Office hour squeeze

A retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

One of the oldest and most persistent student complaints at Chico State University is that professors need to be more accessible, meaning keep their office hours. Many profs don’t schedule adequate office hours and/or are pretty lax about keeping hours they do schedule.

Rules exist, of course. Official university policy states: “A full-time faculty member shall hold a minimum of five office hours per week at times and on days when affected students are normally in attendance.” This provision applies pro rata for part-timers.

There are faculty who follow these rules closely. Others schedule fewer hours with the note “and by appointment,” an often meaningless gesture because “busy” instructors can be hard to pin down at a mutually convenient time. Some instructors consider office time spent with students as time lost for pursuits they think are more important.

Many tenured senior professors simply schedule three office hours per week without the added appointment note, perhaps reminiscent of the faculty campaign some 10 years ago to install a campuswide standard of two office hours per week. The university provost finally derailed the effort by pointedly reminding faculty of the five-hour standard. Faculty who enjoy officially granted “release time” from one or more of their classes to perform some non-teaching task such as conducting a forum, advising, or developing curriculum usually reduce their office contact hours proportionally.

In my 24 years at Chico State I never knew of or heard about any instructor who was disciplined for office hours abuse, a lack of accountability typical of the university. Indeed, in Executive Memorandum No. 98-11, dated Feb. 18, 1998, President Manuel Esteban reminds faculty about the importance of reporting “any absence from a scheduled responsibility,” meaning a class or office hour, to the department chair. This toothless edict, which mentions no penalty for violation, is posted on the university Web site.

For different reasons, things are much worse at Butte College, where 488 part-time faculty teach almost half the courses but don’t have offices where they can hold office hours. In fact, not all 141 full-time Butte faculty have offices and, like the part-timers, they must meet students in the cafeteria or try to find an empty classroom. Understandably concerned, the college recently conducted a survey which found that 75 percent of students think out-of-class access to instructors is important.

At Chico State, all 604 full-time faculty have offices, and the 355 part-timers, who enjoy access to office space, teach 25 percent of all classes. State code mandates this 75/25 percent ratio. It applies to Butte College as well, but the school can’t afford to hire adequate full-time faculty, and the requirement is waived each year, says Stacey Burks, the part-timers’ union chief.

Despite the upheavals in the private-sector workplace in the last decade, tenured university faculty, particularly tenured senior faculty, remain pretty much autonomous contractors who do largely as they please, their culture all but impervious to much needed change. Apparently, only in a perfect world will all profs keep proper office hours.