewer than two courses per semester and are expected to spend nearly all of their time researching and writing. The research conducted by professors often results in grants being awarded to the university. For example, some faculty members receive grants that “buy” them out of two courses, meaning the grant pays 25 percent of their total salary, or the equivalent of two classes.

Brown told TheBlaze that there needs to be accountability measures in place to ensure research professors are carrying their weight for the institution because it’s “not as easily quantifiable.”

“One of the problems for administrators is it’s easy for them to quantify the teaching side, because you can count up — like our institution does — the amount of credit hours that a professor teaches, and you can convert that easily into dollars,” he said.

It’s important, Brown noted, to determine whether or not research professors are bringing money into the institution, either through grants or by bringing greater credibility and notoriety to the university by earning awards and accolades for their research, which he said “will bring economic benefit” to the institution.

Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the UW system, backed Brown’s comments in a statement  to the AP. She said researchers can bring millions of dollars not only to the university, but also to the state, noting that UW faculty, students, and staff bring in more than 150 patents on new products and discoveries every year.

“My whole reputation is research,” said Laura Albert McLay, a UW-Madison associate engineering professor focused on improving efficiency. “The university wouldn't run if we spent all our time teaching.”

Noteworthy research also brings graduate students to a university. Some students come to an institution because of the faculty there, not because of the programs being offered, according to Brown.

“They want to know who they are going to be working with,” he said. “And so in that case, they look at, ‘Who are these faculty? Are they active scholars? What are they researching, and publishing, and writing?’ How do you put a dollar figure on that?”

There have been similar proposals to reform faculty practices elsewhere, though they haven’t seen much success.

North Carolina state Sen. Tom McGinnis, a Republican, introduced a bill in 2015 that would have required professors to teach at least eight courses per semester, but the bill failed. According to The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faculty members across the UNC system teach an average of 3.7 courses per semester, while tenured faculty teach an average of 2.5.

And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican, has included a provision in his last two state budgets requiring college boards to ensure faculty devote “a proper and judicious” portion of their week to “actual instruction of students.” He also included a provision in other budgets requiring full-time research professors to teach at least one more course per year. None of his proposals became law.

At the end of the day, according to Brown, who has been researching for most of his career, the answer is not in top-down mandates, but in conversations between faculty, administrators, and legislatures about how to appropriately increase accountability so taxpayer dollars aren’t spent unwisely.

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