Oh, The Academic Life!

Really, I do love my job.   It’s interesting, challenging and I feel I have a positive impact on others. And don’t forget the 10 hour work weeks accompanied by the 6 figure salary.

Right. And I have a bridge in Alaska I want to sell you.

This does seem to be the impression by much of the public regarding the life of an academic.   That impression seems to have come from articles written by some of our own, so clearly, this luxurious and entitled lifestyle seems to be true for some of us. Indeed, it’s possible that a tenured professor can pretty much “coast” if he or she wishes, doing only the absolute minimum. While that may not be as easy to do in the private or government sector, we also all know people who are actively disengaged: they are unmotivated and actually contemptuous of the organization and the efforts of the people within. Higher ed is no different, and this situation is only further aggravated when that disengaged person cannot be fired and happens to be able to write eloquent pieces about how we’re fleecing the public.

I have worked in higher ed for the last 22 years, and I have known actively disengaged, tenured professors but they’re all gone (though I’m sure they still exist as they do in every industry). Everyone I know is working hard to do the best possible job they can. Even someone who “only” teaches 9 hours per week has these hidden duties:

  1. Preparation – A good teacher refreshes their material each year, whether:

A) The course content

B) Teaching method

C) Teaching technology

D) More than one of the above

Some of my course content stays pretty constant, but others are changing constantly.

  1. Assessment – Someone has to grade the darn assignments, right? Even disengaged faculty have to do grading else an uprising from the students. Usually we have teaching assistants helping out with the larger courses. For example, our Pharmacy program has 140 students per class, so this is where our assistants are invaluable. If you have assistants, they have to also be supervised and managed, so that’s not necessarily a cake-walk either.
  2. Course and student management –   Those syllabi, assignments and grades don’t get calculated and posted on their own, and sometimes students actually want to talk to the professor. When your class is 140, this can get demanding.
  3. Curriculum/program development and management – These courses are part of a larger curriculum and program. The demands for course, curriculum and program assessment and approval have been steadily increasing to the point I feels sometimes we spend just as much time assessing ourselves as we do our students. Any change to curriculum has to be approved by the respective curriculum committee, then approved by a university committee staffed by – you guessed it – faculty. And if you want to create a new program? It’s a huge effort mired in bureaucracy/oversight.
  4. Student affairs – This is a huge area that involves admissions, promotion, recruiting, student academic and conduct issues, extracurricular activities, career advising, graduation, and student development including mentoring and academic/professional advising. Though staff do much of the thankless work, guess who also needs to be involved, oftentimes in leadership roles? Yes, you got it.
  5. Faculty affairs – There’s this whole contingent on campus that have their own needs, darn it! Those needs are met by faculty and administration as well since, inexplicably, the students won’t do it for us. For some reason, we need management, recruiting, training, development, promotion and retention, and we have this other little thing called….
  6. Research and scholarly activity – Learning and discovery go hand in hand. Teachers are only as good as the material they learn and discover, which is the essence of research and scholarship. I suppose there are some that have it pretty easy – they can pretty much just turn out a book or two by working a couple of hours per day. After all, anyone can pretty much get a publisher to invest thousands on printing a book these days, right? And oh, self-published books just don’t count in academia, no offense to those who have self-published. It’s just how it is here.
  7. Graduate education – Masters and doctoral programs may not have as much classroom time or visibility as an undergraduate program. However, these students are much like scientific apprentices. They learn at the side of the faculty how to be the next generation of scholars. This is a time-intensive process as you can imagine, as transitioning from an undergraduate to an independent-thinking scientist takes a lot of time and effort by the faculty (and the student).
  8. Miscellaneous campus activities – We have this secret responsibility on campus, which is called service. For our clinical faculty, that service means their medical, pharmacy or nursing practice. Again, these faculty have their own form of professional upkeep and innovation in order to stay competent and leaders in their field. We also are required to participate in student and faculty affairs-related service as many of those tasks must have faculty involvement and often leadership. Other priorities on campus such as diversity and inclusion, library, staff and administrator search committees, strategic planning, fundraising, technology, campus safety, and culture and climate issues also require faculty participation, oversight, attention, and often leadership. This only accounts for service within the university. Most of us are also members of professional organizations which we help lead and run.

Most faculty do all of this working far more than 40 hours per week. Some are only getting paid 9 months per year. Yeah, those faculty lounging by the pool in the summer are not getting paid. How would you like a job that refuses to pay you 3 months per year? Many of those faculty are still working during the summer, even without pay, on their research. What you do not see is them leaving the pool to go work on the computer all night, without compensation.

And with all this, most faculty make far less than their counterparts in the private sector.   My salary, if I were working in industry for these past 20 years, would probably be at least 50% higher by now. I don’t do this job because I can lounge by the pool (though I do have the option of working by the pool sometimes) but because I love the flexibility of the job, the challenge of doing research and scholarship, and the opportunity to really make an impact on the lives of young people or our profession.

If you compare us to for-profit colleges, we provide the education along with research/scholarship and a vibrant campus culture for the same or lower cost as the for-profit schools. So I think we’re doing pretty well.

I’m not asking that you view us as saints or martyrs. We’re not. We work hard doing the job we love and feel privileged to do. We make a contribution to society that is often ignored or misaligned until an amazing scientific discovery or technological advance emanates. At that point, no one says, “oh, I’m glad we’re investing in higher ed.” That discovery does not come out of a vacuum. It comes because of society’s investment in knowledge and discovery. Isn’t that what we’re here to do and enable?