Who Defines Expertise?

Accreditor’s new rules are forcing a professor who has taught philosophy for 50 years to stop doing so, because her Ph.D. is in English. Many object.

May 2, 2017
 
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Accreditors sometimes adjust their standards to improve educational quality, and that’s what the Higher Learning Commission hoped to achieve by requiring that professors teach only within their fields of expertise, as defined by their advanced degrees. But the recent change raises questions about how to define expertise and how it can be earned -- questions that are at the heart of an ongoing debate at Wayne State College in Nebraska.

“Since I arrived at [the college], I have learned that English and philosophy have much in common. Both disciplines emphasize effective and clear communication, critical thinking, and the analysis and interpretation of texts,” said Rodney Cupp, a trained ethicist who has been teaching English courses since 2006 at Wayne, where he is chair of the joint department of language and literature. “I believe that teaching builds expertise, because preparing to teach a course is a scholarly activity. All of us on the full-time faculty know how to do scholarship, so we know how to build expertise, at least in similar fields.”

Cupp and a fellow philosopher won’t be able to teach English anymore, however, starting in the fall. And two English professors who have been teaching philosophy won’t be able to teach those classes going forward, either -- despite the fact that one of the professors has been teaching philosophy courses for over 50 years.

Seeking to “ensure that students have access to faculty members who are experts in the subject matter they teach and who can communicate knowledge in that subject to their students,” Wayne's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, in 2015 announced changes to its faculty roles and qualifications standards. Most significant to the situation at Wayne, the commission said that professors teaching outside the field in which they’ve earned a master’s degree or higher “should have completed a minimum of 18 graduate credit hours” in the secondary teaching area.

The guidelines leave some room for exceptions, saying that if a professor hasn’t earned 18 graduate credit hours in their second teaching discipline, “the institution should be able to explain and justify its decision to assign the individual to the courses taught,” subject to commission approval. “Tested experience,” defined as “a breadth and depth of experience outside of the classroom in real-world situations relevant to the discipline” may also substitute for credentials, the commission says.

On its face, the new standard seems somewhat obvious. No self-respecting institution would assign an accounting professor to teach history, for example, or vice versa, unless it had a good reason to do so -- such as if the person in question had dual degrees. But imagine a small, resource-strapped college assigning a philosophy course it wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer to an English professor with a strong background and interest in it -- if not a degree -- and the issue becomes a little more complicated. Think back 50 years, when said college was even smaller and regulations were fewer, and the picture becomes even blurrier.

The 50-year scenario, of course, raises another question: Do decades of teaching a discipline amount to “tested experience,” if not necessarily an accreditor’s definition of it?

Cupp, the professor at Wayne, said yes.

So did Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, who co-wrote a book recommending that institutions offer adjuncts pathways to tenure and prioritize those with terminal degrees. He called the commission’s stance -- or at least Wayne's interpretation of it -- “patently ridiculous,” particularly as tenured critics of the “overuse” of adjuncts have asked accreditors to make tenure-track vs. non-tenure-track faculty ratios part of institutional assessment. Instead, he said, “here's an accrediting agency in which people think they should set aside 50 years of somebody's teaching because of their degree. For the love of Moloch.”

Bérubé, who is a well-known figure in disability studies, also guessed that he might be blocked from teaching those classes under the new standard -- raising yet another issue: What does the change mean for those teaching in interdisciplinary fields? Penn State is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education, so at least for now Bérubé doesn't need to worry.

Exceptions, Exceptions?

Such questions animated a discussion on Daily Nous, a popular philosophy blog, this week. The moderator of that blog, Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, said via email that philosophy courses generally should be taught by those who have “sufficient expertise in philosophy, which in our current system usually means those who have a graduate degree in philosophy.” Such an insistence on credentials may be especially important in philosophy in particular, he said, which faces the “popular idea that anyone can do philosophy, combined with most people's lack of familiarity with what philosophy is.”

That’s to say that the prospects “for nonexperts to be overconfident in their grasp of philosophy -- and to get away with it -- are high,” Weinberg added. Yet exceptions will exist, and those who have been teaching philosophy for decades, who presumably have had their teaching evaluated many times, “are probably exceptions.”

Cupp said something similar. Seeing professors with many years of experience being deemed unfit to teach philosophy seems "wrong," he said, yet, "I worry about other departments teaching courses that perhaps ought to be taught by philosophers. I believe some of my colleagues in other departments teach ethics courses, but not just anyone is qualified to teach ethics."

Wayne did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. Steve Kauffman, a spokesperson for the accreditor, said in a statement that it “developed guidelines in support of its revised policy for minimum faculty qualifications.” As an institutional accreditor, the commission “does not opine on the circumstances of individual employees,” he added, “but expects that institutions apply their policies and procedures consistently.”

Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer for academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said he didn’t know how prevalent teaching outside one’s discipline is, but he guessed that it’s not uncommon at smaller institutions -- especially in the case of faculty members who were hired many years ago.

“I think attitudes about this have changed significantly in the course of the last 50 years,” he said, pointing out that commission guidance also says that it “expects that institutions will work with faculty who are otherwise performing well to ensure that they meet [requirements] (whether through credentials or tested experience or a combination thereof),” and to honor existing contracts.

Weinberg said that if there’s any lesson in the Wayne case, it’s that “we should be careful about the rote application of accrediting requirements to unusual cases.” He asserted that it would not have been difficult for the school to arrange an external evaluation of a given professor’s competence to teach philosophy, “and then, presuming a finding of competence, to make the case to the accreditor that her continuing in her role teaching philosophy is unproblematic.”

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