Monday, June 09, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Introducing Faculty Rank

A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a smallish CC with no tenure system and no faculty rank designations. Technically, all faculty, full-time and part-time, are classified as "Instructors." Though at first I found the egalitarian spirit of this system charming, over the years it has proven to be somewhat inconvenient. Anytime I interact with my colleagues from 4-year institutions, for example, I have to go to great pains to explain that I'm not a temporary faculty member, not part-time, etc.. I've also come to believe that the lack of any system for faculty promotion (combined with the lack of merit-based pay raises) is a major contributor to the "deadwood" phenomenon: with no possibility of promotion, faculty have no real external motivator to do much beyond the minimum requirements.

Recently, I've been trying to get both the faculty and the administration to consider adopting a faculty rank system, which would be independent of tenure (since tenure isn't really an option) and which would have little connection, if any, to pay scale. Both sides seem to be amenable to the idea of this kind of system in theory, but the logistics are proving to be a major obstacle. The big question is not just how the system would work--what the requirements for each rank would be, what benefits would go along with promotion, etc.--but also how to implement the system with a pre-existing faculty that has been operating without rank for so long. What do you do with seniority and degree differences (which at present make a difference in salary but not in title)? I can't imagine making a 25-year teaching veteran an assistant professor until s/he works the way up the ladder. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to undermine the system from the get-go by automatically conferring full professor status on anyone with a certain amount of seniority. We need some way of grandfathering the existing faculty into the new system without making that system meaningless.

There's a lot here. It's worth looking at carefully.

First, there's the assumption that the dead wood would respond positively, rather than digging in their heels and getting even less pleasant. Some will probably be positive, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some dig in their heels against it, since rank would highlight their relative lack of production. They may be flying below the radar now, since they probably don't think the change will actually come to pass. But if it does, I'd expect them to crawl out from under their rocks and make your life hell. (They'll say they weren't consulted, that the criteria are flawed, that this is just another step in consolidating managerial power, etc.)

Strikingly, you mentioned that the current system gives the same rank to adjuncts as to full-timers. If you draw a more visible distinction, expect some pushback from some affronted adjuncts.

There's also the question of the value of a promotion that carries with it neither the possibility of tenure nor a meaningful raise. If it's just a title, I'd expect to see its motivational value remain fairly low. If it were up to me, I'd keep tenure off the table – don't get me started – but I would tie promotion to a meaningful raise. If a full professor has demonstrated considerably more value to the institution than an instructor has, I'd have no (conceptual) problem with paying accordingly. (Of course, finding the money to bump up a significant chunk of your faculty by a significant amount all at once may turn out to be a deal-breaker.)

Faculty promotions are strange creatures. In most organizations, promotions bring with them changes in job responsibility. Faculty promotions mostly don't. The core of what a full professor does is usually the same as the core of what an assistant professor at the same institution does. (There may be some differences on the margins in terms of, say, committee service, but the job is still fundamentally recognizable.) That's why some colleges manage to function just fine without faculty ranks. Put another way, the difference in responsibilities between 'Associate Dean' and 'Dean' is usually much more drastic than the difference between 'Associate Professor' and 'Professor.'

Since faculty promotions don't bring much difference in people's job descriptions, I tend to think of their primary function as motivational. (Again, for purposes of this discussion I'm bracketing the question of tenure.) That's not a small thing; in the ranks of our staff, I've seen the undesirable side effects of jobs without any hope of advancement. In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the crabbiness among senior faculty comes from realizing at some level that they've topped out. If you've hit 'full professor' status, but you have no administrative ambitions and you aren't a superstar, you're just looking at repetitive grading and cost-of-living adjustments until retirement. That has to be a little demoralizing, especially if you've had a lot of success in your past.

Of course, it's even worse if there's only one faculty rank, and you hit that your first year. At least introducing a few levels, with corresponding raises, can take the edge off the sense of drift.

(It can also give you a performance-based referent to use during layoffs, if it should come to that.)

How to introduce it? I'll share a few thoughts, and ask my Wise and Worldly Readers to chime in.

First, be very clear on the criteria and the value of the ranks. If you can, throw some money at them.

Second, don't start anybody at the top. The highest rank anybody should 'grandfather' into is Associate Professor. Nobody gets to coast across the finish line.

Third, a few 'bright line' rules about minimum length of service for a given rank, minimum degree level (no full professorships without a terminal degree, for example), minimum time between promotions, how to count medical and/or parental leaves, and guidelines for hiring new faculty who aren't entry-level can save a lot of headaches. I wouldn't recommend being overly restrictive on any of these, since they tend to weaken your ability to keep the best people, but some basic minima will reduce the caseload (and politicking) and guarantee some basic level of procedural fairness.

Fourth, and I'll admit this is my hobbyhorse, count performance more than seniority. Breathing is its own reward; if you want more money, create some value for the institution. In the context of a teaching college, I'd imagine looking at things like 'new courses developed' and 'willingness to teach online and/or at unpopular times,' as well as the usual course observations and such. The more closely you can match promotion criteria to what the college needs to prosper, the better.

I wish you luck. This will be a lot harder than you may suspect, and will almost certainly lead to some really nasty infighting. Ultimately, I agree that performance should be rewarded, but getting there will be a bumpy ride. Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen a successful introduction of rank?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Well, to mount my own hobby horse, I would first encourage them to go to five year revolving contracts with annual reviews and extensions for the new ranks. Since they get to invent the system, the possibility of moving down as well as up would be a good thing, and the five year roll provides a long enough time for course correction
Oh, I will be very curious indeed to know how this plays out! I hope your correspondent sends an update!

