Southern New Hampshire U. Designs a New Template for Faculty Jobs

M. Scott Brauer

If you're looking for a traditional faculty job, Southern New Hampshire U.'s online college may not be the place for you, says the university's president, Paul LeBlanc.
May 08, 2014

Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.

As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.

During her nonteaching term, Ms. Caldwell worked on developing a course of her own, in environmental ethics. She did all of that work from her home office in Virginia. She was paid $55,000 plus benefits. It was a modest salary compared with those of professors at many other universities, but certainly a step up from the $2,200 per course she was making as an adjunct.

Ms. Caldwell’s stint as a full-time instructor is part of a pilot program that Southern New Hampshire University has conducted over the last year at its College of Online and Continuing Education, an online arm of the university that serves 37,000 students, mostly working adults. The university wanted to see if having full-time instructors would improve student performance and retention, especially in writing-intensive courses.

The college, which now relies on a stable of 2,700 adjunct instructors to staff its online courses, says that the pilot was a success and that it will hire 45 full-time faculty members by the end of the summer, including some from its existing adjunct pool. This is a small but significant step for Southern New Hampshire, which has become a model for nonprofit universities building large-scale online programs.

Online institutions that serve nontraditional students are booming. Meanwhile, doctoral candidates vastly outnumber available tenure-track faculty jobs at traditional colleges. In such times, Ms. Caldwell’s experience may be the template for many doctoral students who aspire to a life in academe.

“We are the canaries in the coal mine for higher education,” she says.

The new faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college will not conform to the classic archetype. They will not enjoy the trappings of living and teaching in a college town; the faculty members will work remotely—sometimes hundreds of miles from the university’s headquarters, in Manchester, N.H.

They will not be encouraged to publish books or articles. If they “perish,” it will be because they failed to provide frequent, helpful feedback to students—a standard that the university enforces with constant monitoring and data-crunching.

None of the College of Online and Continuing Education faculty members will be on a tenure track; in fact, the college will decide each year whether to keep each faculty member around. But Gregory W. Fowler, chief academic officer at the college, says, “The assumption is that these people will be with us for a long time unless something goes particularly wrong.”

They will earn salaries that are lower than what assistant professors make at many traditional institutions. And although they will have some hand in guiding the curriculum and in making academic policy, they will not serve as a significant check on administrative power.

“If you frame in terms of governance, this seems like a less-than,” says Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s president, adding that the university will continue to maintain a level of oversight that “a lot of traditional faculty wouldn’t accept.”

But Southern New Hampshire, which has become an online powerhouse in large part by emulating the business mentality of the for-profit sector, makes no pretense of replicating a traditional faculty at its College of Online and Continuing Education. Rather, the university is looking to create a different kind of faculty position—one that focuses on teaching and student support.

While those faculty members may not get to live any kind of romantic academic lifestyle, neither will they have to cobble together their livings from multiple teaching gigs, as many adjunct instructors now do.

“If you aspire to a more traditional full-time faculty role at a small, residential college where there’s lots of space and expectation for publishing and research, that’s not us,” says Mr. LeBlanc.

However, “if you want a life in the institution, and you have a passion for teaching, and you want to live where you live now, and you want a good salary and great benefits, this is a pretty good job,” he says.

About Academic Freedom

It is also the kind of faculty job that stands to become more common as the traditional ones disappear. Southern New Hampshire and its peers are iconoclastic by traditional standards, but they still rely on the approval of their accreditors. And accreditors, while they do not require institutions to bring on tenure-track professors, do want universities to have faculty members who are more than just hired guns.

Barbara E. Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits Southern New Hampshire, would not discuss that university specifically. But when asked about the accrediting body’s position on full-time faculty members she referred to chapter and verse in the commission’s standards for accreditation: “There are an adequate number of faculty whose time commitment to the institution is sufficient to assure the accomplishment of class and out-of-class responsibilities essential for the fulfillment of institutional mission and purposes.”

There are no “bright lines” by which the commission enforces that standard for “committed” faculty members, says Ms. Brittingham, but it is something the accreditor watches for in online programs as they grow larger. “They can start out with all part-time faculty,” she says, “but eventually it gets complicated.”

Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for adjunct faculty members, was not particularly impressed by a description of the new jobs at Southern New Hampshire. Giving an instructor salary and benefits is one thing, says Ms. Maisto; giving her academic freedom is another. The real test will be whether the university treats its faculty members like professors of a university or like employees of a company. ("We believe that all faculty should enjoy academic freedom if you mean the ability to express themselves on controversial issues without fear of retaliation," says Mr. Fowler, the chief academic officer.)

“I’m not quite sure that I hear anything that’s significantly different enough that we could be hopeful that things are changing,” she says. “It sounds like it’s a variation on existing themes.”

During the pilot phase, which will end this summer, Ms. Caldwell worked more than she had as an adjunct, she says. She led more course sections per term than she had been permitted to teach as a part-time instructor, and was required to give feedback on student work in less time. But she says the stability of a salaried job with benefits was a welcome change.

“Because of that,” she says, “we were quite happy to do the 72-hour turnaround on grading.”