A Crowning Indignity

Once at the core of their colleges, faculty members are being marginalized and increasingly ignored by their institutions and, now, by the federal government, Bernard Fryshman argues.


January 27, 2009

At one time a faculty was viewed as more than just a group of teachers. Faculty members were the essence of a college or university. They set the intellectual tone of the school, and as a result, the institutional agenda was centered on ideas, learning, values and bringing students into the realm of the mind.

A college education was once intended to bring about a comprehensive transformation of the entering high school graduate, yielding an incipient scholar four years later. Students at a college were expected to absorb its culture and attitude and identify, however subliminally, with its mission. Those majoring in a department established a sense of identity with the field, and professors exhibited a sense of responsibility for their welfare and progress. Even in larger institutions, majors were viewed as individuals, and sometime as colleagues, not just numbers. Full time faculty members became advisers, confidants, and sometimes, friends.

It's different now. In many institutions the faculty is viewed as another cost center, to be judged in terms of "productivity," rather than as the reason students come to the college.

People seem quite enthusiastic about the further savings that can be squeezed out of this cost center. Writing articles suggesting eliminating tenure, laying off faculty, increasing class size, and replacing full timers with adjuncts has become the new cottage industry.

Yes, a full professor teaching an advanced seminar to a group of 10 students is very expensive. But didn't we benefit from this relaxed, thoughtful and expensive kind of learning?

Are we ready to deny it to the vast number of students from a different demographic who are first appearing on our campuses? If we are serious about access, shouldn't we be prepared to pay for it?

The adjunct, often without office quarters, and with a heavy travel schedule associated with multi-campus commitments, rarely has time for this intellectual hand holding. S/he has been hired to teach a course, and as hard working as s/he is, as dedicated and caring -- the outcomes are simply not what they would be were the same individual to be hired on a tenure track.

By now, about half of America's full-time, tenured faculty has been replaced with adjuncts. There is an immense cost savings inherent in this, but the change speaks to something far more fundamental than cost. Everyone seems to agree, yet the replacement process grinds on.

The next instance of injury to the status and role of faculty takes place at the policy making council of most colleges. The nature and number of areas that appear on a college president's agenda is large and growing. Richard Vedder reports that "the number of non-teaching professional staff has doubled in relation to enrollment over the past generation. Universities have added scores of public relations specialists, wellness coordinators, diversity czars, international program administrators, assistant deans, associate provosts, and the like" and concludes that "some paring of the bureaucratic army will become necessary" in the months and years ahead, given budget realities. I'm not so sure.

The complexity of today's university ensures that there will be many voices clamoring for attention. Maintenance, security, human resources, development, must all be heard. The lights must go on and students must be safe. Student placement, housing, the registrar and all of the other necessary centers of activity in a postsecondary school are not likely to disappear. The result is that the voice of faculty, of scholarship, of ideas is necessarily muted at the decision making administrative levels, and the tenured voices calling for a more rigorous curriculum, or modifications (and extra costs) associated with an exploding knowledge base become more remote.

In many colleges, the thought that a faculty member might pick up the phone and exchange ideas with the president would be viewed as quaint. The passion, the concern, the stimulating ideas, and the debates regarding content and curriculum, now take place at a level far below the decision making.

The irony is that without the Sage on the Stage, students would simply sit home. There are enough books and online courses to provide every student with the knowledge needed to earn a degree on his/her own. Yet the young people keep coming, filling up our classrooms, competing for good seats -- and not because the student center's food is excellent, or because the counseling center is competent and concerned. The voice of faculty members, of learning and scholarship, is as essential to the school as ever. But it is being drowned out.

The crowning indignity for professors was the publication in the Federal Register of the list of constituencies identified by the U.S. Department of Education as "having interests that are significantly affected by the subject matter of the negotiated rulemaking process" for carrying out the revisions Congress made last year in the Higher Education Act. Over 30 different categories are listed, encompassing everyone -- except the faculty.

There is no point entering a debate as to which of the 30 groups are as relevant to the discussions as professors. Nor does it help that some of the participants will also happen to have faculty rank at a postsecondary institution.

Regulations will be promulgated in the absence of the English professor who knows, first hand, how a regulation will play out in a classroom of first generation English speakers. Or the biology professor who knows what "cost saving" could mean to the effective teaching of a laboratory course. There will be no voices pressing the case for the liberal arts, for critical thinking skills, for the education of a perceptive, thinking citizenry, and no first-hand advocates for graduate education and the need to replace an aging professoriate.

Who will help create a sense of balance in the discussions so that an occupational mindset does not capture the thinking of all concerned?

Every change, every nuance, every new regulation will play itself out, in one way or another, in the classroom. And if the process doesn't benefit from the passion and presence of classroom faculty, it is at risk of being flawed.

Omitting faculty from the list was surely an oversight. At the same time, someone might want to jot down a reminder for negotiated rulemaking in 2015, when the Higher Education Act will next be reauthorized: Even if only for appearances' sake, "faculty" should be added to the list of people interested in education.


Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.


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