Education and Progress in the Last Best Place

Gwendolyn Morgan

Back in November, when Dave Lewis announced that the Governor's office was looking at yet another number-crunching method (computerized, this time--computers are progress, aren't they?) to measure the professional worth of college instructors, I started thinking about my own "productivity" and the improvements in it since I arrived at Montana State University in the Fall of 1989. A few days later, when Dave Lewis suggested that the university system could "easily" take up its share of the budget deficit by cutting athletics, raising tuition (again), and "increasing faculty workloads 20 percent" (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 15 November 1993), I began to wonder if too much of Montana's fresh air had begun to affect my perceptions of faculty workload and our services to students. So, I made a few quick calculations and spoke to a number of MSU denizens, and this is what I found.

The Professor:

Racicot and Lewis and other of the Governor's spokespeople insist that "the basic responsibility of the faculty member is hours teaching." This may be true at some state institutions, such as Eastern Montana College in Billings, but it certainly isn't so at Montana State and University of Montana. My contract tells me that teaching and associated activities are but 40 percent of my job; an equal percentage of my time is to be spent on research and scholarship and the remaining 20% on university and community services. Moreover, the record here at MSU shows that superb teaching with shoddy research will not secure promotion or tenure, but minimally adequate teaching proficiency and superior research will. How, then, am I to figure that teaching, no matter how much dedication I feel to that aspect of my job, is my primary responsibility? Hmmm...

Then, I consider the recent case of a professor at Eastern, where teaching is defined as a faculty member's primary responsibility, who was turned down for promotion at virtually every level of the college administration because, despite her superb teaching record, her research was "inadequate." Fortunately, the professor in question fought that decision all the way to Helena and was vindicated, receiving her promotion.

Now, based upon these two instances, it seems to me that the Governor's office wants it both ways. Our teaching workload should be increased at designated research institutions because our "primary responsibility is teaching," and those faculty carrying heavier teaching loads at the non-research schools are expected to match their colleagues at MSU and UM in research. I don't know what kind of logic one programs into a computer to make that equation work, but it's something I certainly never learned in my 10 years as a systems architect at IBM. Perhaps Big Blue could take a lesson from Montana in increasing productivity.

But let's give up on that unfathomable mystery and move to what I can compute: workload changes in my five years at MSU. According to Dave Lewis, the Governor's office would like to see faculty classroom time equal to the national average. Well, anyone who cares to read (that's part of my job, by the way--I teach people to read) the readily available studies, statistics, and other numbers available for crunching provided by national education organizations will find that MSU's institutions do require the national average classroom time. Of course, that assumes that one keeps in mind the distinctions between research institutions (which require a yearly workload of between four and six semester courses per faculty member) and teaching institutions (which require somewhat more). An interesting statistic, however, is that while we teach the national average, we are paid only 68 to 72 percent of the national average for faculty members of our rank and experience.

Hmmm... My calculator kicks in again. If we are paid only 70% of the average, shouldn't our workload be only 70% of the average? Another mystery, the answer to which is, apparently, known only by the Governor's office. None of the higher education organizations, nor the NEA, nor IBM, nor anyone else can seem to fathom the calculations Messrs. Racicot and Lewis have used to not only maintain that ratio but to actually suggest we teach more! Of course, I suppose there's nothing to be gained by pointing out that our travel and research budgets are even more deficient. Oh, well.

More input for our number crunching, which I promise we will get to in a moment. We've had our wages frozen for two years, and a December memo from the university administration states that we might see a raise in January 1995--all of 1.5 percent! How does that stack up against three years' increase in the cost of living? I can tell you without even looking at the inflation and tax increases over the last 24 months--not to mention the predictions for the next six--that we make far less in adjusted dollars that we did two years ago. Will someone explain to me again how Montana expects to get even more for less? She already gets a heck of a bargain.

Now let's talk about that 20% increase in workload. In five years teaching at Montana State University, my average class size (in labor-intensive literature and writing classes) has risen from 30 students to 50 or 60. Effectively, the state has already increased my workload 40 percent or better in this area alone. And all without a salary increase. Now I call that a budgetary and political coup.

Moreover, the last six months of public statements from the Governor's office seem to suggest to the people of Montana that we faculty are overpaid folk who work a mere 15 or 20 hours per week. I guess the research required for our tenure and promotions, and our community service, and paper grading time, and advising time, and meetings, and unpaid public consultations, presentations, and workshops mean nothing. All that time probably doesn't count, since it's not spent in the classroom.

And while we're talking class size, I sure wish someone would explain to my students why they get insufficient class discussion and individual attention while paying higher fees. When the national average for classes such as mine is 25 to 35 individuals, I can calculate why the 150 students who enrolled for my three classes this semester can't expect it.

