Faculty Roles: The Next Diversity Frontier

It's time to stop pretending that all faculty members should or realistically have the talents to divide their efforts similarly among teaching, research and service, writes Judith Shapiro.

June 4, 2015

There are important issues around diversity -- notably in terms of ethnicity/race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation and gender -- that have been of concern to institutions of higher education for a while now. The progress made in these areas may be less than impressive, but they have a conspicuous place on our radar screens.

There is another dimension of diversity that has yet to attract the attention it deserves: the diversity of contributions that can be made by different members of an institution’s tenured and tenure-track faculty. Faculty members in these positions are pivotal to fostering the kind of change needed in our colleges and universities if we are to better serve our students. Such change would involve how faculty members judge one another, how departments view their responsibilities, how those responsibilities can best be fulfilled and how the work of faculty members is viewed by academic administrators.

Different institutions have different missions, which should be reflected in what is reasonably expected of their respective faculties. These differences have unfortunately been eroded by status-seeking mission creep. So, for openers, there is the famous advice of Polonius (who has received insufficient respect for his wisdom, probably because he conveyed it in a way that was boring to a younger person): “To thine own self be true.”

While it may seem obvious that a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate and undesirable for institutions with different missions and constituencies, it may also be undesirable within an institution as well, even if that institution is a research university. While the holy trinity of research, teaching and service on the face of it provides room for flexibility, differences in how each is valued and assessed yield a generally hierarchical structure with publication and attracting grant funds being the coin of the realm and relatively easy to quantify.

But even in research universities, not all members of a department need to balance their research and teaching contributions in exactly the same proportions. Moreover, one faculty member in his/her time plays many roles -- there may be times in between research projects in which a faculty member might wish to focus more on teaching. (As an aside: the pressure to publish as much and as quickly as possible seems clearly linked to the level of retractions we have been seeing on the part of major scientific and scholarly journals when major research flaws are revealed postpublication.)

A better solution would be an understanding -- reflected in the reward structure -- that not every member of a department needs to make precisely the same contribution to the department in meeting its goals and responsibilities. Crafting such a reward structure is something that the New American Colleges and Universities consortium, for example, has been working on with funding from the Teagle Foundation.

To be sure, one expects that departments in research universities would have a sufficiently strong complement of truly distinguished scholars and scientists who are making significant contributions to the knowledge base in their fields, including some who may not be God’s gift to teaching. Fortunately, many highly distinguished scientists and scholars are also superb teachers. But there should also be room for faculty members whose teaching outdistances their research. If research universities presume to educate undergraduates, they need to consider how well they are fulfilling that responsibility. They should also feel an obligation to prepare their graduate students for occupying positions at a wide range of institutions of higher education; that is, they should be preparing graduate students seeking an academic career for their work not only as researchers, but as teachers.

There have been proposals for a separate track for faculty members who would focus on teaching, as opposed to research. This, however, is a solution that is part of the problem, since it will almost certainly perpetuate a culture of relative disdain for teaching, along with a tendency for teaching-focused appointments to be non-tenure-track. While there is a place for continuing appointments off the tenure track, viewing teaching in general as something unworthy of tenure would be unfortunate both in terms of institutional culture and how universities are viewed by the public.

It would also be desirable to recognize and reward those faculty members who have a special flair for sharing significant results of science and scholarship with a wide audience of readers -- beyond even The New York Review of Books. We already have an admirable complement of public intellectuals who earn their high position in the academic food chain by the traditional measure of research excellence -- though we could always use more of them. In addition, there are those whose contributions to public enlightenment might in and of themselves merit reward beyond what the current system offers.

Barriers to achieving a more informed citizenry may seem daunting, even at times insurmountable, especially when one figures in efforts at deliberate deception by powerful figures and opinion leaders. Indeed, we may feel the need to modify Abraham Lincoln’s famous observation that you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time by observing that those have turned out to be pretty good odds. But we should reward those who give the advancement of public knowledge their best effort -- and sometimes manage to make a difference.


Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.


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