An open letter to NC State Senator Tom McInnis

Dear Senator McInnis,

I recently read with some concern, first in The Daily Tarheel and then on Slate, about your proposed Senate bill 593, ironically titled “An act to improve the quality of instruction at the constituent 3 institutions of the University of North Carolina.”  This “improvement” would come by forcing all university faculty, whether at an undergraduate or graduate institution, to teach a full 4/4 load of courses during the academic year, 4 courses in the Fall, 4 in the Spring.

Let me get right to the point: this bill would do exact the opposite of what it claims, and would quite rapidly end quality education in the UNC system.  In fact, it is quite accurate to say that there really won’t be a university system at all in North Carolina if this bill were passed and its plan implemented.

It is hard not to see this as a direct and punitive attack on the university system and the faculty and staff who work hard to run it.  The recent removal of Tom Ross as President of the UNC system was widely seen by most faculty as the beginning of an attempt to weaken and dilute higher education in our state.  Even our Governor has made no secret of his disdain for higher education, and once stated his view that universities should be no more than vocational schools.  More recently, Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has been targeted for closure, along with several other centers. This last action is clearly a direct attack, as the center does not even receive direct state funding, operates on a minimal budget, and directly serves the needs of North Carolina.

However, let me be charitable* and assume that your bill was not sponsored out of partisan ideology, but out of genuine ignorance concerning the amount of work, and the type of work, that university professors actually do.  I would like there to be no misunderstanding, so that your motives in the end, if this bill passes, will be clear to everyone.

Let’s start with your proposed plan and take a look at how many hours of work it would actually take to teach four courses each semester.   The amount of time it takes people to accomplish tasks can vary, so I will simply give estimates of my own course involvement.  First, there are the classes themselves: each class at UNC Charlotte is 1 hour and 15 minutes of lecture time, so we have 2 1/2 hours per week of direct teaching.  Next, we have course preparation.  You can’t simply walk into a classroom and start teaching; one must plan out the lecture, or discussion, or laboratory, in some detail and go over it to make sure that the class time goes smoothly.  For courses that you’ve taught for years, this prep can be as short as an hour.  For new course preps, it is usually a minimum of eight hours.  Let’s stick with an hour for the moment, which for two classes takes our total up to 4 1/2 hours.

Now we’ve got homeworks and exams to assign!  If you’ve got good source material from a book with a lot of good exercises to choose from, it might take as little as 1/2 hour to write up an assignment.  Writing a test typically takes much longer, at least an hour, often more.  I’ll go with an hour for this, bringing our total to 6 hours per week per course.  Then there’s grading of said homeworks and exams, which for me usually takes about 2 hours for a homework, and 3 or more hours for an exam.  Again, taking the minimum of 2 hours, we’re up to 8 hours per week.

Finally, we have office hours: the time set aside for actual one-on-one interactions with students.  I usually officially set aside 2 hours per week, but I have an “open door” policy where I allow students to stop by whenever they have a question (except for the hour immediately preceding class).

So, all told, a single course, under the best of circumstances, takes roughly 10 hours per week.  This is, as noted, the minimum amount of time, as new courses, large student enrollment, or other factors can increase the amount of time substantially.  Teaching four courses per week, then, would be a minimum of 40 hours per week, basically a full-time job in and of itself.

This may not seem like a problem to you.  In fact, many undergraduate-only institutions have a 4/4 teaching load.  However — and this is the crux of the matter — this leaves no time for any other work than undergraduate teaching.

Which means that, if your bill is implemented, graduate programs at UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State and other institutions will die.  Graduate students not only take classes at universities but are generally expected to do original research under the supervision of faculty members who are also active researchers.  Teaching 4 courses a semester would leave no time for faculty members to do research and no time for those faculty members to supervise the research of graduate students.  Every graduate program, and all faculty research, in North Carolina would have to end.

