Do Professors Matter?

Do Professors Matter?
October 30, 2009

My high school chemistry teacher used to exhort us to study hard lest the only college that would take us would be “Joe’s Barber College.” We were smart kids. We got the joke. We knew you weren’t a college just because you called yourself one. You needed certain accouterments -- such as a highly-trained and stable faculty.

But would this joke have as much traction in the 21st century? For instance, until relatively recently you could visit the Web sites of any number of for-profit colleges -- especially, but not exclusively, those specializing in distance education -- and search in vain for any sign of their faculty. Even now, although many of their advertisements proclaim the enhanced “real-life experience” of their faculties, a seeker will be hard-pressed to discover just who these folks are. And although one of the larger and more “successful” proprietaries has recently begun to offer faculty profiles of its staff on its Web site, these profiles merely feature photos of smiling heads and brief blurbs detailing their experience “facilitating” courses (most of which seem to have been at the proprietary institution itself). And when they do mention their degrees, they often do not say where or in what discipline those degrees were earned.

And, frighteningly enough, the devaluing of faculty is not confined to the proprietary schools where you would expect corner-cutting in the pursuit of profit, but also at a number of traditional colleges and universities. At the University of Toledo, for example, faculty recently were able to fend off -- at least for the time being -- an attempt by the university to surrender certain faculty prerogatives to Higher Ed Holdings, a company selling distance learning support to universities. And other traditional colleges like Arkansas State University have worked with Higher Ed Holdings to essentially bypass faculty in the development of course material. In spite of the company’s claim that it is merely a distribution and support system and not a content provider, the contract with Arkansas State says that “once adopted” the university “shall not amend the curriculum except with the consent” of HEH. Fort Hays State University, in Kansas, apparently without consulting its faculty, “sanctions” courses in composition, economics, algebra and accounting offered by a company called StraighterLine which sells the courses for $99! One encouraging outcome of all of this, however, is that students at Fort Hays, apparently showing more sense than the people administering the college, have been questioning the legitimacy of this partnership and wondering how it will impact the value of their degrees.

One conclusion we might draw from this move toward “transforming” higher education by circumventing long-established faculty responsibilities and prerogatives is that faculty do not matter any more -- at least not in the traditional sense. It seems that at some schools they have become quaint anachronisms who stand in the way of educational progress and financial efficiency.

This idea that faculty do not matter seems supported by some accrediting agencies. In Middle States’ Standard 10, for instance, which deals with faculty, we read the following:

Within some institutions, functions previously assumed to be part of traditional faculty roles are now the responsibility of other qualified personnel.... Whenever used in these standards, the term “faculty” shall be broadly construed to encompass qualified professionals such as third parties contracted by the institution, part-time or adjunct faculty, and those assigned responsibilities in academic development and delivery. Such professionals may include, as well, those responsible for the institution’s academic information resources.

This, of course, begs the question of “qualified” because it neatly sidesteps the issue of who determines qualifications, a role and responsibility traditionally the province of the legitimate faculty of a college. Further, one might well ask exactly who these "other qualified personnel" (let’s refer to them as OQP) are because, unlike at most traditional institutions where faculty are proudly identified, these folks are often anonymous. On what then, is the legitimacy of these institutions -- and OQP -- based? Or, said another way, can you be a college without a faculty?

For much of the history of American higher education, it was taken for granted that the faculty defined an institution and gave it its identity, character and academic legitimacy and integrity. Not only did the faculty determine what would be taught but also, because they had direct responsibility for deciding appointment, promotion, and tenure, who should teach. And, as important, it remains the case at most traditional colleges and universities that it is the faculty who actually certify students for graduation and therefore attest to the legitimacy of the degrees the institution grants. This tradition of faculty governance over curriculum and instruction has been the bedrock foundation of American higher education and, in spite of some criticism over the last decade or so, has served the nation well.

Over time, the aggregated actions and values of an institution’s faculty establish and define the institution’s values. Rather than being mere "information delivery systems," as some contemporary observers of higher education seem to think, faculty provide the soul, spirit, character and ethical texture of an institution. Indeed, our notion of beloved alma mater as the source of wisdom and strength derives from our trust in the legitimacy and noble intentions of our academic institutions, a legitimacy which would be hard to comprehend without the idea of a faculty. Faculty are vital precisely because a college is more than an assertion; it is the collective historical record and achievement of its faculty that provide alma mater with her sustenance and which distinguish -- or ought to -- one institution from another.

But how is that faculty come to matter? And why is the practice of devaluing faculty or the notion of “OQP” not only antithetical to the history and tradition of higher education, but also a dangerous development which, if accrediting agencies -- and state departments of education -- aren’t careful, might lead not only to a more poorly educated public but to a downright mis-educated one?

It is vital that the public comes to understand the process by which someone actually becomes a faculty member and why this process, often misunderstood by the general public and held in contempt by many “transformationists,” is vital to the sustainability of a viable and responsible educational system.

At most traditional colleges and universities, before someone can even be considered for a position as a faculty member, he or she must have gone through several years of professional training. The average holder of a Ph.D. in the humanities, for instance, will most likely have completed, besides the normal 12 years of elementary and high school and four years of undergraduate study, an additional seven years or more of graduate study, the culmination of which is a rigorous examination conducted by those who have already been admitted to the guild of the learned and the completion of a book-length study. Even in those “professional” areas such as business and accounting, faculty undergo rigorous peer review before earning their credentials.

Competition for jobs at colleges and universities -- at least in many of the liberal arts and sciences -- has been intense for at least 30 years, in spite of periods, such as the present, of exploding undergraduate enrollment. Partially this is because public funding for higher education has not kept pace with increases in both enrollment and inflation over the years; but it is also because standards for faculty hiring have increased as even middle-rank colleges have been able to attract high-level faculty from prestigious graduate schools.

Once hired, a faculty member undergoes another six years or so of departmental and institutional scrutiny before being awarded tenure and, in effect, being formally admitted to the profession. This award of tenure is in fact a certification by his or her peers that the faculty member has met the collective standard of the institution, a standard which is established and maintained by the faculty of the institution -- the only "qualified personnel," by the way, who ought to have this authority.

Now some of the transformationists and other critics of higher education will argue that faculty -- and especially tenured faculty -- are in fact the problem with our system of education, because once faculty earn tenure, there’s no touching them, no matter what horrors they perpetrate on students. And there will inevitably follow the story of Professor X from the critic’s college years who routinely didn’t show up for class, who gave disorganized lectures, was inattentive to students, etc. And yet, it was not Professor X alone who certified students for graduation but rather the entire faculty, the overwhelming majority who at any accredited institution are competent and serious teachers and scholars who understand very well their professional obligations and responsibilities to their students.

The real business of faculty, however, is curriculum: the ordering of knowledge, the determination of what is worthy of being taught and what is important to be learned. Curricular change and development often does occur slowly, usually after careful and sometimes contentious deliberation within an academic institution, among colleagues whose business it is to know the latest developments in their fields and whose business it is to distinguish between the merely trendy and the truly significant. For an example of what can happen when OQP are given similar authority, let us look no farther than the dismal state of our managed health care system in which so much prerogative has been wrested from doctors and given over to OQP.

Is the academic process perfect? No more so than any process requiring human discourse and judgment. Is it sometimes a slow process? Yes, of course. But it is also a careful one in which those who are accountable -- the faculty -- are easily identifiable. The nagging question in the brave new world of higher education is, who are the OQP and to whom are they accountable?


Peter Katopes is vice president for academic affairs at LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York.



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