Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Re-Opens the Question:  What do college faculty do?

Dear Commons Community,

For decades, American higher education has faced the question of what are college faculty paid to do:  teach, conduct research, and/or provide service to their society/communities.  Faculty at most non-profit four-year colleges would focus on some combination of the three and especially the first two.  Research I universities would give the edge to research while liberal arts colleges and  community colleges would give it to teaching.     Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin sparked interest in the question when he remarked last week, during a discussion of his proposal to cut state appropriations for the University of Wisconsin system by $300-million over two years, that the universities “might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class a semester.”  As reported in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel and The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The governor’s comment… bares “one of the most enduring sources of friction” in American higher education: What is the primary function of the faculty? On one side of the question are critics of universities who see it as working with students in the classroom. On the other are defenders of advancing knowledge through research, and sharing it in ways that go beyond the classroom.

The question is part of a larger public debate that goes back to at least 1967, when another Republican governor, Ronald Reagan of California, asserted that taxpayers should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (See an article in The Chronicle, “The Day the Purpose of College Changed.”)

On campuses in Wisconsin this week, Governor Walker’s comment was met with incredulity. “Most faculty members I know are working 60, 70 hours a week,” Jo Ellen Fair, a journalism professor and chair of the faculty’s University Committee on the Madison campus, told the Journal Sentinel. “I’m not sure what else they can do.”

The university system’s president, Raymond W. Cross, has expressed similar dismay. Asked during a radio interview about the governor’s remarks, Mr. Cross paused before giving a measured response. “I’m frustrated over that,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that people don’t understand what faculty really do.”

During this era of fiscal constraint for much of higher education, it is surprising that more policymakers have not raised the same issue.  We know that there is no standard for teaching load across American higher education.  Some community college faculty have teaching loads of 30 contact hours per year; senior professors at four-year colleges frequently have about six; and research professors might not teach at all.   Governor Walker’s comment is more than fiscal conservative rhetoric.  It goes to the heart of the purpose of higher education and what it means to be faculty.



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