This is a really big deal.  The Research Triangle, consisting of Duke, NC State and UNC Chapel Hill are estimated to bring in $2 billion in federal research funding every year.  Considering that overhead on university grants is roughly 50% (for every dollar the researcher gets, the university gets 50 cents), ending research programs will deprive universities of money that they use to function.  Ending research programs will simply cost the state a lot of money.  This will also be devastating to local industry, both in the Research Triangle and beyond, as many companies rely on the trained workforce that NC universities provide for developing new products and technologies.  The RTP alone has 190 companies employing over 50,000 employees.  Without a local source of talented graduates, there will be less motivation for these companies to stay in North Carolina.  I expect you may hear this from them soon, if you haven’t already.  To give you a better feeling for the impact of a university system on a state economy, let me direct you to this just-released study of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also subjected to a devastating attack in the form of brutal cuts from its very anti-education governor.  The study estimates that every tax dollar spent on the university results in 24 dollars generated for the state economy.  I’ll leave it to you to do the math as to how much the $300 million Governor Walker is cutting will cost Wisconsin.

There are reasons beyond simple economics to avoid killing research programs for faculty members, in any case.  UNC researchers are active in many important projects that are designed to directly benefit the people of our state and the country as a whole.  This includes not only medical research (diagnosing, preventing, and treating harmful ailments) but defense research for the military, which helps keep our soldiers alive and prepared in the field.

You have claimed in interviews that “There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students.”  However, you fail to acknowledge that one of the reasons that a professor is desirable is because they do research.  When a student interacts with a physics professor in my department, they know that they are learning from someone who has a current state of knowledge in the field, and understands the ins and outs of the subject.  Killing research in fact limits the ability of a faculty member to teach the subject effectively.

Though I have focused on my own experience as a science professor here, I should note that this same argument applies for those in the humanities.  I am sure that students would rather learn from someone who is at the forefront of their field; being taught by someone who is ignorant of the current state of a subject is as frustrating as, say, having university workloads dictated by someone who has no understanding of how a university functions.

Even if we ignore the entirely negative consequences of ending all university research, there are other reasons why it is undesirable to give faculty members a heavy teaching load.  It is almost universally agreed that large class sizes are bad for learning — students in large-enrollment classes simply have less time to interact with the professor, and the professor will have a harder time keeping track of an individual student’s progress in the course.  This is also simple math: a professor only has a finite amount of time to spend with any individual student.  But four courses, with 50 students in each, is no better in that regard than a single course of 200 students.  It may even be worse, because it is that much harder to keep track of students’ progress across multiple different subjects.

I haven’t even described the rest of the activities and duties that professors have.  All faculty, in general, are tasked with three roles in the university: research, teaching and service.  We have addressed the first two, so let’s talk about service.   All faculty are required and expected to play some role in the administration of their department.  This includes being on hiring committees, being on curriculum committees, being a graduate or undergraduate student supervisor, running qualifying exams for graduate students, and being on a variety of college and university-level committees that decide the best way to proceed with many issues related to the education of the students.  These activities, of course, also take time.

There are also other activities that are not officially mandated but are important to the greater community.  Many professors, such as myself, are involved in a variety of local and regional outreach activities.  I have been on the committee for the UNC Charlotte Science and Technology Expo for three years now, which provides a place for children and adults in the surrounding community to learn about science and what we do at the university.  I have also participated in local science fairs, given local public science talks, been a panelist on science-based movie nights, and presented science demos at local schools.

I could go on, but there’s another aspect of your complaint that troubles me.  In your press release, you said that your bill would “ensure that students attending UNC system schools actually have professors, rather than student assistants, teaching their classes.”  I would first like to know how many classes are being taught by student assistants — if you even know.  I may be mistaken, but in my department I am not aware of a single course being taught by teaching assistants.  I am sure that there are some courses taught by TAs, but I doubt it is a problem as you suggest.

Second, it should be pointed out that there is nothing wrong with having some elementary courses taught by students — in fact, it is often a good experience both for students in the classes and the student teaching.  Future professors need to gain experience in teaching from somewhere, and early classroom experience as a graduate student can be an invaluable experience.  When I was a graduate student, I ended up co-teaching a course with a professor when my PhD advisor’s wife suddenly fell ill.  It was a wonderful learning experience for me and, as I understand it, the students enjoyed the class very much.

