Workload Disparities Discussed By UW-Milwaukee University Committee

Disparities in workload assignments among instructional academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provoked discussion recently before the powerful University Committee.

“In dance and theatre, with academic staff, it’s five courses constitute a 100 percent, whereas everywhere else it’s four,” Luc Vanier, an instructor in the Dance Department and member of the University Committee, said.

The 100 percent refers to a full teaching load. Some departments’ academic staff end up teaching fewer than four classes, however, due to course releases.

Vanier has been an instructor in the Dance Department for over 10 years. He says this course-load issue is larger than how many classes are taught by an instructor each semester; instead, it’s a systemic, and budget, issue. Indeed, the discussion about courseloads occurs against a climate of budget cuts as, the less someone teaches, the more it can affect a department’s budget to fill other courses.

The University Committee. Photo by Emily Topczewski.

The University Committee. Photo by Emily Topczewski.

Now he’s looking for Sarah Morgan, the chair of the Academic Staff Committee at UWM, to further investigate the matter. Morgan came as a guest to part of a meeting of the University Committee on Oct. 21, where the committee discussed the plenary and other plans to help the university run smoothly. The University Committee is a governance body responsible for guiding major decisions that affect the entire campus community.

Last year, the dance program went through a review, and the discrepancy was brought up. The review suggested faculty, especially those who teach graduate students, should not have to teach five courses a semester for a full load. Morgan says she’s working on bringing the report in front of the committee.

“Yes, it’s looking at it as best we can,” she said of the report. “Some of it is going to be more general and less specific, but I think it’s going to depend. But we understand those different structures, and we’ve had one conversation.”

Members of the Instructional Academic Staff teach throughout the university at varying course levels. There is a process to obtain indefinite status for some as part of the academic staff for those on that track, but Vanier says it is time-intensive with reviews and evaluations, and it takes six years. Other academic staff are hired on fixed-term contracts.

But regardless of the status on their contact, all academic staff members are still held to the course-load requirements to earn 100-percent of their salary. However, the way this is handled throughout the university can change from department-to-department.

“It is unique,” Morgan said. “I know in some colleges, schools, departments, the number of students you teach makes a difference. For nursing, it doesn’t. I get one unit, whether I’m teaching my class of 160 or my class of 18.”

Instructional Academic Staff are held to the UWM Faculty Workload Policy, a document that was first published in 1994, and then later revised in 1996. This policy defines a full workload as four courses per semester, split equally so each unit is 25-percent of the instructor’s salary. A unit is considered one section of a three-credit course; if an academic staff member teaches two sections of one course, it would be equivalent of teaching two units. Teaching two courses a semester, being at 50-percent of a salary, qualifies an instructor for full-time benefits from the university. However, instructors can receive course releases for varying duties to teach fewer classes.

But in the dance and theatre departments, Vanier says the five-course requirement puts academic staff at a disadvantage, while assisting the budget of these programs.

“There was a history at some point,” Vanier said. “When dance and theatre were together, that everyone in the Peck School was on a model of five courses. And this changed, but for some reason dance and theatre stayed at a five -course model.”

He says that the understanding at the time was that these academic staff would teach a dance class twice a week, but it was primarily for non-majors. It’s transitioned so some of the academic staff in the Dance Department are teaching three or four times a week, and they’re integral to the education of both graduate and undergraduate students who are dance majors.

It is no secret that higher education is facing major budget cuts, and balancing tight funds, since the economy took a nose-dive in 2008. Margo Anderson is a professor in the History Department who serves on the University Committee. She says a lack of transparency is harming departmental and institutional budgets as well as the quality and variety of courses offered to students.

“We can make good academic decisions,” she said. “We can say, ‘This is the right thing to do intellectually, this is the coming area, we need to offer this, we have something available,’ but we have no idea whether it’s cost-effective or anything.”

There is even push-back from hiring long-term faculty members over academic staff or ad-hoc or fixed term instructors.

“In some cases, it isn’t cost-effective,” Mark Schwartz, the chair of the University Committee and a professor in the Geography Department, said. “In our case, we’ve been saying: We’ve been getting by with temporary instructors teaching this, and we’d prefer to have faculty. There’s no way that economically, that that’s going to cost less.”

Vanier faces the similar budget limitations, and lack of transparency, when trying to add courses to the Dance Department’s repertoire.

“It’s the same question that dance is looking at,” he said. “So the dean comes to see and I ask ‘how much money, where’s it going to compete, in what way is this going to fulfill the overall goal and are we taking students out of a class here, how does this work?’ and often, it’s hard to tell,” Vanier said, “Often it’s impossible to know what you’re doing.”

But at the end of the day, the dance with the budget comes back to the academic staff it can either help or harm. So while students might not think about how the university keeps their instructors every semester, it certainly can keep staff and administration up at night.

“When we want to make a decision about load, then the minute we make a decision about the senior lecturer that’s teaching grads and is an integral part of the major, we make a decision and it affects 14 other yoga instructors and Pilates instructors and people that teach one class,” Vanier said. “It bumps people that were teaching two classes for 40 percent now to two classes at 50, now they get benefits, the whole thing blossoms into this impossible thing for us to handle.”