Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?

This was the title of a guest opinion piece that appeared in the March 25th issue of the Washington Post.  It was written by David Levy, a former university administrator and current president of Cambridge Information Group.  Jeff Selingo, editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, tweeted that the column drew 150 comments in its first hour.  Two days later, it had drawn 1205 written comments.

Mr. Levy clearly struck a chord. He argues that faculty at teaching-based institutions don’t work hard enough for the salaries that they earn and that the budget crisis at many institutions could be solved by having professors teach more classes.  While Mr. Levy was careful to point out that faculty at research intensive universities have much different demands on their time than the group he targeted in his column, I strongly suspect that many people think all professors not just ones at teaching-oriented institutions, should teach more as a means of cutting the costs of higher education. I couldn’t disagree more.  Views like Mr. Levy’s make me so upset that I am going to write two blog posts about it: Today, from a business strategy perspective and next Monday from an economic competitiveness perspective.

Strategy 101: You can compete either by being the low-cost provider (think Walmart), or through product differentiation.  Product differentiation strategies usually focus around innovation (think Apple), or quality (think Lexus) and where successfully executed are rewarded with brand equity that supports higher prices and bigger margins.  In contrast, being the low-cost provider makes a commoditizer.  Life as a commoditizer is hard.  You must constantly try to squeeze out more cost savings to remain price competitive while maintaining your narrow margins.

Strategy 102: You need to match your human resource strategy to your competitive strategy. After the student, the single most important determinant of the value of an educational experience is the person in front of the classroom.  This is true at all levels of education.   If you want to become a leader in your field, a person who thrives rather than survives, establishes rules rather than merely follows them and has interesting things to say and do, the best way to achieve your goal is to learn from someone who possesses these traits.  So if I am an administrator who wants to follow a differentiation strategy (and I am), I want to attract and cultivate faculty who have something interesting to say; people who provide insights and perspective to students with ambition and intellect who will pay for such an experience. Such cultivation requires that I give faculty time to explore new ideas, to test those ideas, refine them, debate them with other professionals (these first four are called research), help students see how to implement these ideas in practice, give students developmental feedback and have students repeat these experiences so they can become proficient in the use of these new skills.  None of this is cheap and the vast majority of it occurs outside the classroom, but such professional development is critical maintaining a product differentiation strategy and building the reputation of my institution and its graduates.  It would be much cheaper to hire faculty who draw largely from the textbook and simply convey information, but then I am turning students’ education into a commodity.  This leads to thinking like Mr. Levy’s.

 Do I expect faculty to work hard both in and out of class?  You bet I do. But I rarely have to enforce hours of work standards.  We recruit professors who are attracted to this type of challenging environment.  They know that by engaging in the activities I described above, they are differentiating themselves and ensuring that they are not seen as a commodity. (What works for institutions, works for individuals too).  If they don’t see this, we don’t hire them.  If one slips through or doesn’t develop a national reputation in an important area, their colleagues will not vote to tenure them and I will tell them they are out of a job.  In the end, it’s not so much about how many hours professors are in the front of a class, but what they have to say when they are there and the difference this makes in the lives of students.  If you want an education that will help differentiate you and put you in the best position to achieve your goals, you want it that way.


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