Answering for Undergraduate Education
By Paul LaFollette, Associate Professor, Computer and Information Sciences, Past President and Secretary Elect of Faculty Senate
As an undergraduate, I knew little about the lives my professors led when I was not in class with them. I had little understanding of the academy, had no hint as to which were well-known scholars and which were not. And had I known, I doubt I would have much cared. What I did know (and care deeply about) was that one or two were pompous windbags, another was a petty martinet, and the rest were kind, caring instructors who always had time for another question, time to meet with me, and time to evaluate my work fairly and accurately.
I believe this to be the case with the vast majority of my colleagues here at Temple, but now I know how difficult it can be to express that kind of caring. I also realize that the demands of fairness insist that we treat our students thus. For our undergraduates place their own intellectual development directly into our hands for the time that they are with us. They call Temple their fostering mother, their alma mater. And their tuition pays the majority of Temple’s expenses. We owe them our best.
Sadly, over the past decade or so, I have watched Temple move in directions that I fear will interfere with our ability to give them our best. Some of this motion was, I believe, intentionally created with little faculty input. More of it may have been we ourselves simply wandering sheeplike, as we nibbled ourselves astray. But whatever the reasons, I am fearful that we are already giving our undergraduates less than we owe them, and that for two reasons – our increasing reliance upon non-tenurable faculty, and our increasing and shameful desire to yield to others what should be our own responsibility – thoughtfully to choose our own courses of action. To misquote James Russell Lowell’s plain-spoken Yankee farmer Hosea Bigelow, “U.S News and World Report ain’t to answer for it. God’ll send the bill to you.”
There are several problems with our increasing reliance upon non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty, but I want to state loudly in advance that none of those problems has to do with their lack of excellence in teaching. Every time I make the suggestion that we rely too heavily on non-tenurable faculty I hear a chorus of “but they are some of our best teachers.” I agree. This has nothing to do with the relative teaching skills of tenure-track vs. non-tenure-track. Nor with the relative teaching skills of those who are highly funded researchers vs. those who prefer to balance their time between undergraduate and graduate education. It has to do, rather, with time, resources, and exploitation.
I believe myself to be a tolerably good instructor. I also have published in the American Journal of Physiology, Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology, Information Processing Letters, and other decent publications. Not often enough perhaps, but enough to demonstrate my competency. My colleagues, far more productive than I, are also generally good instructors. The difference between us is that I teach two or three sections a semester of 20 to 40 students and over the past 30 years at Temple have averaged about one paper or conference presentation per year. They publish far, far more extensively than that and may teach one or two courses per semester, perhaps fewer, and often not to undergraduates. There appears to be a healthy symmetry here that gives acknowledgement to the co-equal claims of our missions for scholarship and for undergraduate education. That symmetry, however, is not real. Because, increasingly, our undergraduates are not being educated by people like me. They are taught, rather, by non-tenure-track faculty who may teach 4 sections per semester. They often teach much larger sections, are given less support, and have salaries seriously inferior to their tenured/tenure-track colleagues. In spite of this, most of those whom I know give all that they have and more to their students.
But, because they are not tenured, they have much to fear if they complain about their course loads or teaching conditions. Because they are not tenured, they may feel less able to teach controversial topics within their field. Because they are not tenured, they are exploitable. They may do a surprisingly good job of teaching, but how much better could they be if relieved of these distractions?
So what can be done about this? Many of our non-tenure-track faculty have many years of demonstrated excellence in teaching. They have exhibited a love for Temple and concern for the well-being of their students. If we are prepared to hand over to these people the responsibility of educating those who pay the freight, those who call us alma mater, then we should be prepared to treat these faculty with the same care, concern, and respect that we extend to our tenure and tenure/track faculty – that has been extended to me for the past 30 years. We need to find a way to tenure them.
How could we do this? The AAUP has been actively discussing the matter of decreasing dependence upon “contingent faculty” for at least a decade. Their 2003 position paper, “Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession” discusses the problem and proposes best practices and pathways to converting non-tenure-track lines to tenure-track. A follow up report from 2010, “Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments" enlarges on this theme, cites several case studies of successful attempts to reverse the current trend, and includes the following paragraph:
The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description. This means that faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching. (Similarly, faculty serving on contingent appointments with research as the major component of their workload may become tenured or eligible for tenure primarily on the basis of successful research.) In the long run, however, a balance is desirable. Professional development and research activities support strong teaching, and a robust system of shared governance depends upon the participation of all faculty, so even teaching-intensive tenure-eligible positions should include service and appropriate forms of engagement in research or the scholarship of teaching.
The sad fact, however, is that too many of Temple’s faculty remain unengaged with this problem. We are willing to accept unchallenged the claims of the Board and administration that our reputation will suffer if we “lower” our tenure standards. We are more concerned with the hope (however unfounded) of raising our prestige by being invited to join the Association of American Universities than we are with enjoying the pride we should feel in the amazing success stories of those we have graduated. So long as the tenured faculty are too comfortable and the non-tenure-track faculty are too vulnerable to object, we are all complicit in this shameful and, in my view, unethical state of affairs.
I remain proud of what we do for our undergraduates here at Temple, but I fear that I may be the last generation of tenured faculty here who can say that. As we wander further down the road to homogenized higher education, as we give up our special niche in a vain attempt to become a second-rate Penn, as we continue to expand upon the notion that if we “take care of the grants, the undergraduate programs will take care of themselves,” we will end up in a place where the tiny coterie of the tenured will have neither pride nor even interest in our undergraduates.
Let us not follow that path. Let us stop regarding ourselves as tenured, or tenure-track, or non-tenure-track, or research active, or even as faculty or as administrators, and look at ourselves as Temple, one Temple with a mission for scholarship and an equally powerful mission to serve an undergraduate population who are currently paying most of our salaries. And let us work together to provide that population with the best that we can. •