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.
New paper argues that physical scientists are less religious and less extreme politically than their social scientist peers at elite colleges because they're more intelligent. Not everyone is buying it.
About a year ago I was paging through a report prepared for our college by a group of leading risk-management consultants. Illustrated with brightly colored heat maps and tables, the report’s conclusions looked fairly reasonable. But then I reached a chart titled “Reputation Risk.” Tucked among the factors that contribute to reputation, listed only after “branding” and “community relations,” was the phrase “academic excellence.”
As a longtime faculty member and dean of the college, I reacted strongly. Academic excellence, I thought, deserved more than this supporting role. For your typical manufactured product, its quality may be adjusted to optimize reputation with customers (and thus profits). But academic excellence? That’s the ultimate goal. It’s what we should most fear putting at risk.
At the end of June, I would complete my term as dean. As my thoughts kept turning to risk and liberal education, I talked with the president. We agreed that as a transitional step before returning to teach, I could spend one year conducting a risk project. Some of its goals are specific to our campus, but more broadly it’s a labor of translation. Why would that be needed?
The Language of Risk
Corporate jargon may help explain why campuswide awareness of risk has not fully taken hold at many academic institutions. Deans, presidents, and faculty leaders can find the framework of Enterprise Risk Management, commonly known as ERM, alienating. The talk of suppliers, products, deliverables, and profits is not our language.
Risk management was born to protect the bottom line of corporations. (Success has been mixed, but that’s a different story.) For the past 10 years or so, financial consultants offering risk services have tried to expand into the higher education market. While it’s hard to reject the pitch that “nonprofits face risks, too,” one could also argue academe is sufficiently different from the corporate world that frameworks like ERM will require at least a translation — and perhaps deeper revision — before they can serve us well.
Taking Risk Campuswide
In many ways my transition feels natural. For five years I was second to the president, serving as vice president for academic affairs. I helped to confront the risks that typically face a college, from anticipating a flu pandemic to deciding whether to shut down during a blizzard; from the agonies of the recession to nervous reports of little brown bats winging through the chapel. I’m well-prepared to step back and evaluate how our college responds to risk. Yet to my knowledge, this particular administrative move is unprecedented.
At most places — as I know from recently attending the national meeting of URMIA, the University Risk Management and Insurance Association — risk management lives in the treasurer’s office. Risk managers may have a background in environmental health and safety or human resources; often their primary training is in insurance. Regardless of specific professional field, college risk managers are likely to have broad responsibilities, from regulatory compliance to decisions about campus events, and from employee training to coverage for student travel abroad. Groups of universities have formed organizations like United Educators and EIIA (Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators) to offer insurance and other risk services.
The risk managers at the conference were forthcoming and curious. My status as a faculty member was more interesting to them than my recent deanship. They told me that they wish professors understood more about how risk works. The risk managers want to be perceived less as naysayers and obstructionists, and more as a resource to keep activities safe and legal. They don’t want to shut down study abroad, but they want to be sure the college has a plan for evacuation in the event of national crisis or natural disaster. From where they sit in the finance office, it’s not easy to have this conversation with the faculty.
As we talk, it’s clear the risk managers recognize that for colleges and universities the real bottom line is the institution’s mission: to teach and conduct research. Threats to the mission are, for us all, the ultimate risk. And since no one knows more about teaching and scholarship than they do, the faculty is the proper guardian of college mission. I now start to understand that purposeful risk engagement could help colleges take a fresh look at shared governance.
Risk and Governance
Faculty leaders, whether as champions or critics of a proposed initiative, are all too familiar with hearing about risk from administrators, legal counsel, and even from board members. Fiduciary risk, compliance risk, liability: We’ve all seen the risk card shut a conversation down.
But once they are fluent in risk, academic leaders will contribute more effectively. They can evaluate and speak to risk in the special context of a college’s mission. As any risk manager will tell you, risk can be positive or negative. The uncertainty at hand may represent an awesome academic opportunity, or may threaten what the institution stands for. Shared governance will work better when we succeed in having all the relevant dimensions of risk — including the ultimate risk, to institutional mission — fully voiced and appropriately weighed.