The Changing Nature of the Professorate

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The title of this brief piece is one of those now conventional titles by which a series of developments and questions in higher education is discussed and agonized over. It is not a topic that is neutral; the title attempts to blunt the emotion that often goes with it.

A little background—historically (I always like to start this way), professors have had certain privileges that have protected them from interference from administrations, the public, and from governmental and religious pressure. The granting of academic freedom has afforded the freedom to teach what they in their professional judgment determine is appropriate to their discipline, the content of a course for instance, in a way that is part of their discipline’s tradition of learning. They also have had the responsibility under shared governance privileges to construct the way a major in a discipline or general studies is constructed, and they also have the freedom to determine the grades given to students.

This freedom and protection is not absolute. The professor’s freedom is extended to areas of their professional expertise. The classroom is not a political platform. And a university or a university system can set limits on the size of programs, and can determine which disciplines it offers. This is especially important if the institution is a tuition dependent institution and there is not a student demand for a particular discipline desired to be taught by a university’s faculty. We occasionally hear of instances in which a professor has stepped beyond these limitations, and in which a faculty and administration or Board of Governors are at odds over what can and should be offered. Every institution has instances of these; most of the time they are rather minor. FPU has experienced both over the years. The boundaries in particular cases are murky. It works best when open dialog and respect for the various tensions within a university is recognized by all.

Further in the past an individual instructor has had great autonomy in the creation of courses and academic programs. One professor generally created a course, presented it to their department or school for approval (in some cases tight scrutiny by colleagues, in some cases very light review), taught it, and graded the students. The professor had studied the subject, had produced original research in her or his doctoral program, and was considered to be an authority in the field of study. The professor did everything from creation of the basic course, to assembling or creating the content, teaching it, advising students, grading, conducting research, and participating more broadly both in university governance and in their broader professional discipline. It seemed a cushy life to those not in university life, though in my experience good professors have worked as hard or harder than those in other professions; their work is never far away, even in extended summers. There is always a course to revise, research to conduct, a paper to write, students to advise, and we in the administration are always demanding something that is required to meet some form of certification. (Yes, even as a long-term administrator, I have been a professor who has criticized my administrative colleagues for their demands, intrusions on my sphere of privilege and responsibility, and for their general unreasonableness—some of it justified.)

But today the questions are of a different nature. Today the professor’s work is being “disaggregated.” One professor does research, one creates courses and course content, one administrates programs across a system or multicampus institution (like FPU), one teaches, someone else advises. The instructor may no longer be the professional mentor. No longer can one professor assume that they will teach in an institution in the traditional model. The researcher is predominantly found in the “research 1” institution; the course creator may be found in a for profit institution, a not for profit, or in a company that provides courses and course content. We find the course creator less often in state institutions for a variety of reasons. The one who teaches may work for several institutions without duties beyond the teaching of particular courses.

This disaggregation has helped to provide consistency across courses in institutions, and the achievement of university established “learning outcomes” by all students, and has allowed those with particular abilities to thrive. It has also allowed universities to extend higher education to a population that has not been served well in traditional education, the adult or traditional aged student who must work. But it has also cordoned off instructors from developments of their discipline (no research), separated some from students and their changing needs (the one who creates the course might be one who does not teach) and limited creativity (you teach what others give you to teach).

This is the “new professorate.” A whole new series of questions has arisen. Do instructors really need to be experts in their field? Or can they just be good teachers, after all the content is given to them? What happens to academic freedom? When can they teach what they think is correct as opposed to the course given to them? Where is the personal judgment that comes with long training in a discipline? What happens to diversity of view-point, approach, and conclusion? Does it lead to broad homogenization of thought and understanding? If the professor is trained to be an expert in their field, as well as broadly educated, in which thinking and creating are highly valued, is this the kind of life that encourages ongoing professional development, maturity as a scholar and instructor? And is a university a professional setting in which those traditional protections provide room for a professor to think, practice and create?

These are not comfortable questions for those of us who have been students and taught in traditional institutions. Our uneasiness is not just about change. It goes far deeper to the very purposes of higher education, and the way in which it can be obtained. We have to listen to the experience of students and faculty in the new model, and attempt to appreciate and understand before letting our questions and fears take center stage. It challenges us, me included.

All I can do here is describe and raise these questions. Of course there is more to it. There are strong societal and economic pressures (see my post on The Ecology of Higher Education) pushing higher education in these directions. We do not know what the outcome will be, and how American higher education will shake out over time. It may be (and is happening elsewhere even in elite schools) that we will have multiple forms of education—the traditional in various forms and the new–and that professors will specialize in one or the other. For now we are constrained to follow some of these trends, hope to adopt the best of them, avoid the worst, and find a way to thrive that offers profoundly transformative education for students. This transformation requires something more than the “new professorate,” and more than the new form of education easily offers. Our way through will require, it seems to me, our creativity and ability to work together to preserve what has been best in our traditional forms of education while thriving in the new environment. It is not, and will not be easy.

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