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.