To be quite frank, your attitude towards graduate students is insulting and disrespectful to them.  Using them as an excuse to attack hard-working faculty is shameful.

The University of North Carolina system has a wonderful history of academic excellence, and it has become a force to be reckoned with nationally and a source of pride — and a benefit — to the entire state of North Carolina.  I have been proud of my work at the university and have fallen in love with the state in the ten years I have lived here.  However, if the state legislature proceeds with its plan to destroy the university system here, I — and I suspect many talented professors and researchers — will be forced to pull up roots and look for employment elsewhere, taking research money along.  I suspect many of us have already started looking.

I hope you and the legislature take these words to heart and reconsider your plan.

Sincerely,

Greg Gbur
Department of Physics and Optical Science
UNC Charlotte

**********************************

* The Principle of Charity is a principle by which one takes an opponent’s arguments in the best, i.e. most charitable, way.  For those seeking to find common ground in an argument, it is a necessary foundation in order to make any progress whatsoever.  It is something I learned while taking liberal arts philosophy courses in college.

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2 Responses to An open letter to NC State Senator Tom McInnis

  1. Joe Wilck says:

    A quick glance at Tom’s website does not indicate that he ever officially graduated from a formal college or university. Not that a college degree is required to be a politician, but he is likely one of the least knowledgeable politicians when it comes to higher education.

  2. You ever wonder why so many graduates of the K-8 “common core” curriculum have problems giving change? The truth is it is not only higher education that is under attack. Any education is a threat that enables a citizen to see through the peonage that modern citizenship has become. From debt slavery to private prisons to legislative capture to deregulating the environmental impacts of dirty industries – a good education makes it that much easier for people to see through the lies we are continually told by our politicians, our media, and our public school curriculum.

    Our schools and media must make it impossible for the poor to even conceive of how badly they’re being screwed. It is clearly a new serfdom, a new peonage, that has been forced upon us under the most dire threats to what little liberties we have left. Legislative capture makes the world safer for banks, corporations and politicians precisely at the expense of the common citizen.

    Just as healthy and natural foods are priced far higher than GMO’s, heavily discounted junk foods and preservative-laden foods, so it is that learning how to study, learning how to think, learning how to solve problems on ones own, can only be allowed for the ruling classes.

    From John Taylor Gatto’s “What must an educated person know”:

    “A few years back one of the schools at Harvard, perhaps the School of Government, issued some advice to its students on planning a career in the new international economy it believed was arriving. It warned sharply that academic classes and professional credentials would count for less and less when measured against real world training. Ten qualities were offered as essential to successfully adapting to the rapidly changing world of work. See how many of those you think are regularly taught in the schools of your city or state:

    1) The ability to define problems without a guide.

    2) The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.

    3) The ability to work in teams without guidance.

    4) The ability to work absolutely alone.

    5) The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.

    6) The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.

    7) The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.

    8) The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.

    9) The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically.

    10) The ability to attack problems heuristically.

    You might be able to come up with a better list than Harvard did without surrendering any of these fundamental ideas, and yet from where I sit, and I sat around schools for nearly 30 years, I don’t think we teach any of these things as a matter of school policy.

    And for good reason, schools as we know them couldn’t function at all if we did. Can you imagine a school where children challenged prevailing assumptions? Or worked alone without guidance? Or defined their own problems? It would be a radical contradiction of everything we’ve been conditioned to expect schools to do. If you want your son or daughter to learn what Harvard said was necessary, you’ll have to arrange it outside of school time, maybe in between the dentist and the dancing lessons. And if you are poor, you better forget it altogether.” (Definitely worth reading the rest if you haven’t already!)

    From this point forward in our nations history, watch as the government regularly caves to forces of finance, economy, and legislative capture, and allows these corporate interests to create a reality where only the privileged classes will have access to the kind of education Harvard suggests as necessity.

    As for the rest of us, nearly all of us are too busy paying bills, living with roommates, or in two-income households trying to raise children, to even begin to flesh out the great depth of disparity that has been thrust upon us since our births.

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