A Good Professor Is an Exhausted Professor

A North Carolina education bill would be a disaster for research and pedagogy.

Manning Hall at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Manning Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Photo by benuski/Flickr Creative Commons

In higher-ed parlance the herculean act of teaching eight courses per year is what’s known as “a 4-4 load” or, alternatively, a “metric ass-ton” of classroom time. And yet a new bill currently under consideration in the North Carolina General Assembly would require every professor in the state’s public university system to do just that. The results would be catastrophic for North Carolina’s major research universities. The region known as the Research Triangle—Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, so named because of the three “Research-I”–level universities that anchor it—would quickly lose two of its prongs—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University—were this bill to pass. And it just might.

According to the official press release from its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Tom McInnis, Senate Bill 593—called “Improve Professor Quality/UNC System”—would “ensure that students attending UNC system schools actually have professors, rather than student assistants, teaching their classes.” Another result would be more courses taught by fewer professors. But that shouldn’t matter, according to Jay Schalin of North Carolina’s Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, who recently explained to the Daily Tar Heel that “the university system is not a jobs program for academics.” What the bill’s supporters either fail to realize—or, more likely, realize with utter glee—is that this bill actually has nothing to do with “professor quality” and everything to do with destroying public education and research. Forcing everyone into a 4-4 minimum (so ideally an excruciating 5-5, I guess?) is a “solution” that could only be proposed by someone who either doesn’t know how research works or hates it. It’s like saying: Hey, I’ll fix this car by treating it like a microwave.

Teaching college, especially if you’re good at it, isn’t particularly hard. But it does take time—and those 75 minutes in the classroom are the least of it. There are the office hours (which most students eschew for for professor as 24-hour email concierge); there’s the prep (anywhere from two to 10 hours for one class meeting); and then, of course, there are the hours upon hours—upon godforsaken hours—of grading. Four (or five!) courses, even with the shortcuts afforded by a teaching assistant here and there (which most people don’t get), are a full-time job in and of themselves.

A course load that high leaves little if any time for serious research: You know, trivial stuff like professor David Margolis’ team investigating potentially lifesaving HIV drugs; professor David Neil Hayes’ work on cancer genomics; and professor Bruce Cairns’ leadership of one of the only burn centers in North Carolina. These folks may also be spectacular pedagogues, but they were not hired to teach. And honestly I don’t care how good of a teacher someone is if he saves the life of my burned child—and neither, I am betting, do you. (These all happen to be professors of medicine, but SB 593 makes no provisions about professional or graduate schools. Its text quite clearly says “all professors.” I learned attention to detail and reading comprehension in college, from professors who had reasonable course loads.)

At any rate, if you think SB 593 is about “improving” instructional quality at all, you are either a cynic or a sucker. As UNC law professor Michael Gerhardt put it to me, this bill is “politically driven, and not pedagogically driven. The political forces have aligned against the public university system, as well as the public schools more generally”; the right’s goal is to “redesign it, weaken it, narrow it, redirect it. Some would be quite happy to close it all down.”

Whether or not the stated goal is to “close it all down,” that will definitely be the result. The professors forced into a 4-4 will simply pick up their research—and the labs where that research gets done, and those labs’ workforces, much of them nonacademics, Mr. Schalin—and move them somewhere that will fund them. With the inevitable cratering of UNC–Chapel Hill and NC State, the Research Triangle will become the Research Dot, and the 50,000 individuals North Carolina currently employs in Research Triangle Park—a massive conglomerate of nonacademic research labs located where it is precisely because of its proximity to Duke, UNC, and NC Statewill have their livelihoods put in danger. It’s easy to sneer that the university isn’t a “jobs program” until you have to answer for your state’s brain drain.

SB 593 would also herald the unwelcome but not unexpected casualization of even the highest strata of UNC’s research professors, forcing them to take on similar teaching loads (albeit with marginally better pay) than the adjuncts who currently shoulder a majority of this country’s postsecondary instruction. The North Carolina debacle-in-waiting serves as abject proof that, as tenured history professor and Slate contributor Jonathan Rees has written recently, adjunctification moves upward as well as downward. “Working conditions will gradually drift towards the level of the least compensated among us, not the best,” he writes. “What’s that you say? You think you’re special? You do research? Tell that to every professor at a public university in North Carolina.”

Indeed, if the UNC schools implement a systemwide 4-4 minimum with “success”—that is, if somehow tuition revenue doesn’t drop—there will be little to stop other meddlesome, ignorant state legislatures from following suit. This will accomplish nothing less than the wholesale obliteration of the public research institution and relocate all of America’s best scientific minds—and their labs and their discoveries—to the elite private universities. Want to grow up to be a molecular biologist, Iowa farm girl? Do you dream of studying in a world-class engineering school, inner-city Michigan boy? Better hope you get into—and can afford—Princeton or MIT.

I reached out to Gerhardt because I wanted a North Carolina legal expert to tell me to calm my hormones, that this bill is a silly anti-intellectual showpiece with no chance of passing. My hormones were not calmed. “I don’t know,” he told me after a pregnant pause. “I think there’s enough antipathy toward UNC and enough skepticism about UNC and education that [if SB 593 passes] it won’t surprise me.” It won’t surprise me, either—but perhaps if enough people start to recognize the disingenuous doublespeak of this kind of “improvement” legislation, the bill will be the last of its kind instead of the first.