A contract for academia

Escaping separate and unequal faculty citizenship
By: | Issue: August, 2015
July 22, 2015

Worried that faculty do not spend sufficient time teaching students, some are calling for the elimination of the longstanding system of tenure and promotion. Others suggest the creation of separate faculty tracks—such as teaching faculty, research faculty, and so on.

Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College in New York City, correctly observes: “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.”

Consonant with Shapiro’s call to diversify faculty roles and the larger issue of how best to reward faculty for the different types of work they undertake, I propose a “faculty contract.” I don’t mean the sort of legal document used by unionized institutions. Instead, it’s a process by which faculty, in consultation with their departments and colleges, negotiate—and then, over the course of time—renegotiate their work product.

How it works

The contract would begin with professors articulating a scholarly vision and agenda, and explaining how that agenda comports with their larger personal and professional commitments. The burden would be on faculty members to document how their work aligns with the mission of the institution and academic unit to which they report.

The next step would be a negotiation between faculty members and the relevant administrators regarding the products and outcomes expected by the stated scholarly vision and agenda. These work products would serve as the metrics for evaluating faculty performance.

Put simply, faculty would be treated consistently, yet differently. While all professors at public research universities are expected to be scholars, each has a different scholarly program. They should therefore be evaluated according to how their work products align with their chosen pursuits.

Periodically renegotiating the contract ensures that the professional vision and scholarship of professors constantly evolve and mature over the course of an academic career, and as the needs of the institution change.

Strengthening the pillars

While not without problems, this proposal is a move in the right direction to help escape the hierarchy of the three pillars of universities—research, teaching and service. It also maintains faculty accountability and rigorous performance evaluation.

Moreover, flexibility does not provide a license for faculty members to deviate from the mission of the university and academic unit. Rather, it adds reflection followed by open deliberation to the process, allowing faculty greater ownership of their scholarship and an ability to participate in the definition of appropriate work products.

An added advantage of the contract is its potential to extricate us from the either/or mentality characteristic of arguments about teaching versus research, service versus research, and applied research versus basic research. These rigid dichotomies and their related language often hamper our ability to create truly outstanding institutions of higher education where teaching, research and service are highly valued and rewarded.

Whatever the solution, we should resist current calls to create separate categories of faculty positions as that would almost certainly result in a class system where separate status becomes tantamount to unequal treatment.

Instead, why not institute greater flexibility and autonomy in determining the work product of faculty? The faculty contract offers one way to accomplish this.

Rick Cherwitz is a professor in the Moody College of Communication and faculty fellow in the Division of Diversity & Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.