Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ph.D.'s at CC's

An alert reader noticed my passing comment in a post last week and wrote to ask why I would support a preference for Ph.D.'s when hiring faculty at a cc. After all, he noted, cc faculty are primarily teachers, and Ph.D.'s are really research degrees; there's no reason to believe that someone with a doctorate is necessarily a better teacher than someone with a Master's.

It's a fair question.

I'll start by defining 'preference.' It's not a hard requirement. In fact, fewer than half of the faculty I've personally had a role in hiring (nobody makes unilateral hires here) brought doctorates, although a few of them are ABD. A plurality topped out at a Master's. We've had multiple cases of candidates with Master's defeating candidates with doctorates, so it's certainly not a trump card. It's more than a tiebreaker, but less than a trump card. It helps.

Certainly, the single clearest criterion we look at is teaching ability, especially in the areas we need taught. I've seen Ph.D.'s fall flat here, and the degree won't save them. I'll grant that good-faith observers can differ on the relative performance of one teacher as against another – that's one of the reasons that we have search committees. But a demonstration that fails to show, say, mastery of the subject matter, or the ability to speak clearly enough to be understood, is the kiss of death.

All of that granted, though, the preference for doctorates isn't just arbitrary.

Although our degrees top out at the two-year level, our students don't. A gratifying number of them go on to four-year degrees and beyond, up to and including medical school, law school, and grad school. I believe that part of the job of a cc is to prepare those students to succeed at the next level(s). To the extent that we can give the students exposure to the same faculty they'd get at the next level, I think we do them a service. (Honestly, in many cases, I think we do better than some of our four-year competitors at teaching intro courses. The four-year schools sometimes treat intro courses as afterthoughts or grudging obligations; they're our bread-and-butter. Our intro classes are small, and taught mostly by full-time faculty. That certainly isn't the case at, say, Flagship State.)

There's also the matter of students' parents. Community colleges still carry a stigma, especially with adults who themselves have advanced degrees. I've spoken with parents at Open House events, and watched their expressions relax when they see how many doctorates we have on our faculty. When I can assure them, truthfully, that not only will the classes be small and the credits transferable, but the faculty will be as highly credentialed as at the four-year school down the street, it makes an impression. A well-qualified faculty is a no-apologies selling point. I'd rather sell that than, say, a football team or a rock-climbing wall or fraternities.

And while we don't have a requirement to publish, there is an expectation that faculty will remain current with the literature and developments in their fields. A doctorate is no guarantee of that, but it does suggest, at minimum, a deep exposure to the research in one field, and the ability to translate that literature into something presentable. I've also noticed that some of the doctoral faculty bring with them denser academic networks, which bring significant benefits over time. (They're incredibly handy when recruiting external consultants for site visits, for example.)

Finally, on a pragmatic level, someone who already has a doctorate won't spend the next several years working on it.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Are there legitimate reasons to prefer Ph.D.'s for cc faculty positions?