The uncomfortable truth about faculty release time

How much are course releases costing your institution?

Faculty workload assignment is one of the most significant resource decisions made at an institution, but few workload policies are designed with that in mind. Moreover, faculty often assume that attempts to "reform" workload policy are simply an excuse to increase course loads or section size caps, cancel course releases, or otherwise "do more with less."

In fact, a change in workload policy can be a win-win, advancing administrators' priorities while relieving faculty of tiresome, low-value tasks.

Faculty dragged in too many directions

An expensive proposition

External pressures, from legislators' obsession with degree throughput to the increased competitiveness of scholarly research, are ramping up demands on faculty time. At the same time, the demands of service and administration are higher than ever; new budget models, reporting requirements, and fundraising commitments make the department chair role increasingly complex. It's clearer than ever that sacrificing faculty teaching time for relatively low-value administrative work is an expensive proposition.

These release time trade-offs are especially difficult to make because few administrators understand how much faculty time is actually being released. EAB analysis of data from one member institution—a public master's university—suggests that course releases approximate 3,000 semester hours of time, with about 18% of all faculty receiving releases. Expressed in salary terms, the value of releases reached $10 million.

Easing the burden

The scale of release time poses several strategic questions for deans and provosts:

  • Is the current level of chair staffing appropriate?
  • Could administrative positions be consolidated?
  • Could some duties be re-allocated to permanent staff?

It also uncovers other uncomfortable truths. At our sample institution, for example, about one-third of release time went to un-tenured faculty, mostly for departmental administration. Administrators might reasonably consider this an appropriate use of lecturer time, but few have the data to prove it.

Even if significant time is released for administration, attempting to simply cut back releases unnecessarily antagonizes faculty and could do real harm to departments. A targeted redesign of chair roles can reduce release time, put administrative tasks in the hands of trained professionals, and relieve faculty of the responsibilities they most find burdensome.

Focusing department chairs on strategic responsibilities

The University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration focuses department chair jobs on high-value, strategic responsibilities like faculty mentorship, course scheduling, and the department's broader academic strategy. Administrative and finance professionals in the dean's office manage overload and adjunct budgeting, research administration, and similar tasks. This enables the dean to reduce the number of releases associated with chair positions.

Not only does this increased specialization free up faculty time for teaching and research, it also boosts faculty satisfaction by easing the burden of administrative work. Last but not least, the college reaps the benefits of having trained professionals within the dean’s purview perform those tasks.

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