Are Faculty Replaceable?

Dr. Davis speaking at Myles Leitch`s farewell (Apr 13, 2015)

Dr. Davis speaking at Myles Leitch`s farewell (Apr 13, 2015)

This past Monday Tyndale hosted a farewell party for Dr. Myles Leitch, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, who is leaving us to join the Canadian Bible Society. In addition to helping develop and run the Linguistics Department at Tyndale, he’s also been an Affiliated Member of the Philosophy Department. Though his departure is good for him (and even better for the Canadian Bible Society), it is a blow to our department.

At his farewell we had an opportunity to reflect on how fortunate we were that a linguist, who happens to be very interested in philosophy, joined Tyndale’s faculty. Dr. Leitch’s Philosophy of Language and Intermediate Logic courses are not typically available in small programs like ours even though they can provide the students who take them a significant advantage when putting their graduate studies applications together. The percentage of students who took those courses and then went on to do very well in various graduate programs is shockingly high. In addition to his academic gifts, he also deeply cares about his students and was a favorite among them. The story about Dr. Leitch’s courses was that they were among the most challenging we offer, but they were also among the most rewarding. It is certainly the case that Dr. Leitch’s unique combination of skills and talents will not be easily replaced.

As I was reflecting on Dr. Leitch’s unique gifts and abilities, I came across yet another article about the problems that arise when universities seek to minimize their tenure-track faculty members and use adjuncts or non-tenure-track faculty instead. Unfortunately, this practice seems to only be increasing. In fact, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “More than 50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments.”1 The AAUP goes on to give a helpful overview of the issues related to the use of part-time faculty. Here’s just a few of them:

  1. Heavy reliance on contingent faculty hurts students.
  2. Overuse of contingent faculty hurts all faculty.
  3. The use of non-tenure-track appointments should be limited to specialized fields and emergency situations.

Their explanation for each of the above is well put, and quite accessible, so I won’t bother to discuss them further here. What I want to do instead is raise one additional issue that the AAUP does not address, an issue that is directly related to my opening comments about Dr. Leitch’s contribution to our program.

There can be no doubt that one of the reasons universities are using more and more part-time faculty members is that there is just so many people looking for academic work. There’s simply far more people who are qualified to teach than there are jobs available. This means that it’s much easier for university administrators to adopt the mindset that faculty are easily replaceable. In some ways this is true, if one faculty member leaves there will be many others eager to fill the position. However, what such administrators fail to recognize is the personal attributes that the individual brings to that particular position. Yes, there are more linguists out there, but there aren’t any more Dr. Leitch’s out there.

It seems that in transitioning from permanent, tenure-track faculty to part-time faculty there’s an assumption that if one person leaves there won’t be any significant costs by simply bringing in a replacement. This is, of course, false because it fails to recognize the deep and meaningful relationships that develop between students and their professors.2 In many ways this is a dehumanizing practice since it requires one to believe that individual persons are in fact merely interchangeable parts. It’s true that having tenure-track faculty entails a long-term commitment from the university. But that long-term commitment is precisely what provides the stability required for the relationships between faculty and students to develop.

I’m thankful to teach at a Christian university where this trend to take advantage of the current market by minimizing full-time faculty should be easier to reject. In fact, I’m praying that Christian universities will begin to lead their public-school counterparts by example. Instead of overly relying on adjuncts (or, given their typically abysmal pay, exploiting them), they can strengthen their commitment to full-time faculty.
This may come with higher costs in the short-term, but the alternative is a diminishing of the university experience for students. If students have only a limited connection to their in-class professors, then they might as well enroll in a bunch of MOOCs (“massively online open course”) and save a few dollars in the process. Not only is committing to tenured faculty better for the student experience (and, thus, better for the university), but it also affirms the dignity of each faculty member.

1. This is a growing problem in Canada too. Though they don’t provide the statistics, the Canadian Association of University Teachers notes that “more and more academic work is being performed by people hired on a per course or limited term basis.”

2. Exploring this will take another post, but this failure also can be seen in the various attempts to “professionalize” the university through accrediting bodies. Entire courses are now reduced to simple “learning objectives” and accomplishing those is the only thing that matters. The development of the relationship between faculty and students tends to get left out entirely.

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