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When Credentials Count
Credentials are more important these days at Northeastern University, where about a dozen faculty members did not get their contracts renewed this year because they lacked advanced or terminal degrees in their fields, a spokesman confirmed Friday.
Their actions under scrutiny in part because of the institution's historic commitment to experiential education, the Northeastern administration maintains that it continues to value a combination of professional experience and scholarship in its faculty. But while acknowledging that the value in upping the academic expectations for Northeastern faculty is generally a good thing, some students and faculty have charged nevertheless that, in this case at least, "knowledge production" and advanced degrees are being unfairly valued to the exclusion of the type of extensive professional experience that these former lecturers can contribute.
The full-time lecturers, some of whom had worked at Northeastern for a decade or more, had in some cases bachelor’s degrees, and in other cases, master’s, said Susan Powers-Lee, Northeastern’s executive provost. Meanwhile, the university, Powers-Lee said, is increasingly hiring in the "teacher-scholar model."
“Northeastern has simply been getting better in terms of its academic endeavors, in how we teach and how we do scholarship,” Powers-Lee said Friday.
The contracts weren’t renewed at a time that Northeastern, a large, urban private university in Boston best known for its “real world” focus and co-op programs, is taking dramatic steps to increase the size of its tenured faculty. The university is three years and about 75 new hires into a five-year, $75 million Academic Investment Plan that includes the hiring of 100 tenure and tenure-track professors. In addition, 30 more are being hired through President Joseph Aoun’s Interdisciplinary Faculty Initiative, with at least five of those positions filled so far, Powers-Lee said.
While many laud the university’s goal of expanding its tenure and tenure-track contingent, the decision not to renew some long-serving lecturers’ contracts has come under attack from students and faculty alike, who have questioned its wisdom and fairness, particularly at a university known for its emphasis on practical experience. “We fully support raising the bar for faculty, and the administration should consider a professor’s educational record in the hiring process; but to abruptly fire professors who have clearly contributed to Northeastern is unacceptable,” said a spring editorial in the student newspaper, which also describes student protests to the administration's actions, including the circulation of petitions to keep some instructors on campus.
“Northeastern prides itself on experiential education, which recognizes the value of experiences outside the classroom,” the editorial says. “It is inconsistent to fire professors who have used their time to gain experiences in the real world rather than earning high degrees.”
“We certainly applaud steps taken by the administration to increase the number of tenure-eligible faculty appointments,” said Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors. But, Knight added, given the size of Northeastern's 866-person faculty, 71 percent of whom are tenured or tenure-track, “I question whether the means are necessary to achieve their ends.”
It’s “a question mark as to whether not renewing the appointments of long-serving faculty who don’t have advanced degrees does anything for that laudable initiative. If anything,” Knight said, “it raises questions about fundamental fairness and the rights of those individuals after being there for so many years.”
“I think the university is trying to upgrade the profile of the academic credentials of the teaching faculty in general, especially the permanent faculty,” added Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, where two well-established lecturers received only six-month contract renewals this year because they didn’t have master’s degrees -- which they were told, Burgard said, “were considered necessary for contract renewal.”
“On the face of it, as a long-term strategy, it’s one that makes sense,” Burgard said of the administration’s policy, adding, however, “I did have some questions about it. It seems to me there might have been some other ways of handling it that would have grandfathered in lecturers who did not really have any particular problems with their teaching.”
Plus, Burgard said, "This is a field that is very much practice-oriented." Most top journalism schools value professional experience in their faculty, and while a journalism professor with a Ph.D. isn't rare, nor is it necessarily the norm.
Powers-Lee said Friday that there are certain courses that are best taught when "informed by understanding knowledge discovery in that field.” Stressing that the university is not abandoning its commitment to its “real-world image," she said that professors of practice with or without terminal degrees who teach a course or two in their area of specialty – as opposed to a broader array of courses, as full-time lecturers do -- would continue to play an important role at Northeastern.
“I don’t think we’re backing away from our roots,” Powers-Lee said of the role of practical experience and scholarship in faculty recruiting and retention. “I think we’re honoring our roots by really trying to be excellent in both arenas.”