Buckeye fans enjoy seeing Ohio State at or near the top of rankings for a variety of things including numerous sports, academics, and research spending. Thanks to the all-around strength of OSU, we’ve gotten rather used to seeing the university we love at the top of those lists. However, not every list is one that you want to be at the top of and OSU fans and alumni had that reinforced this week when the Institute for Policy Studies named Ohio State as the Most Unequal Public University in the country; several other Big Ten schools also had the misfortune of appearing on the list as the rest of the top five were Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, and the University of Washington. The IPS rankings were based on a combination of high pay for top administrators, high student debt, and large increases in low-wage or contingent faculty labor.
The fact that last year OSU’s Gordon Gee was the highest paid president in the country, earning over $6 million a year, meant that the university automatically was under scrutiny in the administrative pay category. Now the fact that Gee got paid a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Ohio State is a huge, complex university and the job of president comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility. Gee also did a very good job according to most reports and he connected well with the students.
Gee’s high salary does become an issue though when it is coupled with growing student debt. According to the IPS report, the average student debt at Ohio State rose 46% to over $26,000 between 2006 and 2011; that was a rate that was faster than the national average. A big reason for that rising student debt is that since 2006, tuition at Ohio State has risen from $8,406 to $10,010 for Ohio residents and from $20,301 to $25,726 for non-residents (room and board was another $10,000 per year on top of that); that is an increase of 19% for in-state students and 27% for out-of-state students.
Students aren’t the only ones feeling the pain, faculty at Ohio State have also suffered in terms of pay. Since 2006, the enrollment at OSU’s Columbus campus rose from 51,818 to 57,466. More students should mean a need for more classes and thus a need for more faculty to teach those classes. However that isn’t exactly in the case; in 2006 OSU had 3,028 tenure-track faculty )working 3,008.5 full time equivalent positions) but that number dropped to 2,848 (working 2,835.37 FTE positions) by the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
So who is teaching all these extra students? The answer to that comes when one looks at the number of associated or adjunct faculty at OSU.
In 2006, Ohio State had 1,884 adjunct faculty members (working 1455.3 FTE positions) while 2013 that number had grown to 2,676 (working 2,040.54 FTE positions). At first glance this may not seem like a big deal, just swapping one type of faculty for another that is easier to fire. However, that is ignoring the reality of adjunct faculty positions which are part-time positions with no job security from year to year that often come with no health or retirement benefits. While Ohio State doesn’t publish an average salary for their adjunct faculty, nationally adjuncts earn in the area of $3,000 per course they teach and will often be asked to teach 3-4 courses per semester. This means that you have adjunct faculty, almost all with some form of advanced degree if not a PhD, who are earning about $30,000-$40,000 a year max with few if any benefits.
Now many readers are probably going, ‘big deal, at least they have a job and they should have made a better career choice if they wanted to earn more.’ While there may be some small amount of truth in there, that is ignoring the big picture of how this impacts the students. These adjunct faculty are fully qualified to teach at the university level and before universities around the country started reducing the number of tenure-track faculty positions, many of them would have been able to land tenure-track jobs at good universities. However, despite their qualifications, it is hard to imagine that you will get top level work out of people who are way underpaid, often still dealing with their own student debt, and constantly worried about whether they will get hired back for the next semester.
To make matters worse, it is very common for adjunct faculty to not find out which classes or how many classes they will be teaching until just a couple weeks before the semester starts. We all remember sitting through classes where the professor just read the same powerpoint slides that they had been using for 10 years and this method of teaching of course doesn’t require much preparation. However there are many professors out there who do care about teaching and who work to come up with innovative ways to teach their classes and these kind of professors are very common among adjunct faculty as you have to care about teaching and enjoy it in order to be willing to stay in an adjunct position. So while a lot of adjunct faculty want to incorporate new, more effective teaching techniques into their classes, these techniques take more time to plan and prepare and thus the short notification time hurts the ability of the adjunct faculty to do anything other than just recycle powerpoint slides.
Universities of course have to deal with fiscal realities and government funding to universities has gone down over the past decade meaning that schools have to figure out how to save money. In that light, switching to lower cost faculty seems like an unfortunate but reasonable move. However when you look at other hiring and pay decisions made by universities, the decision doesn’t look so reasonable. Not only was Ohio State paying Gordon Gee $6 million a year, they also increased the number of administrative staff. In 2006 OSU had 14,394 administrative and professional staff; by 2013 that number had grown to 18,090.
This scenario isn’t unique to Ohio State, in fact it is currently playing out at most colleges and universities throughout the United States. The increase in adjunct faculty has alarmed a number of higher education experts and even resulted in an editorial in The New York Times last month.
While I have criticized Ohio State a lot in this article, I still love the university, feel that I got a great education there, and believe that it is one of the top universities in the world. That said, the trends highlighted in this article are a major cause for concern and need to be addressed. The solutions won’t be simple but something needs to be done. It isn’t fair for universities to ask students to pay more and to go increasingly into debt while also telling them that more and more of their classes will be taught but underpaid, part-time faculty.