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Flexible Faculty Careers

I recently returned from the Council of Independent Colleges’ Chief Academic Officers Institute, the annual meeting of vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts at small and medium-size private colleges in the United States and a smattering of international locations. This is one of my favorite meetings of the year because hundreds of people who face similar challenges get together to discuss how to solve them, or at least deal with them, and we tend to speak a common language fostered by the nature of our work.

One of the more interesting sessions I attended was about faculty-workload considerations and creating “faculty friendly” flexibility policies at Albright College, in Pennsylvania. The session’s definition of flexibility was very broad, including distributing each faculty member’s workload across the traditional areas of teaching, scholarship, and institutional and public service, issues of load across the academic year, “load banking” (wherein an overload one semester or year might be compensated by an underload later), and so on.

I have been interested in such policies for a long time, as I’ve often thought of faculty load, and faculty expectations in general, as a kind of Procrustean bed on which not many professors fit perfectly. For those not up on Greek mythology, Procrustes was a blacksmith who lured travelers with the offer of a bed for the night, and who would then make them fit the bed exactly, either by amputating their lower extremities if they were too tall or by stretching them on a rack if they were too short. No one fit exactly because Procrustes had two beds of different lengths that he’d use to ensure his opportunity to torture his victims.

Perhaps a chief academic officer shouldn’t say this, but back in my faculty days, I got the idea that faculty work was like the bed of Procrustes. Many institutions—especially those focused on teaching, where research projects and grants don’t play the same institutional and financial role they do at research universities—clearly have an understanding that faculty members should all do fundamentally the same work, from teaching X number of courses per semester to advising a minimum of Y number of students and serving on Z committees.

The problem, of course, is that different people have different talents, and at different stages in one’s career one has different professional needs and inclinations. Some people are great advisers; others aren’t very good at advising. Some people are fluent scholars and, even under the comparatively challenging conditions of a teaching institution, are very productive; others are not. Some programs may call for someone to teach four courses in the fall but only two in the spring or similar distributions.

But because of equity considerations and the simple weight of tradition, we don’t seem to have managed to rethink the paradigm that asks for equal, rather than equivalent, work from all faculty members.

The interesting thing about this session was the story of how Albright College had set up policies to move toward a more flexible model of faculty work, based on the principles that all workload decisions should seek to create the best possible educational experiences for students and that every member of the college community has a set of core duties that must be performed. Beyond those principles, flexibility was to be a high goal.

I think the principles make a lot of sense, and I am now thinking about ways to put them into operation at my own institution, which might ultimately make our faculty happier and more productive. Higher education is in a very challenging era, but not all challenges are bad, and a productive rethinking of how we distribute and value faculty work at our institutions is potentially a sweet glass of lemonade.

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