Time to look at ‘released time’

Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the Chico News & Review.

When I began a check on “released time” at Chico State University last April, I didn’t know it would take six months to pry loose the official figures.

What is released time? In simplest terms, released time is that fraction of a full-time professor’s teaching load that is excused as payment for doing some nonclassroom task ranging all the way from creating a new course to lightening the teaching load of department chairs. Awarding released time can involve—surprise!—politics and favoritism.

In spring term ‘06 (the latest figures), the equivalent of 57.5 full-time faculty positions were used in this manner, meaning 230 fewer three-unit class sections offered to students, worth $3,773,610. Meanwhile, a full-time prof’s teaching load is and has long been 15 units, but three of the 15 units are by definition excused for doing nonclassroom tasks, leaving 12 units of class work. Excusing workload beyond these three units amounts to a double-dipping perk.

Why the delay? Because I’ve written on this subject several times before, and the university is sensitive to diverting 11.5 percent of the full-time workforce (average cost per prof: $65,628) to nonclassroom activity, a disservice to students.

But I must now admit that self-realization has dawned about my returning to this subject: It involves guilt—long suppressed beneath the sensor bend—I feel for taking released time I really didn’t deserve.

For years I taught a three-unit class on the history of mass communications for which I received six units of teaching-load credit. This lecture-discussion mass section with 120 students generated excess enrollment money for my department.

Once the lectures plus objective, machine-scored tests were set up—history needs minimal updating—the class required no preparation. I numbered each test so I could gather all copies each time for re-use—no loose copies for the Greek files. Because it was a lower-division class, I could justify not assigning a research paper I would need to read and grade. Thus, half my teaching load was a cakewalk.

At one point a national survey revealed that about 40 percent of the universities offering mass sections allowed released time to teach them. I pushed to keep the released time allowed at Chico State.

Using released time for department chairs is most abusive. For example, in journalism (my old home) the chair teaches only six units with six units of released time, thus using faculty time (money) to pay for administrative work.

Maybe Education Secretary Margaret Spellings can reform released time in her new push to make higher education more accountable for student progress.