Alexandra Logue: Are Faculty Missing in Action?

This post was originally published on the blog of Alexandra Logue

Last fall, an article in Inside Higher Ed authored by Judith Shapiro, President of the Teagle Foundation and former President of Barnard College, made the following statement:

“For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism.”

I agree with this statement, but I would expand it to say that faculty members have frequently been missing in action with regard to all kinds of controversial issues.  At many (most?) institutions, faculty are rewarded with promotions, raises, and tenure first for their research (largely based on their individual efforts), second for their teaching (again, largely based on their individual efforts), and only third for their service, which would include working together with others to make their colleges congenial and productive places for the colleges’ diverse inhabitants.  The faculty who produce the most work of direct benefit to themselves are largely those faculty who keep to themselves, focus on their own work, and stay out of the way of college conflagrations.  Consistent with this statement, research has shown that faculty do not feel safe expressing views with which others may disagree until they have had the final promotion to full professor (not, as some people think, until they have tenure).

An example of these tendencies concerns credit transfer among the 19 undergraduate colleges of The City University of New York, at which approximately 10,000 students transfer each fall alone.  Credit transfer is a controversial subject, just one reason being that whether the receiving college counts the credits or not can directly affect the college’s, as well as a department’s, funds, and whether faculty members have sufficient enrollment to teach certain courses.  Although ensuring that credits transfer can benefit students, it can also mean depriving faculty and/or a college of something desirable to them.  Thus it is no surprise that, although for over 40 years problems with credit transfer were seen as the worst problems for CUNY students, and although the faculty issued some statements about those problems, the faculty took no actions to solve the problems.  When the central administration finally instituted a system (known as Pathways) that guaranteed credit transfer for some courses, and thus directly affecting some faculty’s courses, only then did some faculty spend significant amounts of time on the credit transfer issue, with most of those faculty objecting to Pathways, including filing law suits against it.  This prompted one CUNY Distinguished Professor, in his testimony at a public hearing on Pathways, to say to the faculty in the audience: “Where have you been?  Where have you been for 40 years?”

Although there is nothing wrong with working hard to benefit oneself, we also need to provide clear incentives for faculty to work together for the benefit of students, as well as for the rest of the higher education community.

There is more about these issues in my forthcoming book Pathways to Reform:  Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.

LogueAlexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking and Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today. She lives in New York City.