Redefining Faculty Appointments

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Last week I shared an overview of a recent series of essays that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education intended to engage people in discussion about reinventing college. I shared the titles of the essays and the fact that readers have been invited to provide their own creative ideas in a contest entitled, “Invent Your Own College!”

Some of the suggested solutions in the essays by reporters and contributors address specific challenges within higher ed, but not necessarily the central issues of access and affordability. One issue that draws a good deal of attention is the state of the professoriate.

One of the essays in the reinventing college series is entitled, “2 Tracks for Faculty.” Sadly, this idea provides nothing new and suggests a strategy that is both unrealistic and unaffordable for most institutions.

The idea proposed is to establish “two types of faculty members.” One type would be those earning doctorates, who are hired on tenure track appointments with significant responsibilities for research and graduate education. This is the common profile of today’s full-time faculty member. The second track would be those hired as full-time instructors, who are required to earn only a master’s degree and primarily teach and advise undergraduate students. At most institutions, these are part-time faculty members.

At face value, this suggestion regarding “tracks” or “types” of appointments, an idea that has been discussed for decades, makes good sense. Training instructors to be better teachers and appointing them to focus on teaching would likely improve the quality of education at most institutions. Further, the idea is that these faculty might be prepared through master’s level programs that focus on pedagogy and instructional methods within their disciplines. But this notion is connected in “2 Tracks for Faculty” with a proposal to turn current adjunct faculty (part-time) instructors into future full-time instructors.

Part-time faculty are typically under-paid with few benefits and little security. They are most often paid by the course with limitations on the number of courses they are allowed to teach. While some adjunct faculty are hired to bring a specific expertise necessary for certain courses in professional programs, most are qualified to teach a range of courses within a discipline. Many are both qualified and willing to teach full time, but are hired by the course and by the semester or year. And they deserve to be better paid and more secure in their positions.

The fact is that most colleges hire part-time faculty as one way to manage costs. This is the primary problem with this proposal. Most college presidents I know would gladly hire more full-time faculty and would see full-time instructors as both a more equitable employment option for adjuncts and a benefit to the educational experience for students. But the simple fact is that if colleges were to reduce the number of adjunct faculty and hire more full-time instructors, the overall cost would be prohibitive. And if affordability is already an issue for too many students, this would only exacerbate the situation.

The solution to the instructional challenge lies more directly in the redesign of the curriculum and the delivery of instruction (course schedule and course offerings). Whatever the optimum class size, colleges would be more efficient (and effective) if classes were all full and the curriculum was more streamlined with fewer electives.

If this was accomplished, resources would be more available to raise faculty salaries, hire more full-time faculty (tenure track and instructors) and manage costs for students. Until the cost issue is addressed, the number of tracks is unimportant.

What do you think?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Wednesday, 30 July 2014