Of the litany of offenses commonly attributable to for-profit education, MOOCs, and other forms of distance education, one of the most incendiary is the thoughtless “unbundling” of the faculty role from the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service. This unbundling, a corporate approach to education, is blasted as a blasphemous affront to the core values that all educators share about teaching and learning. But as a recent presentation at the Association for the Study of Higher Education demonstrated, faculty unbundling has been happening for centuries.
Ever since the good ol’ days when Harvard University’s president was also the chief faculty member, admissions officer, and resident director, the faculty role has continually moved toward narrow specialization. As Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar demonstrated in their paper “Unbundling the Faculty Role in Higher Education: A Theoretical Review,” events such as the formation of the student affairs profession in the late 1800s simply made official a trend that had been informally occurring for many years. The wholesale transition at many large research institutions to formalizing graduate assistants as the primary instructors in many courses unbundled the faculty role even more, enabling tenured professors to focus more on highly-valued research. But never in higher education have we seen such clean distinctions as we do now in the distance education sector.
At some of these institutions, one faculty member will design a course, another will provide the content, and still another will lead discussion and grade assignments. This approach is not a distinctly for-profit invention however, as some of the leading non-profits use this same strategy with their MOOCs. To listen to more traditional educators, this commodification of education is an atrocity. I would argue, however, that the current state in most colleges is actually more heinous. By forcing most faculty into a one-size-fits-all job description, we are not only using faculty resources poorly but diminishing educational quality in the process.
For example, consider Professors Smith and Wesson. Professor Smith loves the classroom and has a knack for it. He dedicates significant time to class preparation and student feedback. He’s beloved by his students, but not quite respected by his colleagues because of his relative absence of peer-reviewed publications. Professor Smith has a weak research agenda and will be denied tenure next year because of this lack of productivity — a looming reality that distracts him away from what he does best.
Professor Wesson has no such problems. An able researcher and writer, she publishes prolifically and received tenure last year. Her research draws significant attention and funding to her department. But because she can’t quite buy out all of her courses, her students are annually afflicted by her dry lectures and perplexing tests. She is unresponsive and openly disinterested in anyone but her graduate assistants. Her advisees often leave her supervision and instead work with Professor Smith, conveniently freeing Professor Wesson to focus more on her research agenda and graduate students.
To be fair, this could be a bit of a caricature. But like any good caricature, this picture draws attention to the dominant characteristics of the subject. What it reveals is that a one-size-fits-all model ends up rewarding research, penalizing teaching, and poorly serving students.
This approach stands far and away from what we know about effective organizations. Gallup, publishers of the StrengthsFinder  assessment, shows again and again how organizations that utilize their employees’ strengths are more productive and have a more satisfied workforce. That means that if an institution were to adopt an approach that enabled each faculty member to specialize in his or her areas of strength and interest, faculty members would be happier, students would be better served, and the organization overall would be much more effective.
On paper, the shift is simple. Instead of hiring three faculty to each teach two classes a year, advise 10 students, secure a few grants, and write two peer-reviewed articles, each faculty member would specialize in (or carry a higher volume of) one of the areas for the whole department. A researcher could, dare I say, just do research and advise the few students who shared that agenda. A teacher could focus on understanding and honing the classroom craft and spend less time on committee work. Each department would tweak its balance according to the unique strengths and interests of its faculty and could use new hires to recalibrate that balance as time went on and interests or personnel shifted. In sum, excellence in research would not be valued at greater or lesser levels than excellence in teaching or service. Instead, excellence would be valued in every area. If what Gallup says is true, this strengths-based department would outperform a traditionally-oriented one by leaps and bounds in terms of total research output and teaching quality. After all, what faculty would honestly argue with getting to spend more of its time doing what it wanted to do while simultaneously benefiting its institution?
The reality is much more complicated, though. Teaching, even at many liberal arts institutions, is at best a second-rate cousin to research production, and quality of advising or service may not even be truly considered in the tenure and promotion process. Thus, many colleges have backed themselves into a corner by espousing the equal values of teaching, research, and service while only truly rewarding research.
This discrepancy between an institution’s mission and its rewards structure is most apparent at universities that already seem to take this diverse approach by designating certain faculty members as lecturers (teaching), research associates (research), or coordinators (service). Experience shows that these roles do not command nearly the same level of prestige or job security that a traditional faculty member experiences. Consequently, a shift toward a true strengths-based approach would necessitate a concurrent shift in policies, and more importantly, institutional culture. And since a cultural movement of this caliber would directly conflict with the values cultivated by the research universities that grant most faculty members’ doctorates, these changes are no insignificant matter.
I don’t pretend to have any magic solutions to make those shifts happen. I can say with some assurance that it would need to start with strong senior leadership and a willing (or at least adequately dissatisfied) faculty. But if these changes are worth making, then the conversation is also worth having. Perhaps rather than denouncing for-profits or MOOCs for unbundling the sacred faculty role, faculty members should welcome the challenge and propose their own ways to do so.
Josh Wymore is a doctoral student in the higher education program at Pennsylvania State University.