When I saw Scott Jaschik’s piece today about unhappy associate professors , my first thought was, haven’t we already discussed this? Well, yes, we have ! Apparently associate professors have been “standing still”  for quite some time—at least since the MLA released its report on the rank in 2009, and probably longer.
The new report is more comprehensive that the 2009 MLA report, and does not focus exclusively on associate professors. Rather (as Scott’s piece notes) the new study, released by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education  (COACHE), reports on satisfaction levels with a variety of job areas among tenured and tenure-track faculty members. So perhaps the first thing to say is that this is a pretty privileged bunch, in a lot of ways. While the protections of tenure are being eroded, university budgets are being cut, and teaching loads are increasing, still to be in possession of a tenured position anywhere is already to have beaten the academic odds.
In that context, it does seem churlish to whine. So, despite being among the group identified as “least satisfied,” I’ll do my best not to. But it is interesting to see the speculation as to why. As Kiernan Mathews, director of COACHE, notes, “Suddenly, [associate professors are] teaching more, they're serving on more committees, they're even serving as department chairs — yet the criteria for promotion to full professor have nothing to do with these activities.”
One does wonder — I do wonder, as I’m sure many folks outside academe do — how it can be that explicit job requirements (service, teaching) can have little if anything to do with criteria for promotion. No wonder folks are dissatisfied. As a teacher, I’ve learned that I should reward students most for the things I ask them to spend the most time on—or, in other words, that I should ask them to do the things that I truly value, and that I think have the best chance of helping them succeed. Why, then, are associate professors being asked to spend their time on things that aren’t valued and that won’t help them succeed?
The picture is, however, not quite that bleak. For one thing, many institutions are indeed looking into alternative paths to promotion, valuing teaching and service, and recognizing that one size does not fit all. For another, for many people promotion is simply not that important. And for a third, see that paragraph above—associate professors are, after all, still folks with secure positions in an increasingly insecure world.
Somehow I can’t help but think that the fate of associate professors—and even their satisfaction—and that of adjuncts is closely related. After all, if teaching were a more important part of the portfolio of associate professors (and their tenured and tenure-track colleagues), universities might be hiring fewer adjuncts, and compensating those they did hire more fairly. Think about it: paying low wages for teaching implicitly devalues it, so those who spend a lot of time on it (even if it is part of their job) must not be doing something all that valuable. If, on the other hand, universities truly valued teaching, teachers would be paid competitive wages and teaching would count significantly towards promotion.
In my own institution, teaching does count. But for many of my colleagues, there’s still a question as to how much. And until we have that answered, this privileged bunch may indeed continue to express dissatisfaction with what is, in many ways, the best job in the world.