University of Wisconsin faculty worried about language in budget tracking professor classroom hours

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin-Madison officials and faculty are sounding warning bells again after Republican legislators re-inserted contentious language into the state budget calling for the tracking of professors' classroom hours, saying the data will be used to make instructors look lazy.

Republican lawmakers across the country have been writing proposals aimed at increasing professors' classroom hours, saying they want to make sure undergraduates get value in return for rising tuition costs. Opponents say the GOP is trying to appease a base that's distrustful of higher education in general.

Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal called for making state aid for system campuses contingent on faculty teaching hours. It also required the Board of Regents to monitor teaching loads and reward instructors who go beyond the standard workload and produce annual reports on teaching hours. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in March that the plan was aimed at reversing a trend of professors spending less time in undergraduate classrooms.

UW faculty members blasted the proposal, saying monitoring classroom time doesn't take into account hours spent prepping, mentoring and conducting research. System President Ray Cross told the committee each school already has its own teaching load policy.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee stripped the language from the budget in April because it was non-fiscal policy. But in an about-face, committee Republicans re-inserted the wording in a sweeping motion Wednesday that completed the panel's work on the budget.

David Vanness, past president of the American Association of University Professors' UW-Madison chapter and a professor of applied population health sciences at the school, said it appears the tracking requirements are designed to make faculty look bad.

"By ignoring other core activities like mentoring, outreach, course development and research, it seems to be designed for intentional misuse — to make faculty look like we aren't worthy of public support because we don't spend all day every day in front of the classroom," he said. "It would be like judging legislators only on the basis of how many hours they spend on the floor of the Assembly."

He added that offering incentives for teaching more classes could hurt research as professors opt to spend more hours in class and sends a signal to researchers across the country that the state won't value their work if they come here.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank posted a statement on the school's website insisting any tracking requirement include all the tasks faculty members perform.

"UW-Madison faculty provide service to Wisconsin in three critical areas — teaching, research and outreach," she said. "Each of these services is important so any method of tracking faculty workload should include all three areas, not merely time spent in the classroom."

Cross' response was more muted, saying system officials will keep working to show faculty members are valuable and the Board of Regents remain the appropriate body to create UW policies.

It's a mystery who tucked the language back into the budget. The wrap-up motion doesn't list the authors and aides for Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, the committee's co-chairs, didn't reply to an email.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat who sits on the committee, said the move surprised him. He believes the language came back to appease Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Steve Nass, whom he said don't like the system. He said the measure is meant to make faculty look bad.

"It's designed as a huge 'gotcha' when we have better things to do," Erpenbach said. "They're not taking into account what a professor does all day."

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the proposal was re-inserted into the budget to "add a level of transparency that parents and students who pay tuition deserve. It's important to know how much time professors spend teaching."

Nass aide Mike Mikalsen didn't return an email message seeking comment.

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