I Faculty

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday we wrapped up the North American tour, so to speak, of our Student Success Workshop series, which was a great success in cities across the US and Canada. It was my pleasure to complete our tour with our largest event at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. As expected, it was a spirited group, as Canadians usually are.

One of the things we clearly understand is that to improve graduation rates, the entire institution, from custodial staff to the President, must buy-in to the philosophy and strategies of serving students. Tinto, Clewell, Noel, and others have pointed to these issues for four decades: ownership matters. However, also understood is the disconnect between certain groups on campus. In particular, that of “faculty” versus “staff,” where faculty is defined as the individual, not the department, as it typically is in Canada. When student support and other staff at campuses are surveyed, they typically note that faculty have less buy-in than other employees at the institution.

I can’t verify the validity of the quick-and-dirty survey we use to poll our workshop participants. But regardless, the fact that staff “perceive” faculty not be as bought in as themselves can’t be a good thing. This sets up a dynamic of “us” versus “them.” And in an area where we need everyone on board, this doesn’t set a good precedent.

Yesterday in Vancouver, we had a spirited discussion on this fact. As one may imagine, faculty get their backs up, and rightly so, when there is a suggested bias against their understanding and ownership of this issue. The truth is, many faculty, perhaps most, understand the importance of going beyond the call of duty to serve students, especially those on the margin who could succeed if provided the right type and level of support. Other faculty members, however, make it clear they do not subscribe to this model and hang on to the belief that students need to be ultimately responsible for their own personal welfare (certainly not untrue), with little support from the institution, especially from faculty (completely untrue).

As workshop participants know, I am a strong advocate of “hiring for success,” inclusive of faculty positions. If the mission of the institution is to serve students to the highest level possible, then the hiring process must attract people who subscribe to that mission. The conundrum occurs when there exists a disconnect between the institutional mission and faculty tenure agreements, which often, as we know, focus largely on (a) publications and (b) research. Most institutions give lip-service to teaching, advising, and the other “softer” skills of the professoriate. This becomes a serious challenge for faculty members and the institution. For instance, what is a faculty member to do when they are told the “student success is important to us,” when their pathway to tenure is almost entirely based on factors unrelated to that mission?

Instructional faculty that tend to buy in to student success do so because, well, they believe that is part of the service. They “get it” and truly want to help students. But even these individuals run into this hypocrisy that institutions say one thing but actually mean another.

For institutions to succeed in student success, they must put incentives (no, I don’t like the word “incentivize”) in place to encourage buy in. People want to help, but if it runs counter-culture to how the incentives (read: salary steps, benefits, etc.) are set up, they need to look after number one first. Who can blame them.

So this becomes a huge issue for institutions–at the highest levels–to come to terms. And it becomes an academic senate issue, and a tenure issue, to some degree. At some point, tenure practices must more forcefully include teaching as a requirement (I know, many institutions do this, but I don’t truly believe it is used as a serious indicator; please email me otherwise because I’d like to hear what your institution is doing). And staff need the same incentives. How is service to students measured in your annual salary bumps? Only through these strategies can institutions “live” their mission, as suggested by Kuh and others in their recent book Student Success.

As we presented yesterday, the front page, above the fold news article in the Vancouver Sun announced that the BC government is cutting universities 2.6 percent cut across the board (and I believe this is the second cut this year), which at Simon Fraser, will amount to between $6 million and $9 million, depending who’s running the abacus. It will be interesting to see how they, and the other BC-based institutions at our workshop, including UNBC, UBC Okanagan, Kwantlen University College, and others will manage to propel their work on student retention and success while taking this across-the-board hit from the provincial government. Perhaps this is a good time to change the incentive agreements for staff and faculty…

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