Faculty are the core of the university

Faculty are lazy. Faculty are self-centered. They only care about their projects and only want to work with students if it benefits them. Why is tenure needed? No other profession gets that kind of job security. For over a generation, these criticisms of faculty could be heard from trustee meetings to the state house. Let’s be honest: faculty are easy targets. But I worry that with all of these attacks on faculty that we’ve forgotten a fundamental truth: Faculty are the core of the university.

Photo credit: Michael Bentley

Universities have different missions, but each is typically a variation on the phrase: teaching, research, and service.

What group does the work of all three areas?  Not students. Not administrators. The faculty.

I’ve often engaged in a fun debate with my classes, “Could we have a university without students?” They argue no that you couldn’t fulfill the teaching mission. At best, what you would have is a think tank. I counter that we could teach the public generally and don’t need students as traditionally defined.

They may be correct (although I wouldn’t let them know that).

But the debate reveals an inescapable truth, you certainly can’t have a university without faculty.

Faculty create new knowledge. They share discoveries with students, the government, and society. Faculty members engage in important service work at home and around the world.

In short, the faculty are the core of the university.

Academic integrity is protected by the faculty. They determine degree requirements, expectations, and make sure that they have been met.

Tenure and academic freedom have been under assault in recent years. Yet, the significance of faculty work in these areas requires special protections.

If faculty fulfill their teaching, research, and service responsibilities, they will make external (or even internal) stakeholders mad from time to time. Only through substantial tenure protections can we make certain that faculty will be able to pursue knowledge no matter the results.

Likewise, higher education must come to grips with the vast deprofessionalization of faculty. The growth of part-time and non-tenure earning positions is a crisis for the academy.

Faculty are not like other employees. In recent years, higher education institutions have approached faculty the same as other areas with more part-time workers, outsourcing, and various cost-savings measures.

Simply put, this is dangerous.

Faculty are the core of the university.

As you weaken faculty, you cripple the university.

I understand the counterarguments. Faculty are expensive. Hiring a faculty member in an area of emphasis today means limiting the ability to hire in new areas in the future.

My response: you’re right. They are expensive and they do limit what you can do in the future.

And that’s okay.

It is more than okay. It is desirable.

Faculty are the engine of the university. They drive scientific advancements that power our nation and the world. One need to look no further than the tremendous scientific advances of the last century to understand what happens when we unleash our faculty. Higher education accomplished all this with full-time and tenure earning faculty.

The winners of this century will be determined by knowledge and information.

Our international competitors from China to Russia seek to emulate our higher education system’s success.

However, they are missing a vital part of the recipe by not placing faculty at the center of their universities. Higher education works best when everyone involved acknowledges that faculty are the core of the university.

Here at home, I worry that we’ve forgotten this vital ingredient.

For faculty critics and policymakers, you can weaken the core. You can strip away the protections, power, and influence of faculty.

But if you rotten the core, don’t be surprised when you spoil the barrel.