Texas House Speaker Joe Straus wrote in the April 15 Houston Chronicle that the state’s budget shortfall will be “between $10 billion and $15 billion” and that the state is “going to have to find billions of dollars in cuts, savings and greater efficiencies.” One such place for these cuts could and should be higher education.
“Today,” says Straus, “more than 60 percent of our state’s general revenue goes to public and higher education.”
Many of Texas’ professors today teach only two classes per semester, or six hours a week. Their salaries run in the vicinity of $100,000 for two semesters, not counting some 30 percent of lucrative fringe benefits. If generally class size is 25 students, these professors are teaching 100 students a year, which at a salary of $100,000 amounts to $1,000 per student.
I am an adjunct professor of English, with a Ph.D., at Lone Star College-Montgomery. My salary per semester for one class with 25 students is $1,814, with no fringe benefits. This amounts to $72.56 per student versus $1,000 for tenured counterparts at universities. They are not worth that much in either relative or absolute terms.
Trustees and legislators, who foot much of the bill, should require that these professors teach four classes per semester, not two. This class load of 12 hours per semester was the standard for most of the 20th century.
Salary and benefits make up between 60 percent and 75 percent of today’s university costs. Restoring teaching loads to the 20th century norm could substantially reduce these costs.
Many of these professors will of course protest that they teach only two classes so that they might have time for research and publication. Not so, says former Harvard president Derek Bok in his book Our Underachieving Colleges, in which he writes that “fewer than 50 percent of all professors publish as much as one article per year.”
University professors generally teach 30 weeks a year, with the other 22 weeks off. With good pay, light class loads, some or little publication, and 22 weeks off, no wonder teaching at a university is one of the most coveted vocations in America. I know; I used to be a full-time tenured professor at a large university.
There is another area in higher education where Texas could save appreciable money. Colleges now are in an “arms race,” the constant effort to refurbish and build new physical facilities.
Bok confirms this, reporting from the inside that universities are like “compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.” They expand divisions, departments, faculty, staff, buildings, athletic facilities, maintenance, and services-which become unfunded liabilities that later drive up costs for students, parents, and taxpayers. The more they spend, the more they need.
Why don’t political leaders and legislators take on these abuses? In the past, taking on the academic establishment was like taking on a sleeping giant, armed with extraordinary speaking and writing abilities.
But to borrow a phrase from our President’s chief of staff, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The mood of the electorate has shifted mightily toward fiscal restraint, and the state’s current financial situation opens a window of opportunity to reset our university priorities and return Texas higher education to a fiscally responsible path.
Now more than ever, legislators and trustees need to make tough, courageous decisions. As C. S. Lewis observed, “Courage is the most difficult virtue because it is the testing point of all virtues.”
Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D. is a resident of The Woodlands and a Senior Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. Dr. Trowbridge formerly served as vice president of Hillsdale College in Michigan.