High faculty teaching load at Washington and Lee affects hiring and student registration

Faculty said the standard teaching load is one of multiple barriers to hiring additional professors – which also affects which courses students can take.

Faculty at Washington and Lee teach up to 1.5 more courses each academic year than their peers at similarly ranked liberal arts colleges.

That’s according to public data compiled by Provost Lena Hill and Williams School Dean Robert Straughan. The data was presented to the university’s Board of Trustees in a meeting Feb. 11.

The standard course load for a professor at Washington and Lee is 5.5 courses per academic year, meaning they teach six courses one year and five courses the following year.

In contrast, the nation’s top six liberal arts colleges, according to 2022 rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, require faculty to teach four courses during the academic year.

The highest teaching load at any other top liberal arts college that uses a semester system is five courses per academic year. 

Hill and Straughan delivered a presentation to the Board of Trustees Feb. 11 highlighting concerns about the university’s high teaching load, according to a report written by faculty representatives to the board.

Faculty representative and Business Administration Department Head Amanda Bower said the trustees were attentive to teaching load concerns. She said trustees need to understand that faculty would commit the same amount of time to students under a lighter teaching load.

“It means you’re teaching better in each of those classes,” Bower said. “It’s kind of like if you’re a parent and you have five or six kids. It doesn’t mean you’re doing less work. It means you’re spending more time on each of them.”

Other faculty members said the teaching load doesn’t just put additional strain on current professors. 

Course load expectations also make it harder to hire new professors at a time when multiple departments are expanding, they said.

Professor of Physics and Engineering Joel Kuehner, a member of the Faculty Affairs Committee, said the university’s high teaching load is especially a disincentive for non-tenure track visiting professors, who typically remain at the university for a short time and receive similar job offers from other schools.

“It is not uncommon to lose a good candidate [because of teaching load requirements],” Kuehner said. “Of course, if they’re trying to make sure in the future they can land a job, the lower teaching load is more attractive because they have more time to get that next job.” 

The catch-22, faculty said, is that in order to reduce the standard teaching load, the university needs to hire more faculty to cover additional courses. 

And course loads aren’t the only barrier to hiring and recruitment, Bower said.

The business administration department had three failed faculty searches in 2021, in part because of what Bower termed the “two-body problem.”

Potential hires’ spouses usually have jobs, Bower said, and moving to Lexington often proves impossible unless the spouse also gets hired nearby. Faculty pay also hasn’t kept up with inflation, particularly as gas and grocery prices have spiraled in recent months, Bower said. 

Faculty received no raise in 2020 and a 1.5% raise in 2021, according to the Board of Trustees meeting report.

Between course loads, pay and Washington and Lee’s location, hiring the right people has been a university-wide challenge, Bower said. 

Executive Director of Strategic Analysis Cassie Hunt, who helped compile the data comparing course loads at peer institutions, said teaching load metrics alone fail to convey overall faculty workload.

“There’s so many factors that go into what it means to be a faculty member beyond just the number of courses that they are teaching,” Hunt said.

Other factors that influence a faculty member’s workload at Washington and Lee include their number of advisees, the number of senior theses or independent studies they advise, the committees they serve on and more, Hunt said.

Peer colleges aren’t required to publish additional numbers reflecting faculty workload, making it difficult to establish a “holistic” comparison between schools, Hunt said.

Bower said less-publicized “service” requirements, like advising, hiring and other department work, in combination with a high teaching load, are proving increasingly exhausting for faculty members.

Hunt also noted that Washington and Lee is the only college on the list that has a spring term in addition to two semester-length terms. And while some professors enjoy teaching during spring term, others find it difficult to condense learning into such a short time period. 

“We sort of make this claim that the four-week term is the same as the 12-week term, but that’s nonsense,” said Molly Michelmore, head of the history department and faculty advisor to the Board of Trustees. “You can have a good intellectual experience, but it’s different. You just can’t take in the same amount or same kind of information in the same way in four weeks as you do in 12.” 

Transitioning a course from a 12-week schedule into a 4-week schedule is another example of extra work that professors put in behind-the-scenes. 

“I don’t have a course that I teach in four weeks that would not be better as a 12-week course, or would not actually be better as a 15-week course,” she said. “I’ve not found a way to make it work, except to really shorten the amount of stuff that we’re going to do, and to focus on different kinds of projects.”

