Dying on Our Swords
“Do more, make less.” That’s how one of my colleagues characterizes the times in higher education. He’s pretty much got the situation nailed.
The responsibilities of faculty members sometimes feel like they increase with each passing semester, and there is of course no corresponding increase in compensation. This problem has been an ongoing topic of discussion in my department, as it surely is in many departments and within many sorts of institutions.
As faculty members at a relatively small university within a state system that’s been leeched dry by its state legislature, we frequently find ourselves undertaking work that we never imagined ourselves doing, and that stretches out the scope of typical faculty responsibilities. Often the new responsibilities are composed of types of work that we don’t have the resources or expertise to carry out as well as it should be carried out, work for which we are largely untrained by graduate or professional experience.
Consider the example of our graduate program.
My department grants degrees only up to the M.A. level. Historically, many of our graduate students have come from the ranks of active North Carolina high school teachers. Until very recently, there had been a long-standing practice in North Carolina of encouraging high school teachers to deepen their disciplinary knowledge by earning master’s degrees. In return for honing their expertise, the teachers who completed M.A.s received a modest pay increase, which, while not large, over the course of a career made a meaningful difference in the teachers’ overall compensation, and justified the time and expense of completing the graduate degree. More importantly for students around the state, more expert teachers made for better teachers, and benefited student performance. The state acknowledged the increased expertise of the teachers, and the pedagogical benefits for students of that increased expertise, with a modest pay bump.
But no longer.
This year the North Carolina legislature disposed with the program that granted high-school teachers raises once they received an M.A. (although, in a political ploy, state leaders later “found” money to grandfather in teachers currently completing M.A.s). Quite simply, by defunding the pay increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees, the state removed the economic incentive for those teachers to pursue the degrees, and in fact actively discouraged them from seeking out graduate education and the greater expertise that such education fosters.
The effect on graduate programs like the one I teach in has been immediate. In addition to whatever the long-term trickle-down effects on high school education are (decreased student performance, decreased expertise within the school systems, decreased morale amongst teachers), there is a negative effect already taking place within North Carolina higher education. Particularly at the regional-comprehensive universities like my own, and particularly within non-professional graduate degree programs (that is, not M.B.A. degree programs, M.P.A. programs, and profession-specific licensure programs), enrollments are dropping, precipitously.
In this case, part of the drop in enrollment is directly attributable to the change in state policy. The crashing enrollments put departments like my own in an unenviable position. We can either expand the scope of our responsibilities by undertaking promotional and recruitment efforts to bolster short-term enrollment numbers, or we can resign ourselves to letting the fate of our graduate program rest on the whims of political and economic chance. If we leave our program’s fate to chance, and chance runs against us, we will lose a graduate program important to our region, as well as possibly some of our colleagues, as faculty positions are cut.
When we are presented with such situations, any responsible faculty contemplates and debates, what are we to do?
On the one hand, we can initiate our own efforts to reverse the tide of the problem, recruiting students, engaging in small-scale public relations work, and the like. On the other hand, faculty can also refuse to engage in such work, which might be better left to trained experts in a university’s marketing department, and which would only add to the increasingly untenable workload of faculty members who are already responsible for teaching, research, university service, and student advising.
Sticky ethical issues arise as well. How should we, or should we at all, “sell” our graduate program to teachers, or anyone else, when the economic benefits they might reap from the degree have been eliminated for the foreseeable future? No responsible faculty member wants to be accused of running a pyramid scheme, merely educating for the sole purpose of keeping its own programs alive.
Unfortunately, such ill-founded suspicions come quickly to those who view education as only a business transaction, as entirely measurable on ledgers. There are, of course, plenty of quite valid reasons to keep our program alive. In a relatively short time I have seen many of our M.A. students go on to achieve success in a variety of fields. Yet the state I live in appears to be more concerned with quantity than quality. Does a responsible faculty work to maintain the quality of the education it provides amidst increasingly crushing circumstances, or simply go out and drum up more numbers, feed the ledgers?
When I speak to colleagues at other universities, I find opinions are sharply divided. Some feel we must hold the line on our own labor, and refuse to take on additional responsibilities when so many of us are already overburdened. While acknowledging the labor issues present, the other camp feels that opting out of engaging in activities like recruitment could constitute a form of professional martyrdom. We might hold the line on labor, but lose academic programs, which will in turn hurt the individuals employed within a department, whether those faculty are tenured/tenure-track, or lecturers and other term faculty. Others yet simply say, sure, if it’s necessary to keep a program, recruitment becomes a responsibility of the program’s faculty.
I’m of the second and third opinions. I fear that when presented with situations like the one I describe above, we risk more by not working actively to save the programs that are socially, culturally, and economically important for our regions. We have little choice, perhaps, other than to accept the burden of more work, the work of recruitment and promotion, if we believe in the value of our programs. And most of us, I assume, do believe in that value.
For other departments in other locales, enrollment may not be the big issue you currently face, but I’m sure that for many departments, particularly those not located at top tier research universities, the short-term enrollment numbers are grim. Perhaps there is another labor issue that your department faces. The choices the issue presents, I’ll bet, are bad. Either assume the work, or assume the consequences.
I also suspect, unfortunately, that dilemmas like these will define the next few years in academe, if not the careers of a generation of teacher-scholars. As difficult as it is to take on additional responsibilities when many academic units are already understaffed and underfunded, refusing to do so may mean dying on our own swords -- standing on principle, perhaps, but succumbing to economic and political forces that we might otherwise be able to survive. If we truly believe in the merit of the programs that we teach within, that seems like a lousy way to go out.
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