Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Advancement Problem

In higher education, we often use the term “advancement” to refer to fundraising.  Here, I’ll use it in the sense that the rest of the world uses it, meaning career advancement.

Higher ed has a severe advancement problem.

It has for a long time.  The well-documented malaise of the Associate Professor, I think, is a symptom.  I was reminded of it over the weekend, when I had the chance to visit High School Friend on Right Ocean.  HSFRO noted that in many departments, if you didn’t know titles, and just watched faculty day to day, the only way you could guess who had which title would be by their ages.  The duties really don’t change much.  

Which is weird, if you think about it.  Getting into the full-time faculty ranks is a task in itself, but it involves a pretty rigorous (and often quick) climb up the occupational ladder.  These are people who have been climbers since high school, if not earlier.  They move from high school to college to grad school to postdoc or adjuncting to full-time faculty, changing venues every few years and outcompeting peers along the way.  They advance to tenure, and then…

For most, there’s really nowhere to go after that.  They can spend thirty years or more doing the same thing.

That’s especially true at teaching-intensive institutions.  At research universities, even if the teaching doesn’t change much, the research does; there’s always a new question to work on.  But at a teaching-intensive place, you can easily be looking at multiple sections of “Intro to…” every semester for the rest of your career.  After a couple of decades, keeping it fresh can become a challenge, particularly in fields in which the basics don’t change much.  The Pythagorean theorem hasn’t changed much in some time, and probably won’t.

This isn’t about “deadwood,” exactly.  Deadwood is a symptom.  It’s about a structural flaw that both encourages and enables deadwood.

Some people get around the advancement problem by going into administration.  There are good reasons to do that, and some of us -- hello -- find fulfilling careers doing that.  But it’s a fundamentally different job than what faculty do.  The Venn diagram of skill sets for the two jobs will show some overlap, but a whole lot outside the shaded area.  Some people have both sets of skills, but that’s more a matter of personality and serendipity than training.  (For reasons I still don’t understand, higher ed doesn’t seem to believe much in management training for its own people.)  I’ve known some wonderful professors who made terrible administrators, simply because the tasks are so different.  For an ambitious professor at a teaching-intensive institution who has no appetite for administration, the ceiling comes early.

Professional development is crucial, of course.  I’ve seen some professors who had grown a bit stale reinvent themselves when they started teaching online.  Sometimes team-teaching, or picking up an entirely new course, can shake things up productively.  But at a basic level, professional development works only when the professional being developed wants it to work.  By the time he has thrown in the towel, it’s too late.

I’ve seen plenty of articles advocating “phased retirement” plans for senior faculty, to allow them to stick around longer.  But as an industry, we seem weirdly reluctant to discuss what to do for mid-career faculty who are solid performers, but who are looking at decades more of doing exactly the same thing.  As near as I can tell, that’s actually the much more common problem.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective institutional responses to the advancement problem?  I’m particularly interested in solutions that make sense in a teaching-intensive setting.