Comments on Collegiate Professor Series

The VT chapter of AAUP has respectfully submitted the comments below to the members of the University Council, who will meet on on Monday 18 April at 3pm in 1045 Pamplin Hall. They will be considering a resolution as well as changes to the Faculty Handbook.


April 15, 2016
To:           University Council, Virginia Tech
RE:           Proposed Collegiate Professor Series
From:      Virginia Tech chapter of the American Association of University Professors

The proposed Collegiate Professor series offers multi-year, renewable contracts with the possibility of promotion in order to enhance undergraduate instruction by hiring more teaching faculty with terminal degrees who keep current not only with research in their field but also with best pedagogical practices.

Amended since its presentation to the Commission on Faculty Affairs (CFA) on February 5,  the proposal now specifies that tenured and tenure-track faculty will constitute the majority of the faculty at Virginia Tech; that Collegiate Professors will be entitled to academic freedom; that departments will develop procedures for handling annual evaluations, merit raises, reappointment, and promotion; that these performance evaluations will be conducted by standing committees where faculty form the majority; and that in the case of non-reappointment a college-level review may be requested.

Despite these important and welcome modifications, many faculty members remain concerned. The comments below have come either directly to the VT AAUP chapter or to us through Faculty Senators.

Evaluation, promotion, and appeals of non-renewal

In the original presentation made to the CFA on 5 February, slide 5 (appended below) includes the bullet point “Promotion evaluated by department, college, and university committees.” However, the current resolution and handbook text mention only departmental and college faculty committees in regard to evaluation and appeals of negative decisions. Why has the university level of review been removed from the process?

Conversion

Slide 5 also states that “Current tenure-track faculty with strong interests in teaching, pedagogy, and curricular reform may request to move to the collegiate professor series.” Will other conversions be possible? For example from Instructor to Collegiate Professor?

The proposed handbook revisions state that if a Collegiate Professor is subsequently appointed to a tenure-track position, service in the Collegiate Professor rank would not count toward the probationary period. Would publications and other scholarly achievements that occurred prior to conversion be considered in the tenure case?

Non-renewal based on factors other than performance

Any faculty member may face involuntary dismissal in cases of “Academic Program Restructuring or Discontinuance” (2.12.2) or “Conditions of Financial Exigency” (Faculty Handbook 2.12.1). Would the paragraph in 2.12.2 entitled “Minimum Responsibilities to Individual Faculty Members” (lengthy advance notice of termination, transition assistance, and obligatory offer of reinstatement if the position re-opens) apply to Collegiate Professors? In other words, would Collegiate Professors be treated as “continued appointment personnel”?

Non-tenure status?

Many faculty feel strongly that the proposed teaching-intensive Collegiate Professor ranks should include the possibility of tenure. Here are some of the reasons for preferring tenure to renewable contracts.

Innovative teaching and classroom controversy

Classrooms thrive on the free and open exchange of information, ideas, and aesthetic values. These exchanges often challenge prevailing assumptions, practices, and tastes. Instructional faculty without tenure face periodic renewal based in large part on student evaluations. Areas where controversial topics, ideas, or activities regularly take place include many social sciences, some areas in natural resources, and biology. These include not only political issues or social policy but also biological evolution; astronomy, specifically cosmology and the universe’s evolution; climate change and human effects on it. Innovative teaching will be stifled if Collegiate Professors shy away from controversy in the hopes  of avoiding negative student comments.

Initiating curricular reform

The faculty handbook proposal states that “Working in collaboration with the department’s other faculty, collegiate faculty may take a lead role on enhancing the curricula and promoting teaching excellence.” However, the un-tenured Collegiate Professors would not be equal partners in relation to the tenured faculty: not only does tenure confer perceived status, but also the non-tenured faculty must face periodic renewal. It is much more difficult for someone lower in the academic hierarchy to initiate change. What incentive would collegiate faculty have to raise concerns about department, college, or institutional direction, values, and approaches?

Teaching less valued than research

Offering tenure only to researchers implicitly values research over teaching.

Outside challenges to the tenure system

The unintended consequences of withholding tenure should be considered, given ongoing challenges to the tenure system on the part of legislators, the press, and public opinion. It would be worth reflecting on what has been happening elsewhere in the U.S. with regard to tenure, for example in Wisconsin. What tends to be lost in much of this discussion is the need to preserve some of the enduring values of universities, even as we adapt to changing times and contexts.

Contact: Janell Watson, President, VT chapter of the AAUP, rjwatson@vt.edu

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