But this year, Michelmore volunteered to teach a spring term course after many students were left without a class to take due to a lack of available seats. 

A few days after spring term registration, the registrar’s office sent an email to the student body announcing that additional seats and sections would be opened up. 

“We are aware of the difficulties many sophomores have faced in finding a spring term course during registration today,” the email said. 

Scott Hoover, professor of banking and finance, looked into the seats available for spring term registration after many students were left without a class. 

“I’m a data hound, so I track these things,” he said. “And when I realized there was a problem, I looked.”

He said the first time he tallied spring term availability was right after registration, and there were less than 1400 seats that had gone live. But there are about 1850 students at the school. 

“There’s all sorts of ways that that might be off by a little bit,” he said, as the course catalog does not always reflect the exact number of students in each class. But there was definitely a large gap between the number of students registering and the number of seats available, he said.

The Ring-tum Phi asked University Registrar Kim Robinson and several other members of the administration to confirm or deny whether there were significantly fewer seats available than students registering. 

Only Fred LaRiviere, associate dean of the college, responded. He contradicted Hoover’s assertion that there were fewer seats available than students registering. But LaRiviere said he was unable to provide any numbers.

“No, there were not significantly less seats available than students registering,” he said via email. “In fact, the total number of seats available exceeded the number of students who were registering.

One of many students who had trouble getting into a class was Sarah Clark, ’23. Clark said she didn’t get into her first-choice class or any of her back-up classes during registration. 

“I was just searching for a random course that I could take,” she said. “I was looking around and there was literally nothing I could take, so I got on the waitlist for 40 credits, just to see if I could get into something.”

Clark was on the waitlist for classes in the accounting, business, religion and sociology and anthropology departments. Some of these classes had over 30 other students on the waitlist. 

She is now enrolled in an accounting class with a professor she likes, but it doesn’t count toward her major or FDR requirements. 

“I want to take this class, but it doesn’t count for anything,” Clark said. And although this will not delay her graduation, it might impact her desire to spring option during her senior year. 

This registration problem was a result of many factors, Michelmore said, but it especially captured the combined effects of the ongoing hiring and faculty course load issues — and how they affect students, too. 

“If you are in a department that has a fairly significant number of required courses, let’s say it’s econ or business administration, professors are really teaching required courses all the time for which there is significant demand. And those kinds of required courses, they don’t fit into four weeks,” Michelmore said. “And so those departments that have to fill ever so many sections of [required courses] and who are having trouble hiring people, they don’t have people teaching in the spring term because they can’t.” 

Professors in those departments fill up their five or six courses each year by meeting the increasing demand for required courses during the fall and winter semesters. This leaves departments with more elective courses, like history or English, to pick up the slack in spring term – forcing professors like Michelmore to opt into “teaching overload” so there are enough courses offered. 

Some departments, like history, have an established norm that professors teach a spring term course every other year to spread out the responsibility. But the 5.5 course load at Washington and Lee makes this difficult to uphold, Michelmore said. 

“If you have new hires that come in with a different load, or if you have somebody go on leave, the question is, is that their six year or is that their five year?” she said. 

This scheduling confusion was also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Michelmore. 

“Everybody’s rotation got a little bit mixed up, because if you had, say, a travel class planned for 2020 or a spring term abroad class planned for 2021, those got just pushed, they got canceled,” Michelmore said. “And so the question is, who’s supposed to be teaching now?”

Hoover said he thought there was an understood, unwritten expectation that faculty are required to teach every other spring term. But this is not the understanding of other professors, and every department differs.

There is no standard, Hoover said.

Another significant downside to the registration issues is that class sizes are significantly larger than they should be, Hoover said. 

“The course I am teaching this spring was designed for 12 students with the idea that part of the time would be spent in a backwoods camping experience,” he said. “I now have 18 students enrolled in that, which presents a real challenge in terms of both travel and safety.

This also means that grading takes more time. 

“The result has become that spring term is not at all what it was envisioned to be, and we, with a few notable exceptions, fall short in providing students the incredibly meaningful experiences we hope to provide during spring term,” Hoover said. “All of that in turn makes most faculty want to avoid it in favor of having an extended summer break.”