Let's figure some more. Try comparing the time it takes to feed a machine-readable exam answer sheet to a computer with the 20 to 40 minutes it takes me to grade a medium length analytical paper, one of four or five such required of each of my 50 to 60 students (that's 200 to 300 papers) in each of my three classes (that's 600 to 900 papers). By my computations, that's four to eight weeks of grading a 15-week semester!

The Student:

As we might expect in education, we always come down to the student. We already saw how the collective faculty pocketbook woes mean less for the student in both the classroom and the instructor's office. Let's see what's happened to the student's pocketbook.

Students have suffered several raises in tuition and a number of additional or increased non-academic fees over the last five years as well. True, Montana does, even after those increases, offer some of the lowest college and university tuition rates for state institutions in the country, but Montana also has one of the lowest average income levels. Even if that in itself were not a mitigating factor, tuition apparently has very little to do with what a student pays to our university system. I have in front of me the fee statement for the average English major this semester. The student in question is taking 12 credit hours. For that privilege, she pays $679 in tuition. But, surprise!! Her full bill is $1394.75. That means that tuition is less than half her college expenses.

Poor Ms. Doe pays, like her fellow students, a registration fee of $30 and dental and health fees of $88. Okay, get out the calculators again: that takes us to $797--still afar cry from $1400. Ah, here's the answer! Student services: $27.58 for the Strand Union Building Operations and another $35 for the Student Building Fee. Funny, I thought those were the same building. Oh here, perhaps the latter is a duplicate of the $16.24 PE Complex (which the student doesn't use) fee. Then again, the mysterious extra building fee certainly couldn't be equipment, for there are Equipment and Computer charges of $21 each. And look, another Health fee, this one apparently for Operations, though of course that $1.68 doesn't amount to much until it is multiplied by the 10,000 or so students.

More charges. A charge for the Bus (which the student doesn't take) of $4.50, and an Intramural Fee (the student doesn't participate in any sports, and besides, hasn't she already paid $16.24 for the PE complex?) of $10, another PE Building fee of $7 (another mystery--how does that differ from the PE Complex?) and an Athletic Fee (also not used) of $30.

This last deserves particular consideration. In the 1992-93 academic year, the student body voted down this fee, stating that they preferred to do with decreased athletic facilities, or teams, or whatever. Someone up in Helena, however, decided the students needed more athletics (is this the same office that wants reduced student classroom services?) and overturned the student vote. If we total the costs associated with athletics, Ms. Doe pays $63.24 for a service she doesn't use...and that's assuming that the $30 Activity Fee and the various student services, buildings, and equipment fees have nothing to do with athletics.

Bear with me, we're almost at the end of the list. There's a Spring Insurance Fee of $261--presumably the health fees the student has already paid aren't enough--and AHA!!!! an Art materials fee (at least it's connected to her courses) of $60. Whew! Doesn't add up to $1394.75, you say? Well, of course there's two late payment fees totalling $60. Funny thing is, the Financial Aid office had all her paperwork well before the deadline for fee payment, but they were so overworked they didn't get to Ms. Doe's case until February, and she couldn't pay her tuition without her money from that office. And I wonder why they're understaffed anyway: Helena takes 5% of her financial aid for administration!! (Why are we surprised? They take 5% of any faculty state grant money too.)

If Ms. Doe is any example, however, the students have a valid reason for complaint, too. Look at that: almost $700 in fees for things the student (a working mother) has neither the time nor the inclination to use, and some of which she voted against last academic year. And all for less individual attention and poorer (due to class size increases) instruction.

What Do We Do?

The November 15th Business Week contained an article by a leading economist explaining why, even from a number-crunching business perspective, education simply couldn't be made more cost-effective through increased professorial productivity. Education, you see, loses its effectiveness with overcrowding of students, overwork of educators, and utilizing under-qualified personnel. Education, quite simply, is, has always been, and will always be labor-intensive. So, all you gain by overloading classes and faculty schedules are poorly educated students.

I don't know about my colleagues, but I'm tired of being a bad guy. We not only aren't responsible for the budget crisis, we've already borne more than our share of the burden without anyone even recognizing it or saying "Thanks." This, I suspect, accounts for the increasing numbers of our best educators recently leaving the Montana system for the greener pastures of Arizona, Virginia, and even India...where they receive workloads and compensation closer to the national average the Governor's office is so concerned about. And the trend continues. True, some of us are trapped by the very years we have spent educating Montana's students...and contributing to non-transferable retirement plans. Some of us simply like it here and have been willing to pay for the privilege of staying. Nonetheless, many of us are reaching the limits of our tolerance. What that means, if anything, to the Governor's office is beyond me, but I think that the upshot won't be pleasant for any of us.

Only one thing is clear: if Montana wants national quality education, if she wants national quality instructors, the answer is not increasing faculty workload or the amount a student must pay for an education. (I'm sure the students wouldn't mind paying more for education, but only if the other 50% of their fees--those things they voted down, don't use, or don't understand--are reduced.) We're both doing our bit for the budget crisis. It's time we looked somewhere else for the answer. Any suggestions?

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