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Redefining Faculty Roles

It’s obvious to anyone who has been around the academy for 20 years or more that the roles of faculty members at all types of institutions are changing quickly and radically. Faculty duties and expectations have diversified and become more complex, but there clearly has not been a concomitant change in the traditional expectations for faculty performance.

To take one example: at many institutions, assessment programs have added substantial burdens to faculty members, who must both plan and execute them. I suspect, though I do not know, that such additional burdens are heavier at teaching-oriented colleges and universities that also have higher standard teaching loads than more research-oriented institutions. There’s also increased pressure on faculty members to involve undergraduate students in research, an initiative that takes various forms at various institutions but that is prevalent across institutional types.

Add to these a whole array of other new or increased obligations—training in sexual harassment, staff evaluation, material handling, new pedagogical strategies, and other aspects of professional life—and faculty loads and duties have increased substantially over the past two decades.

Whether or not one agrees on the value of any one or all of these new obligations, they are real, and many of them are apparently unavoidable. The problem is that the traditional triad of faculty obligations—teaching, scholarship, and service—have not altered at all (or, perhaps more accurately, have also become more intense) during the same time. While it is true that on an absolute scale, or even on a relative one, tenure-track faculty members have pleasurable and rewarding jobs in many respects, I think that the overall level of pleasure and reward has probably slipped lately.

Complicating these concerns further is the academy’s increased reliance on contingent labor for instruction. As colleges and universities reduce the proportion of full-time faculty members on their instructional staffs, an increasing bureaucratic burden lands on fewer and fewer shoulders. Coupled with the last year’s budget cuts and those that are almost inevitable for the next few years, it’s possible that higher education has entered a spiral that will make things worse for faculty members and very likely also reduce the quality of undergraduate instruction.

Calls for accountability and critiques of faculty life as a refuge for slackers are partly responsible for these trends, and anyone inside the academy knows that these discussions are often wildly misinformed. It’s certainly clear, however, that faculty life has changed, and academics need to figure out how to be more positive participants in the conversation about how to ensure that faculty work is configured to support excellence in teaching and research.

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