By Alexa Silverman
As the academic year begins, provosts, deans, and department heads are wondering once again whether there is a better way to set faculty workload policy. Though most institutions set a standard course load and expectations for teaching, research, and service, faculty workloads vary enormously. Faculty in units with rising student numbers often struggle to keep up with demand, while faculty in units with declining demand may teach well below the standard load.
A recent data analysis from EAB’s Academic Performance Solutions found the range of credit-hours taught per tenure-track faculty can vary by hundreds of students and the average tenured faculty member teaches one course below the standard load.
Faculty teaching below load may be spending more time on research or service, where wide variation in research productivity and heavily skewed service obligations (which often fall disproportionately on women and minority faculty) result in inequitable workload allocations and lower overall productivity. Productivity also varies widely by discipline, and by the type and level of courses the faculty member teaches.
To better understand the variation in workload, many institutions find it helpful to set departmental teaching benchmarks. A simple way to do so is to add up the standard workload of tenured and tenure-track faculty, then subtract funded releases. The resulting “theoretical course capacity” is the maximum number of courses the unit can schedule without hiring adjuncts.
Deans and department chairs can then compare that theoretical capacity to the actual number of courses taught, and drill down to understand what percentage is taught by adjuncts. If the analysis reveals disparities in credit hour production across departments, deans may ask departments to adjust the number of service courses they teach to avoid this burden disproportionately falling on a few departments.
The resulting calculation helps deans allocate additional instructional resources, either tenure lines or adjunct funding, across departments and identify areas where there are significant disparities or where capacity has not paced with growth. Filling out the worksheet below provides deans with the data they need in order to make well-informed resource decisions while giving them flexibility to recognize disciplinary and faculty member differences.
Theoretical Teaching Capacity Calculation
Benchmarking to “theoretical capacity” is a good starting point for measuring faculty contributions to the department, but they do not tell the whole story. Binghamton University takes a more holistic approach to measuring faculty contributions by tracking several different types of teaching and scholarly activity, as well as administrative release.
Department chairs can use faculty activity tracking to more holistically and fairly assess the workload of each individual faculty member. For example, if a faculty member is teaching a reduced load and publishing relatively few articles or book chapters compared to peers, a traditional workload model might label that faculty member ‘unproductive’. But Binghamton’s workload model might reveal that they are teaching large numbers of high-intensity lab courses and presenting at conferences, allowing for a more nuanced discussion of that faculty member’s contributions.
Defining Key Indicators for Holistic Assessment
Central administrators also compare the key indicators across departments to assess the needs of the college or school as a whole. For example, deans could use an analysis of activity to reallocate adjunct funding among departments within the college or school, determine whether new faculty lines are needed, or discuss the provision of additional releases.
There is no “silver bullet” faculty workload policy to solve inequities and ensure high productivity across the board—each institution must set its own policies based on its mission and the composition of its faculty and student body. But with a more nuanced view of teaching capacity, credit-hour production, and scholarly and service activity, academic leaders can gain clarity into how faculty spend their time and plan strategically for future needs.
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The Instructional Capacity Playbook