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COLLEGE CONNECTION: Reconsidering the Rights and Responsibilities of College Faculty

February 15, 2011

By John Garvey

The current debates around improving the quality of teaching in kindergarten to 12th grade schooling have been characterized by endless polarizations. The real point of taking teaching seriously is not to find ways of ever more precisely ranking teachers and figuring out who needs to be replaced. Instead, effective reform involves discovering how to change teaching for the better. This is true at the college level as much as in the K-12 world. Taking a closer look at college teaching, specifically at CUNY, is part of a larger strategy to improve student learning and increase postsecondary graduation rates. Unfortunately, a complex set of customs and rules regarding faculty rights and prerogatives make examining teaching much more difficult, because addressing the quality of college teaching involves developing a new understanding of faculty responsibilities.

There are three things we need to understand–academic freedom, tenure and faculty governance.

Academic freedom includes the freedom of faculty members to: 1) pursue all kinds of intellectual work; 2) draw conclusions from that work and publish and distribute them; 3) determine which content should be included in college courses; 4) present faculty views and opinions to students in courses and other academic settings, and 5) speak and act on matters of political convictions. Starting in the 1940s, colleges and universities generally came to accept the principles of academic freedom as a way of ensuring that faculty members would not be pressured to think or teach in a particular way or be punished for thinking or teaching in different ways.

Tenure at the college level is, more or less, a guarantee of permanent employment. Faculty members, on what is considered to be the tenure track, are usually initially appointed at the rank of assistant professor and, if they receive good evaluations over time, they become eligible for promotion to associate professor and, eventually, professor. After a limited number of years, their position is formally reviewed to determine whether they should receive a permanent appointment in an academic department (such as history or economics) at their particular college. The initial decision to grant tenure is traditionally vested in a committee within the department, but usually also requires the approval of one or more governance bodies and the consent of the college president. Applicants for tenure are expected to provide evidence of their effectiveness as: 1) scholars/researchers (mostly through the receipt of grants and publications), 2) teachers, and 3) members of the college community. However, it is usually the quality of their scholarship and research, rather than the quality of their teaching, that determine whether a faculty member will receive tenure.

The goal of obtaining tenure is very much affected by the desire of people for job security. The denial of tenure essentially means the termination of employment. Furthermore, a denial of tenure at one institution frequently jeopardizes the possibility of obtaining a full-time position elsewhere. The number of individuals who possess the credentials (usually a doctorate) to be employed as a college faculty member far exceeds the number of full-time positions. 1

In terms of faculty governance, most colleges have formal by-laws that prescribe how the institution is to be governed when it comes to academic matters such as courses, grades, eligibility for graduation, probation, etc. Of special concern is control over courses. At many colleges, including CUNY institutions, faculty members have almost total control over the courses and programs of study their department offer, including what courses all students have to take to complete a degree.

Far too often, faculty members imagine that their right to academic freedom and their authority over the curriculum, ultimately secured by tenure, entitles them to have fairly absolute control over how they should teach, what students should study and what students should do in order to pass courses and qualify for graduation—in spite of the possible negative consequences of those decisions for students. For example, at most colleges, students are required to take a number of introductory courses intended to provide either an overview of the academic discipline or the first course in a sequence leading to a major. In both cases, the courses typically attempt to cover an extraordinarily broad range of topics. Those courses frequently produce low average grades, high levels of failure (especially in math and science) and disappointing levels of student understanding (in almost all disciplines). Poor grades, high failure rates and inadequate understanding combine to produce low graduation rates.

Unfortunately, many faculty members are unaware of this larger and distressing situation. Faculty members probably know a great deal about how students do in their courses, and they may know quite a bit about how students do in other courses offered by their department. But they frequently know very little about the overall patterns of student success and failure—even when data on those patterns are quite readily available. Interested readers can find information on the graduation rates of almost all of the colleges in the metropolitan area on IPEDS (a US Department of Education web page at http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds).

If there is strong evidence that students either fail certain courses at very high levels or pass those courses but appear not to have learned very much, faculty should be responsible for investigating and promoting the development of more effective teaching strategies.  In the case of the introductory courses mentioned above, it could mean that the content should be reorganized or that the traditional emphasis on breadth of coverage should be changed. Similarly, if there is evidence that other academic policies and practices negatively affect the likelihood of student success (ultimately graduation), the faculty needs to take its share of the responsibility for changing those policies and practices.

I think that faculty rights and prerogatives should be situated within a new kind of faculty responsibility— a fiduciary responsibility where professors are expected to act in the best interests of the students and not necessarily in their own interests.  The best interests of college students today, in the great majority of institutions in this city and across the country, require a reinvention of what colleges do and how they do it. They especially require a whole new approach to teaching. Faculty members should become champions of that reinvention—even if it requires that they reconsider some very traditional ideas and practices.

1 While tenure is often imagined to be a guarantor of academic freedom, it’s likely that it actually works against it—since candidates for tenure are sometimes reluctant to say or do anything that might jeopardize their chances.

John Garvey is the former Dean for Collaborative Programs at the City University of New York

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