A Faculty Caste System?

Graduate deans discuss the rationale for and difficulties of designating some professors as "graduate faculty."
December 5, 2008

WASHINGTON -- As many institutions begin to designate and differentiate graduate faculty from regular faculty, they run the risk of creating something akin to an academic caste system. But with careful thought and planning, two speakers at a session of the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools said Thursday, that does not have to be the case.

Priscilla Kimboko, the founding dean of graduate studies at Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Mich., has been charged with establishing just such a designation at her institution. Its accreditor -- the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools -- encouraged the university to consider such a change so that it might further follow the guidance it offers institutions on determining qualified faculty members.

Kimboko argued that such a designation of graduate faculty would improve the quality of instruction at her graduate school. She also said it would ensure that active, publishing scholars would be available to help graduate students with dissertations and theses. Working with her colleagues in the graduate council and senate, Kimboko created a model of how graduate faculty should be defined. In most cases, this designation is for general faculty members who are qualified to teach in the graduate school as well.

Officials at Grand Valley, she noted, compared the university to its “peer institutions” and reviewed their standards for graduate faculty, if these peer institutions designated some professors as graduate faculty. Through this work, Grand Valley officials realized the need to specify “levels of appointment or engagement” in graduate education, as different disciplines at the graduate level demand different qualifications of their faculty members. They also discovered the need to establish standards for adjunct appointments at the graduate level, as these individuals might be qualified for certain positions but not others. Kimboko, however, acknowledged the inherent difficulty of this task.

“For an institution that prides itself on everyone being equal, the idea of levels can be troubling,” Kimboko said. “People often claim that achieving the graduate-faculty designation places them at a higher level."

She proposes a three-tiered system of graduate faculty designation, ranging from those “fully engaged” to those serving only as something akin to a lecturer. At the top designation, full graduate faculty engage in all levels of graduate education from instruction and advising to mentoring master’s theses and designing curriculums. Kimboko proposes that these individuals should have a terminal degree in their discipline, hold a tenure or tenure-track position, and be active scholars.

In the middle, she defines associate graduate faculty as those who primarily focus on the instruction of graduate students but have secondary roles in curriculum design, advising and mentoring. The proposed Grand Valley model states that these individuals must have a master’s degree in an appropriate field with at least five years of related scholarly or professional work after earning their degree.

Finally, at the bottom of the designation, Kimboko qualifies graduate lecturers as those instructing only in specific courses, mostly because of a need in the classroom. There are further standards for graduate faculty who are either adjunct or clinical faculty. Grand Valley’s proposal requires that these individuals have either a terminal degree or a master’s degree with three years' experience in a professional or academic capacity. Exceptions, she added, could be made for individuals distinguished in their field, such as a famous author on a visiting professorship. Kimboko recommended that these be short, two-year appointments.

In all cases, she said, it is expected, above all, that those among the graduate faculty stay current in their fields and have a sustained engagement in research and scholarship. Those without a “continuous and cumulative record of scholarship” are likely unqualified for a position at the graduate level, she added.

Chief among the potential pitfalls of such designations, Kimboko said, are its impacts on clinical and research faculty at the graduate level. Many times, she noted, institutions rely on individuals with a “strong practice background” but perhaps without a terminal degree, making them less prepared for a full faculty role. In general, she said these faculty members tend to have a “lack of understanding ... [or] experience with academe.”

In all of these designations, she said it was difficult to find the right balance between a candidate’s credentials and level currency in their field of study. She added that it was essential for graduate faculty members to be engaged with their full range of responsibilities beyond instruction.

J. David McDonald, graduate school dean at Wichita State University, in Kansas, described a model being implemented there that is similar but not identical. For example, he notes specific terms for all levels among graduate faculty -- with those at the top receiving six-year appointments. He also put a greater emphasis on tenure or tenure-track status in achieving appointment to an upper level.

In the loftiest category of the Wichita State model, a full graduate faculty member is the only person with the ability to chair a doctoral dissertation. This extra responsibility, he said, demands the qualification of having served on a thesis or dissertation committee previously, preferably with a leadership role. McDonald said this additional requirement precludes an institution from allowing a newly minted doctorate to chair a board, a position that demands experience.

Individuals wishing to be appointed as graduate faculty at Wichita State originate at the department level, McDonald said. After proper vetting, candidates are then passed along to the academic and graduate deans. A graduate council gives a recommendation to the graduate dean for the final decision. As with the tenure-review process, there is a right to appeal this decision.

Important among the qualifications for all graduate faculty members, McDonald said, is a “substantial interest in graduate education.” An individual without sustained scholarly research in her or her field is not a good fit for graduate education, he noted, much as an individual who does not have a desire to work with students in the classroom would not be a good fit.

“It is incumbent upon graduate schools to have an engaged faculty,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to saddle a graduate student with a faculty member who does not give them the oversight they need.”

Some administrators in the audience at the meeting noted the difficulty of implementing such graduate faculty designations at their institutions because of union resistance. One noted that when his institution presented a draft of levels and definition, the faculty union would agree only to definitions that recognized all tenure or tenure-track faculty members as capable of achieving graduate faculty status.

Kimboko and McDonald, however, said they faced no such resistance, as there are no unions at their institutions. Still, they said, as the number of tenure and tenure-track professors decline in coming years, these definitions might face further challenges


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