US faculty lodge complaint over six-day teaching plan

New Jersey budget cuts force new rigid office hours and Saturday classes. Jon Marcus reports

July 31, 2008

A public university in the US that is pressing its faculty to work set hours, including Saturdays, has sparked what threatens to become a national dispute over the productivity of university staff as state funding falls.

Kean University in New Jersey is trying to make up for a $4.5 million (£2.26 million) cut in the annual funding it receives from the state by increasing enrolments and generating enough additional revenue in the process to avoid significantly raising tuition fees.

It proposes to do this by spreading classes over six days a week, using classroom space that now is largely empty on Fridays and Saturdays, and asking faculty to teach on those days. The university also wants faculty to be in their offices at least four days a week, to be available to students.

Staff have responded by filing a grievance before the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission. They argue that they do research and writing outside their offices and classrooms, and a flexible schedule is one of the reasons they took careers in academia over better-paying jobs in private industry.

Kean's faculty also say that there are only 376 lecturers to teach approximately 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

"If you're going to engage in research and so forth, you need to have a flexible schedule and not be tied down so that you have to be at a certain place at 10am on Tuesday," said Nick Yovnello, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents Kean's professors.

"This is not a factory," said Mr Yovnello. "You're hiring professionals to do a professional job - to teach, to engage in research, to engage in curricular activity, and to contribute to the community. How do you contribute to the community if you're chained to your desk?"

The average full professor at Kean makes $107,000 a year, and the university estimates that the full average annual compensation package per professor, including benefits, is $160,000.

Philip Connelly, the university's vice-president of administration and finance and its chief labour negotiator, said: "We can no longer bear the expense of faculty members who want to work two days a week, ten months of the year, for salaries and benefits in excess of $160,000. It is unreasonable (and) not sustainable."

He said the position taken by staff was particularly unreasonable "at a time when all New Jersey residents are feeling the pinch of an ongoing economic crisis, are working hard to pay bills and keep their homes, (and) are worried about having a job tomorrow".

While the case is before the state's employment relations commission, with a decision expected in the next few weeks, the disagreement has grown in symbolic importance, and now involves the highest levels of the AFT.

"Almost every other university in the country recognises that faculty members need time away from the campus to conduct research and meet their community service," said outgoing AFT president Edward McElroy in a recent letter to the governor of New Jersey.

But public sympathy for the lecturers has been limited. Tuition fees at public universities such as Kean have increased at double the rate of inflation, and the median household income in the US is less than half of the average salary paid to Kean professors.

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