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IOWA CITY — COVID-19 altered how faculty members across Iowa’s public universities spent their work days in the last academic year — draining hours spent in a classroom, decreasing time spent on research and scholarship, while spiking virtual instruction and online grading and preparation.
But it didn’t increase the total hours worked, according to a new Board of Regents survey that found average weekly hours worked in the 2020-21 academic year continued a systemwide downward trend since the early 1990s, when the average hours worked neared 59 a week then.
The new report — based on 3,146 faculty respondents at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa surveyed over eight weeks in the spring — found the weekly average hours worked dropped to 53.4, down slightly from 53.8 in 2019 and 57 in 2007.
The biannual study found faculty across all three public campuses still “report working far more than 40 hours per week, on average.” Tenure and tenure-track faculty at the UI report working the most, at 55 hours a week, followed by 54 for clinical faculty and 50 for both research and non-tenure-track faculty.
ISU’s tenure and tenure-track faculty report working 54 hours a week, on average, while those at UNI report working nearly 52 hours a week.
Although the campus shifts from in-person to virtual learning were widely known last year — when a COVID-19 vaccine either wasn’t available yet or was less prevalent — the new report spells out exactly how the pandemic altered faculty work.
“As compared to 2019, tenure-track faculty across the institutions report spending more time on the category of student instruction … and less time on the category of scholarship, research, and creative work,” according to the board report.
Regarding student instruction, specifically, UNI faculty — at all levels — spent the most time teaching in the classroom last academic year, with tenure and tenure-track faculty teaching in person nearly 12 hours a week and non-tenure-track faculty teaching face-to-face 10 hours a week. That’s still down from 2019’s 18-hour average for both UNI categories.
UI tenure and tenure-track faculty taught in person just two hours a week last year, with non-tenure-track faculty teaching in a classroom four hours a week. Conversely, those faculty taught either online only or in a hybrid fashion for eight hours and more than 17 hours a week, respectively.
Unrelated to the pandemic, the percentage of student credit hours taught by tenure and tenure-track faculty — compared with non-tenure-track or graduate assistants — has been declining at Iowa’s public research universities for years, according to the report.
In fall 2020, 38 percent of UI credit hours were taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty; 53 percent by non-tenure-track faculty; and 9 percent by graduate assistants.
Comparatively, in fall 1999, nearly 63 percent were taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty; 20 percent by non-tenure-track faculty; and 17 percent by grad assistants, according to regent reports.
The breakdown was similar in 1999 for ISU and UNI. Today, 47 percent of ISU courses are taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty and a higher 73 percent are at UNI.
UNI, in the report, indicated its increase in courses taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty “is a direct reflection of UNI's commitment to a high quality educational experience for all students.”
In explaining the ISU slide, officials in the report said the rise in non-tenure track instruction “reflects the changing profile of faculty appointments at universities across the nation, and is also sensitive to changes in enrollment.”
The regent report notes top research institutions — like UI and ISU — nationally have reported a similar drop in tenure and tenure-track instruction, from 53 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2018.
Among the benefits of years spent on faculty is the ability to take time away from teaching for a professional development assignment aimed at “promoting and supporting innovation in teaching, research, and economic development.”
This could include a semester or year spent writing a book, creating a new course, conducting grant-funded research or some other form of academic inquiry. The number of faculty approved to take assignments had ticked up for 2020 and 2021 — but a new regents report notes many professors didn’t take their assignments due to the pandemic. Of the 134 assignments that regents approved for this academic year, 56 either were deferred, declined or reduced across the three campuses.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, many faculty determined that they would be more able to accomplish the goals of their assignments if they deferred to a later date,” according to the report.
At the UI, 18 were deferred and seven were declined. At ISU, 20 were deferred, three were declined and three were reduced or changed. At UNI, one was deferred.
Even with campus operations closer to normal this year, professional development assignment numbers remain below normal — at a total of 72 in the current budget year and 98 in the next.
And while there are expenses associated with approving the assignments, they typically generate far more than they cost. During the most recent award period, for example, faculty earned nearly $6.7 million in grants, with $25.6 million in grant applications pending, and $6.4 million near submission.
“The return on investment to the institutions and the taxpayers of Iowa in just a one-year period is unparalleled,” according to the report.
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