Do We Value the Work of Professors?

Discussion Post

Read any article about higher education and you will quickly see that the comments section is typically filled with the complaints of citizens irate that professors have such a cushy job with tenure and yet dare to be unionized or to ask for more recognition or appreciation for their work.  However, though working in a university certainly comes with its perks (perhaps a more flexible schedule, for instance, which can help with child care, or the existence of snow days so instructors don’t have to drive on icy roads), teaching in higher education comes with many costs that often go unrecognized, especially by students.  Much of these costs can be seen even in the hierarchy of universities, which are typically invisible to students, who have no real reason to see a difference  between a visiting professor, a lecturer, or an associate professor.  After all, each comes into the classroom and, as far as the students are aware, performs the same job.

The College Hierarchy No ONe Told You About

However, let’s take a look at what a typical hierarchy might look like for a university.  Hierarchies will vary from university to university, but a general scheme will look like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts/visiting professor
  • grad students/GAs/TAs.

Only associate and full professors have tenure, which, incidentally, is not a guarantee of employment for life, but rather the expectation that the professor cannot be fired without a good reason (professional misconduct, for instance).  It does not necessarily protect incompetent professors but rather is meant to guarantee them the space to speak freely and to prevent anyone from being fired from publishing certain ideas or holding certain political beliefs.  Assistant professors (and sometimes associate professors, as well) are tenure-track, meaning that they will be reviewed periodically to see if they will be awarded tenure.  They will be judged based on their service to the school, their publications, their contributions to their field, and their teaching evaluations.

Lecturers/instructors  and adjuncts and visiting professors are not tenure-track, but rather hired for by contract for certain amounts of time.  They typically receive low pay and no benefits.  They may not have office space or may be required to share office space or have undesirable office space.  They may also have limited access to other university resources and may not be given a voice in department meetings or policies.  Many teach lower-level courses tenured faculty do not want and often they may not even have control over what they teach or how they teach it.  The department might even order the textbook for them.

Graduate assistants are typically grad students who are going to school while also juggling a teaching load.  They usually receive a small stipend for teaching and waived tuition.  They may have little say in the department and are often seen as nothing more than cheap labor by the university.  Some schools have seen graduate students unionize in attempt to protect themselves from increasing workloads or pay changes.

How to Achieve Tenure

The dream for individuals working in higher education is, of course, to work their way up to a tenured position.  However, tenured positions are regularly being cut as a way to save the university money.  And tenure is not easy to achieve.  NEA reports that the review process to get tenure is three years at a community college and seven years at a four-year school.  If someone fails to achieve tenure, they typically have to leave the school and hope to find employment elsewhere (and thus begin the process all over again).  To achieve tenure, individuals usually have to research and publish, demonstrate that they have contributed to their field, serve the college by working on committees and attending meetings, and show teaching proficiency.  Karen Kelsky elaborates on the research expectations based on the type of institution an individual teaches at.  R1 and R2 schools typically want more publications than a liberal arts school or a community college.  Expectations may range from a few articles to a book or two.

So what does this all mean?  A good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unnoticed by students.  The time they spend researching, writing, publishing, serving on committees, etc. is work students do not see and often may not value as what they need from instructors is a constant presence in office hours or over email, without regard to the other obligations their instructors may have.  At the same time, a good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unrecognized by their institutions. Many institutions, especially R1 and R2 schools, value research over teaching.  Instructors may feel they have to sacrifice teaching or mentoring in order to achieve tenure.  NEA reports that instructors often work 52 hours a week (though this seems low to me, especially during busy times like finals week).  They are struggling to keep up with their many professional commitments even as many of them face increased teaching loads as a way for universities to handle budget cuts or otherwise cut costs.

The Real Costs of Higher Education

However, despite the high cost of college, most of that money is not going to instructors but rather to administrative costs such as athletics, counseling services, etc.  Individuals working in administration also often receive high salaries and large bonuses.  But the faculty that most people assume are receiving large pay from the tuition money seldom are.  In fact, adjuncts in particular receive a scandalously low amount of money for their work.  And yet, the American public continues to complain that higher ed instructors do very little work in return for astronomical benefits and to suggest that college tuition can be cut by taking away pay from these overrated and over-valued instructors.  Few voices have pointed out that, to lower tuition costs, American students might have to choose to give up many of the services and resources they have become used to, which were not offered by colleges in years past–if that’s even possible anymore.  Alternatively, the administration would have to cut their pay and bonuses.  But this is something few people call for.  When budget cuts roll around, it’s usually the faculty who are expected to do more for less.

Academics are not over-valued, but rather under-valued by the people they serve, and it’s a taking a toll.  Study after study in various countries reveals high levels of mental illness and stress in academia as a result of the high workload expected from those working in higher ed.  The Guardian argues that mental illness has become accepted in academia and the numbers suggest that this might be true.  A 2005 study showed that 10% of grad students at UC Berkeley had thought about suicide and a 2015 study showed that 47% of them are depressed.   A 2013 study from UCU in the U.K. reported that three quarters of the staff in higher ed said their job was stressful.  In 2014, Christie Wilcox for the New Scientist noted that a 2003 survey in Australia showed that academic staff experience mental illnesses at a rate that is three to four times higher than the general population and that the rate of mental illness among academics in the U.K. might be as high as 53%.  Wilcox noted that there are no similar studies available for mental health incidences among academics in the U.S.


Instructors in higher ed do not simply teach a course or two each year and then go home to enjoy free time, nor do they typically have summer or vacations off.  Rather, they are constantly researching, attending conferences, writing and publishing, doing peer review, teaching, grading, mentoring, serving on committees, attending meetings, and filling out paperwork.  Most of this work goes unacknowledged both by their institutions and by their students, even as institutions continue to increase the workloads and professional expectations of their employees.  As a result, higher education seems to be heading towards a crisis moment where institutions may have to reassess what an individual can realistically be expected to achieve and whether they will decide to pay more of their employees a living wage.  In the meantime–try to be kind to those who work in academia.  They are struggling more than they may feel able to admit.


4 thoughts on “Do We Value the Work of Professors?

  1. In Libris Speramus says:

    Everything you have written out is why I changed from academia to industry. I worked for several years at a community college as support staff and adjunct instructor and finally said enough. The pay sucked, I had no health benefits or PTO, and it was not paying the bills. I was tired of administrators not appreciating the work I put in, the department I worked in was understaffed, and I had to work a second job in a hospital in order to make ends meet (and get that health insurance). I have friends still working the grind to make it happen for them, but I’m glad I left for what I do now.


    • Krysta says:

      That sounds rough! I’m sorry you weren’t appreciated! It really is a shame the way many instructors are treated and I’m convinced the universities get away with it because there’s this myth that all college instructors are vastly overpaid. But I think that most students are too concerned with their own financial worries to care about the fact that a good deal of their instructors are barely making ends meet. Perhaps we could change working conditions if universities had to compete with each other by taking the moral high ground and advertising that their instructors get paid a living wage, sort of the way companies are encouraged to go green in order to make a profit. But until people start realizing that 1) there’ s a huge problem and 2) that they can make a difference, we may not see much change.

      I know a lot of people stay in academia because they love it, they want to do it, and they don’t want to have worked so hard never to get anywhere. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore that pay and working conditions are often much better outside academia. More grad programs should begin to take alt ac careers seriously if they want to help their students, but I think in some quarters there’s still a stigma against leaving academia.


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