UW lecture hall

Students listen to a lecture on the first day of class in professor Jerome Camal's Anthropology 104 course in Bascom Hall at UW-Madison on Sept. 2, 2014.

Bryce Richter

In their latest attack on the eggheads, Wisconsin Republicans have revived Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to force the University of Wisconsin System to keep track of the time professors spend teaching and to reward those “who teach more than a standard academic load.”

It’s not the first time they’ve sought to prove that while profs might have the brains, pols have the power, including the power to force profs to punch a time clock.

That said, legislation isn’t stupid just because it’s motivated by sheer resentment.

The System already does some of what Walker wants. Its “accountability dashboard” shows academic staff at the two-year UW colleges spent, on average, about 28 hours a week in the classroom in the fall of 2015. In the fall of 2016, UW-Madison professors logged about six hours a week.

UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the System already has the ability to reward faculty for teaching more, and it would be a major hassle to expand the dashboard to include how much time each prof spends teaching.

“The administration of tracking each employee each semester is massive compared to tracking positions aggregately,” she said.

The American Association of University of Professors also objects to time clock punching.

In a statement, it says: “The general public tends to equate the number of hours spent in the classroom — the contact-hour teaching load — with a faculty member’s workload, which properly should be seen as the aggregate of hours devoted to all the forms and demands of teaching, of scholarship and research and publication, and of the many varieties of professional service.”

Separating the aggregate into its component parts would “distort the enterprise of higher education,” says the AAUP. Perhaps not surprisingly, it could also make it easier to determine which parts of a professor’s game need improvement.

If the pols want to monitor more state employees like assembly line workers, they might start with themselves. A budget completed more than two months late that provides no sustainable road funding suggests a Legislature that isn’t very productive.

Otherwise, there’s no shame in hourly work, and the problem with Walker’s plan is not keeping track of teaching hours; it’s treating all faculty the same.

Marquis noted that “research brings in millions of federal dollars to our state and leads to a new patent about every 49 hours” and that “focusing on the teaching workload” could undermine the focus on research.

Faculty doing, say, health or environmental research arguably need more time out of the classroom than, say, researchers in the medieval literature or art history — for whom teaching could be a bigger factor in compensation and job security.

The standard rejoinder to any suggestion that the humanities aren’t as essential as other academic pursuits is that the humanities help students learn how to think and force them to grapple with big, enduring questions about life, beauty, truth, love and more. And they do.

But if the GOP insists on micromanaging profs, there are worse things than giving students more face time with experts on big, enduring questions.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.