Tag Archives: faculty

Graduation as seen by faculty

Last Friday, as my last work event at Whittier College (since my postdoc contract is finishing up), I went to graduation. A few observations on graduation as seen from the faculty perspective seem to be in order.

The actual experience of sitting on the platform was surprisingly unstructured. We were far enough from the audience that people chatted to each other a good deal, often in low voices to avoid disturbing the proceedings. Everyone was provisioned with a water bottle and a program, and arranged into three long rows of seats facing the audience, behind the higher-ups. There was an amusing hierarchy of chairs, such that the Trustees had brown wooden chairs, while the faculty had white plastic ones. Longtime attendees seemed to have strong views on where to sit, and arranged themselves in the faculty marching lineup with an eye to ending up in their preferred seat. The front row had a better view, but were conversely more on display; whereas the back row was somewhat shaded from the harsh sun by a backdrop. Individuals’ seating strategies sometimes led them to depart from their place in the official lineup, which was supposed to be in rank order.

In a sign of the times, a lot of faculty people were on their smartphones during the ceremony. Most people didn’t use their phones the entire time, but did consult them at least every few minutes. If you look carefully at the above picture, the professor with the pink hood has her phone out, possibly taking a photo of the audience. Continue reading Graduation as seen by faculty

What do you know about faculty democracy?

A correspondent of mine at the French group Sauvons L’Université asked me what I knew about the American institution of the “Faculty Senate.” The answer, loosely speaking, is not that much. The only time this issue has really even seen the light of day, on my campus, was in 2008 when there was a controversy over the Becker (formerly Milton) Friedman Institute that provoked long debates over faculty power (or its absence). On the other hand, in an extremely well-known case at the University of Virginia this year, the faculty and many other campus constituencies protested the removal of their president (Teresa Sullivan) and ultimately managed to get her reinstated in spite of opposition from the chair of their Board of Trustees. My general suspicion would be that the collective power of the faculty is rather minimal, at most American campuses, except in certain exceptional moments of crisis.

So here’s my question for you (assuming there are still people who have this blog in their blog readers): What is your assessment of the state of faculty democracy, in your personal experience? How would you describe the balance of power in your own institutions? What cases do you think are worth talking about? And what, if anything, do you think is worth reading on the topic?

Write a word in the comments, and we’ll see what we can collectively come up with!

Professors’ status loss

Christine Musselin, a French sociologist of higher education, ventures an interesting interpretation of the changing relation between professional status, salary, and the overall size of the academic profession. In short, she argues that the larger academia gets, the lower status professors will have.

The massification of higher education has not only had demographic implications. It has led to a certain trivialization of university faculty’s social position in developed countries — it is no longer rare to be an academic. At the same time, it is no longer rare to be a university graduate. This trend should increase in the years to come, in spite of the stagnation of demographic growth in developed countries as enrollments among 18- to 25-year-olds, by cohort [classe d’âge], tend to plateau or even decline. But official policies in most developed countries, as we enter the third millennium, nonetheless aim to increase access to higher education. In France, the objective of the post-2007 government, like that of its predecessor, is to bring 50% of each age class to bachelor’s [license] level. The idea is to facilitate underprivileged or underrepresented populations’ access to education, to encourage the pursuit of studies through graduation, to encourage further studies and teaching all throughout the life course. One should not thus expect a decrease in the population of university teachers in the years to come; one should expect growth, aimed at accommodating students with more and more diversified profiles in terms of age, sociological composition, motivation, etc.

These developments are often described as one of the signs of contemporary societies’ transition towards “knowledge societies” [sociétés de connaissance] one of whose notable characteristics is a break with the concentration of knowledges [savoirs] within a handful of heads. University faculty, as they become more numerous and come to play a central role in this process, will be less and less able to maintain the quasi-monopoly of knowledge [connaissance] expertise that they have held in the past.

The progressive loss of social prestige should thus continue — at least for the larger part of the professoriate, who won’t be in the avant-garde of scientific production, but will rather primarily contribute to the transmission of knowledge and the training of highly qualified personnel. This evolution has already been in progress for a long time and can be measured in particular by looking at salaries. University faculty salaries have evolved less favorably than those of professionals with the same level of education working outside academia (for France, see Bouzidi, Jaaidane and Gary-Bobo [2007]). This trend goes for most of the university models concerned [here in this study], whether quasi-completely public as in Europe or partly private as in North America, whether the academics are state functionaries or have private-sector contracts.

(Musselin, Les universitaires, 2006, pp. 25-26, my translation.)

My sense is that academics’ “status loss” is somewhat more complex than this, since, if you believe what you read on academic blogs, most American college students can’t tell the difference between an adjunct with really low institutional status and salary and a tenured professor. So on the level of everyday phenomenology of professional life, Musselin’s description seems a little hasty. But there is certainly a sort of myth, at the very least, that (American) faculty used to get more respect than they do now; and it may well be the case that students, on the whole, demonstrate less exaggerated obsequiousness than they once did. And it’s hard not to agree with Musselin that this shift likely is deeply related to  the massification of higher education: as if the more people go to college, the less prestige they gain from it – and the less prestige their teachers garner from teaching them. As if there was a kind of prestige mimesis, such that the lower status of today’s less elite student populations was contagious. Some longer meditations on the relation between prestige and scarcity may be in order here: Graeber’s, for example…