I think all of the advice, especially about possible push-back, is right on here.
I'd give some thought to how you'd deal with someone who had to take leave for personal or family reasons. I'd also think about how you evaluate service and other contributions to the school - this could be a way to distribute admin tasks to people that actually rewards the work they do.
1. Two year contracts (our legislature budgets biennially, so this would align roughly with the flow of money in our state).
2. Hate stratification. The glory of community college teaching is the oneness of the academy. Viva egalitarianism! Down with ranks!
3. If the term “instructor” embarrasses one in conversing with one’s contemporaries, then issue all full-time classroom pedagogues the title of “professor”. It then becomes an honorific, not a rank.

I have labored in the realm of rank and the realm of oneness. I prefer the realm of oneness.

A simple Mighty Favog
I agree with a lot of what was said.

If I can add: in my experience at CCs, ranking structures have had very little effect on "dead wood" faculty. That could, perhaps, be because they're implemented poorly. For example, my experience level puts me, I think, squarely in the bottom rungs of Assistant Prof. at any 4-year, barely above Lecturer. But, I recently interviewed at a CC where the bullet points of my CV would have them hire me in as an Associate Prof. I just don't believe I'm on that level. That one fact made me fear the college would have a disproportionate share of underqualified people.

So, then, for my own hobbyhorse, I'd really like to see CCs (where I prefer to teach) introduce more rewards for professional activities - akin to tenure processes at 4-years, but without "tenure" as we know it. One downside to working in CCs as opposed to 4-years, as an artist/art faculty, has been that the 3 CCs I've taught at (and many I've interviewed at) have employed art faculty at astounding disparities of competence. I've worked with some amazing artists (and teachers) and disparaged the departmental molasses-effect of faculty who are embarrassingly uninformed. As faculty seem to lose the desire to remain active in an evolving field, one result I've seen is poorly designed curriculum that has become an "except art courses" in articulation agreements. It hurts our students. Unfortunately, the faculty who understand don't have the collective strength to sway entrenched dead wood. Faculty "publishing" may not be a panacea. But, I think that maintaining relationships with our discourses can provide motivation and personal development in its own right. All of that would benefit the college, and maybe even erode a little of the 2-year school stigma.
The main advantage of calling a permanent member of the teaching faculty a "professor" (of any sort) comes when you write a letter of recommendation for a student trying to get an internship or whatever. The audience for that letter interprets "instructor" as indicating a part-time position. Even impermanent ones are usually called "visiting professor" at a university.

If the place has tenure, then it also makes sense to indicate that rank with the usual asst assoc distinction between the two types of ass professors. If there is no tenure or rolling renewal system, then they should be honest and call them all visiting professors (full time) and instructors (part time).

I am less concerned with the rank issue than others here. The fact that a full prof in the US does not have to do the same things (such as a super dissertation) that are sometimes the norm in Europe does not degrade the honorific that our schools grant to those who once met a certain standard. Nor am I concerned that the experience standards are different for an Assoc Prof at an R1, a 4-year, or a CC. Of course they are different. We care about teaching, to start with, while an R1 cares more about grant income and the odds it will continue into the distant future.
This is one of my pet peeves.

Years ago at my SoCal CC, our Academic Senate bestowed the title of “Assistant Professor” on adjunct faculty members, “Associate Professor” on full-time (but still-untenured) full-time faculty members, and “Professor” on tenured full-timers. These bogus titles have become part of the culture of our campus. People actually call one another professor; when someone’s name is on the Governing Board agenda, it’s always “Professor X”; and when students put their teacher’s name on a paper (which is another thing that strikes me as silly. I know my own damn name.) it’s almost always “Proffessor”—yep, with two “f” s.

“Professor” means, at the very least, an earned Ph.D, and to me, it carries the sense of being not only well-known, but respected as well. Someone like Noam Chomsky is a professor. I’m not. Besides, if we’re going to adopt impressive titles, why stop at “Professor”? I’d prefer “Duke” or maybe “Bull Goose Looney.”

I don’t think that a fancy title gives a letter of recommendation more credibility, either. A good, well-written letter from Jane Doe, English Department should carry a lot more weight than a poorly-written letter signed by Professor Bloviator. And because these inflated titles have become the rule rather than the exception, I’ve seen forms for letters of recommendation that require the sender to indicate the academic degree he’s earned.

Public group masturbation makes me go Eyuuuuuw. So does this.

I'm the author of the original question, and I'm very interested to read the comments here, specifically from those of you who oppose faculty rank on principle. I agree that meaningless rank is...well, meaningless. In fact, the option currently on the table from the college administration is to call all full-time faculty simply "Professor." Speaking only for myself, I have to say that I would be uncomfortable passing myself off as a full professor if I hadn't earned that distinction.

But the question of motivation remains. We have no tenure system, no merit raises, no rank system, and an empty annual evaluation system (i.e., peer review in which virtually all faculty are labeled as "excellent" every year). In other words, the college has no way to reward those who do a good job or to withhold rewards from those who don't. I know, I know, internal motivators are the most powerful, but I still believe that the college needs to find some way to at least prod people in the right direction. If not faculty rank (and keeping in mind that merit raises and tenure are definitely not on the table), then what?
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