Who Teaches?

Tucked within the November Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) faculty trends report was a short section on professors of the practice, lecturers, and preceptors: teachers who are not among the “ladder” ranks of professors and tenure-track assistant and associate professors (see harvardmag.com/fas-modest-growth-22). It didn’t attract much attention. That’s unfortunate; the data raise big questions about undergraduate instruction, student experiences, and FAS’s self-understanding.

According to the report, FAS now has 723 ladder faculty members and (excluding visiting faculty) 467 faculty in non-ladder positions; the latter, adjusted to full-time equivalents, total 356 non-ladder teachers. The ladder-faculty cohort rose 13 percent from 2003 to the Great Recession, in 2009, and then stopped growing. The non-ladder census has risen 44 percent since 2003. There are now nearly half as many non-ladder instructors as fully tenure-eligible professors. So the responsibility for teaching has shifted.

There are many sound reasons for FAS to use non-ladder faculty in College classes. Courses like the required Expository Writing, basic language instruction, and calculus are often better staffed with teachers versed in those skills than with research-focused professors. In new disciplines (think data science or artificial intelligence), non-ladder faculty enable FAS to offer instruction quickly as it begins the longer process of recruiting tenure-track professors. And when students’ academic preferences pivot, non-ladder appointments can satisfy demand nimbly. That has been the case in math, science, and engineering-related fields; the report points to non-ladder growth particularly in the sciences. All good.

One might question other, longer-term reliance on non-ladder instructors. A senior professor directs nondepartmental concentrations like history and literature and social studies, but much, or most, of the instruction, advising, and thesis oversight is in the hands of lecturers: recent Ph.D.s, up to date on their fields—but not paid to do research, and not here for long. There are proportionally more ladder faculty in the department of art, film, and visual studies, but there and in the theater, dance, and media (TDM) concentration, there are plenty of skills-based, term appointees. Much the same occurs in studies of women, gender, and sexuality. Finally, science professors typically teach fewer courses than those in, say, humanities, so changes in student interests alter the teaching profile, too.

Some growth in the non-ladder ranks is terminological. The mathematics department converted teaching-focused assistant professors into non-ladder fellows in 2005. To help support newly minted Ph.D.s during the recession, a cohort of “College Fellows” was introduced in 2009—a lifesaver in a dismal market for tenure-track appointments.

Across the non-ladder faculty, a 2010 FAS review found student evaluations were favorable—often strongly so, even compared to senior, tenured professors’ instruction. This isn’t utterly surprising. The non-ladder faculty are teaching specialists, not researcher-teachers. They also conduct many small classes where students get to know them relatively well—compared to much larger classes where the professor-lecturer is remote. But even in large courses run by professors of the practice—McKay professor of the practice of computer science David Malan, who has transformed pedagogy in his field, or professor of the practice in statistics Joseph K. Blitzstein, who has galvanized student interest in his department—non-ladder faculty can light up classrooms. If postdocs help professors conduct research, and non-ladder faculty help them fulfill their teaching roles, this would seem a fair trade-off.

But is it? First, consider research and undergraduate teaching within excellent universities like this one. In the words of the 2010 review, research faculty introduce “students [to] the frontiers of knowledge. By providing excellence in the teaching of skills…a robust non-ladder faculty allows ladder faculty members to…introduce their students to the intellectual excitement of new ideas and research.” But that report found that at least 30 percent of undergraduate class enrollments were with the non-ladder faculty; counting thesis research and other adjustments, that might be nearly 40 percent. Add section time with graduate-student teaching fellows, and the proportion rises further. Today, with larger enrollment in the introductory life and physical sciences, other evolving interests (TDM), and the enlarged non-ladder faculty, the proportion could be still greater. Perhaps it’s time to rethink how to balance faculty members’ obligations relative to FAS’s self-image.

Second, consider the student perspective. Undergraduates likely choose Harvard in part because of the faculty’s reputation. Does the pedagogical effort meet their expectations? The high level of satisfaction with non-ladder-faculty instruction reported in 2010 has not been updated systematically. What do students think about their research experiences? FAS might want to ask before others do.

Third, the rapid growth in non-ladder positions raises questions about FAS itself. Faculty members express concern about nonacademic burdens, like committee and departmental service. That complaint arises even as non-ladder colleagues, who do a lot of the teaching, are more numerous. Alongside other factors that explain growth in such instruction, one might consider the conditions of tenure-track employment. Competing with other institutions, FAS has liberalized sabbaticals (now one semester for every three years or one full year for every three years if the professor secures funding for a second semester off), and made parental leave more generous. Both changes create demand for fill-in teachers; department monies spent on those appointees are funds they could use, over time, to hire more ladder colleagues—augmenting Harvard’s intellectual capital and even sparing some Crimson Ph.D.s careers as adjuncts.

The November report might spark discussion of these issues at a propitious time. FAS is financially sound, so it can focus more on ladder appointments (a goal articulated in the November report). Dean Claudine Gay has launched strategic planning meant to engage her colleagues in such questions. Now that she has been appointed Harvard’s next president, similar queries might extend to the whole University. For the good of the institution, and in light of rising criticisms of higher education, that stock-taking could not be more important.

—John S. Rosenberg

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