At some public universities across the nation, faculty parking lots are half empty after noon.
Good colleges and universities have traditionally had good teaching faculty. They not only taught their courses well, but they had ample office hours. Their doors were open to students who have further questions, needed extra help, or sought academic advice. Professors are salaried which means that they do not “clock in” but are paid to get the job done. Faculty parking lots were full and remained full all day long. And most students graduated knowing that some of their professors knew them and helped them succeed. Later in life, when the student has a successful career, it is this relationship that is most likely to generate alumni donations.
But walk the hallways of some of today’s public universities and you will find fewer students in those hallways. Classrooms may stand empty even at 10:00 a.m. on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Faculty office blocks may be a ghost town. Why are some faculty parking lots half empty in the afternoon?
The absentee professor problem is becoming more common as technology makes it legitimate to “phone it in.” The “telecommuting” craze started in industry about a decade ago and many businesses allowed workers to work at home where it was appropriate. That has not always worked out and many businesses are calling workers back into the on-site offices to regain that interpersonal interaction that produces creativity and loyalty. Unfortunately, this phone-it-in craze is accelerating in higher education.
The extent it has legitimacy is evident in the June 20 Chronicle of Higher Education where the title says it all: “Office Hours Are Obsolete.” If they can offer courses online, why not do everything else online as well. That author asserts that: “...other than teaching my face-to-face classes, almost everything I do as part of my job can be done from practically anywhere. Therefore, I should be able to do those things from practically anywhere if I see fit.”
When you follow up on absentee professors, you can find other excuses as well. In law and business schools, some administrators explain that private practice pays so much more that you cannot hire qualified professors if you don’t let them work on the side (during school hours). This excuse even extends to education fields such as counseling and to some applied liberal arts as well.
Such professors may only appear on campus for classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and be absent the rest of the week. So if they are only present 40 percent of the time, are they just making 40 percent of the salary? Think again.
Most universities have a standard “conflict of interest” form that they update with annual contracts to ensure that professors are not participating in activities that conflict with their work at the university in a monetary or ethical way. And that includes a “conflict of time commitment” to ensure that their full time job at the university is not eroded by extensive participation in non-university activities. However, the questionable claim that “I can work from home just as well” makes the enforcement of these legal commitments nearly impossible.
Imposing requirements that faculty have a set number of office hours outside of class is no solution; it merely turns salaried professionals into time-clock punching wage earners. Surveys of good faculty reveal that professors work an average of over 60 hours a week. Treating faculty who have integrity with work hour rules could easily reduce their presence as much as require malingering academics to show up.
The professional solution to absentee professors is to have competent departmental chairs who are given the authority to do their job, and are backed up by higher administration. Many universities need to reverse the trend and get both professor’s and student’s boots back on the ground. Students do not attend a campus to do most of their work online. If universities continue to tolerate a growing number of absentee professors today, they will pay by a decline in alumni contributions tomorrow.