Affirming Professors' Role or Denigrating It?

At a time that many professors fear that administrators don't value tenure, the headline on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Web site seems like something that would draw applause: "Rensselaer to Review Faculty Governance to Strengthen Role of Tenured, Tenure-Track Faculty."

August 8, 2007

At a time that many professors fear that administrators don't value tenure, the headline on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Web site seems like something that would draw applause: "Rensselaer to Review Faculty Governance to Strengthen Role of Tenured, Tenure-Track Faculty."

But the e-mail flying at RPI Tuesday wasn't full of praise. That's because the governance reform is viewed by some professors as nothing more than an attempt to abolish a Faculty Senate that this year decided -- against the wishes of the administration -- to grant voting rights to "clinical" faculty members (RPI's term for full-time, non-tenure track faculty members who focus almost entirely on teaching).

The announcement of the governance reform said that the RPI board had decided that governance must be restricted to tenured and tenure-track faculty members. To drive home the point, the board said that during the period in which governance is being changed, the recently elected Faculty Senate and its committees would not have power because they were elected in votes that included the non-tenure-track professors. Instead, key committees from the prior year -- before the Faculty Senate had expanded the franchise -- would continue.

RPI's provost, Robert E. Palazzo, said in an interview that the reforms were all about recognizing the importance of the tenured and tenure-track faculty. "The key in faculty governance comes from the investment of the tenured and tenure-track faculty," he said. "Tenure is extremely important and tenured and tenure-track faculty really should be in the lead in terms of advising the president and the provost and the board."

The problem with that argument, faculty leaders said, was that tenured and tenure-track faculty members had expressed their views on governance: that they thought those off the tenure track were entitled to participate. How does it show respect for tenured and tenure-track faculty, they asked, to ignore their vote and invalidate this year's Senate elections? Then there's the problem that this governance reform is coming from an administration that has not endeared itself to the faculty. Last year, the faculty narrowly rejected a no confidence vote against Shirley Ann Jackson, the president, who is seen as a national leader on many science and technology issues, but whose priorities have been questioned by many in its Troy, N.Y. home.

Not surprisingly, faculty leaders said that reforming a Senate that had challenged Jackson didn't sit well with them. "The administration doesn't like what the Faculty Senate has done, so they are going for something more compliant with the queen's wishes," said E. Bruce Nauman, a professor of chemical engineering who was elected vice president of the Senate in the elections that the administration is now not counting as valid.

Cary Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he was stunned and angered by the developments at RPI. He praised the "progressive and sensitive act" of the tenured and tenure-track professors in recognizing that people who teach at a university -- whatever their tenure status -- deserve a voice in governance. "The very notion that full-time faculty off the tenure track could be barred from the governance process is immensely retrograde and reactionary," he said.

The idea for giving clinical faculty a vote came from years of discussions about their role, professors said. "The clinical faculty really play a major role in the teaching on campus. They need to feel part of the endeavor," said Larry Kagan, a professor of art and president of the Faculty Senate.

At RPI's main campus, there are 348 tenured and tenure-track faculty members (excluding those in administrative slots) and 46 clinical faculty. At RPI's Hartford campus, the 19 full-time faculty members are all clinical. Palazzo, the provost, said that while non-tenure track faculty members are always going to be needed to fill in for those on sabbatical or for emergencies, his goal is to have teaching done only by those who are tenured and on the tenure track. "Ideally all of your faculty are tenured and tenure track," he said.

Faculty leaders questioned the realism and commitment of the institute to that ideal. Kagan said that the figures on the number of professors may understate the importance of the clinical professors because they are only engaged in teaching, while RPI's tenured and tenure-track professors have major research agendas, and have been encouraged to place more of an emphasis on research. In many departments, Kagan said, a majority of undergraduate teaching is done by clinical professors -- and professors feel more and more pressure to produce research grants. "It's understandable that the provost would like to see more teaching done by tenured and tenure-track faculty, but it's unclear how we are going to get there with the emphasis we are putting on research," he said.

Palazzo, the provost, stressed that the faculty governance reform would reflect the views of the (tenure-track) professors and he stated repeatedly his belief in their importance. "A university should focus on optimizing the greatest number of the highest caliber scholars possible," he said. "It's not a question of good or bad [teaching by clinical professors], but of optimization for the university." The board's idea, he said, is that in "the balance of a first-class teaching and research university we have to be careful about our distributions."

Other areas of governance also need reform, he said. For example, Palazzo said that the system the board has just thrown out had for years given retired faculty members the right to vote, which he said he did not consider appropriate. "So you see how this was a bit outdated," he said. "The board wants to be assured of the greatest possible participation of tenured and tenure-track faculty members." (Several faculty members acknowledged that there are areas of the governance system that need reform and said that they were not opposed to the idea of a re-examination, but to the way it was being done.)

While Palazzo acknowledged that the newly elected Faculty Senate would not be recognized, he rejected the idea that the university was abolishing the body. He said that the current situation, in which committees whose terms expired will be recognized instead of the new bodies, is "a transition state in a suspension."

Bram van Heuveln, a clinical professor of cognitive science, who is a member of the Faculty Senate, said that he accepted the idea that people off the tenure track don't have the same say as those on it. For example, he said that given the differing responsibilities, he understood why clinical faculty members shouldn't vote on tenure decisions.

But he noted that much of the work of the Faculty Senate is about issues, such as the curriculum or student affairs or faculty life, on which those who teach have plenty to offer. "We do the bulk of the teaching," he said. "Of course we should have a say. And we are in a position to have an informed say on this."

The message from the administration to clinical faculty members, he said, "is not a very encouraging one," especially given the commitment many of them feel to RPI.

"We have opinions. We teach here. We live in the same culture and same departments," he said. "I care about the institution."

If the administration believes the professor off the tenure track must be excluded from governance, van Heuveln asked, "who are we then? Are we contributing members here?"


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