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Author: Constance C. Relihan

Given enrollment pressures, devaluation of the importance of general education, and efforts to cut costs, general education courses—especially those students are expected to complete during their first year, such as English composition, first-year seminars, and introductory math— are often taught by graduate students, adjuncts or otherwise contingent faculty members, especially at research universities. Often, too, these faculty members are hired hurriedly just before the start of the semester after truncated search processes. This is unfortunate as it can shortchange the aspect of our students’ curriculum that arguably contributes most to their long-term success. Our institutions should commit as much energy and resources to hiring and retaining the faculty who teach foundational undergraduate courses as we do to recruiting research faculty, and our commitment should include hiring as general education faculty only individuals who have earned a terminal degree.

I have been struggling to write this piece for some time because it risks seeming to devalue the teaching and professional contributions of faculty members who do not hold a PhD, EdD, or MFA. I don’t want to do that. By and large, the faculty who teach general education courses in writing and critical thinking, social and behavioral sciences, and STEM areas at my research university and elsewhere are student-focused, thoughtful, and engaged professionals who are deeply committed to our students’ success. The move to hire only those with terminal degrees is not intended to undermine the good work these faculty do; nor is it intended to push them out of their positions or not renew their contracts. It is intended instead to elevate general education faculty and push against the impression that the work that they do—teaching foundational courses to primarily first- and second-year students—is less important than the other elements of the instructional mission of our university.

It is meant to strengthen the voices of our faculty as they participate in committees and shared governance structures across our campuses. It is intended to increase opportunities to strengthen our students’ transition to seeing themselves as young scholars and researchers, and it is intended to help our universities strengthen the public argument about the quality of our faculty. Simply put, moving to a system in which research universities hire only faculty who have earned the terminal degree to teach general education courses is in the best interests of our students, our faculty, and our institutions.

Better for our students

A university’s general education courses, especially those taught during the first year, are responsible for much more than providing instruction in an academic subject. They serve as well to motivate students to imagine their academic and professional future and they acculturate students into the values and practices of the institution. They set a standard for how an institution expects its students to think of themselves, their academic performance, their values, and their future. As such, first-year courses should be taught by faculty who are able to embody the highest levels of academic preparation, who have experience engaging in extended research, and who have been subject to rigorous academic review and scrutiny.

Some might argue that for first-year courses, such as English composition, the level of instruction that students require does not necessitate that level of expertise and experience—that, in its methods and performance expectations, it is much more like high school than university teaching. Such a perspective undervalues our students and their capabilities. If the general education classes are handled as if they are merely slight adaptations of high school courses, then we set our students up to underestimate their own capabilities.

A tendency to see general education courses in this way is unfortunately exacerbated by the growth of AP and dual enrollment classes, in which high school students and teachers are encouraged to believe that the work they are doing within the high school is the equivalent of university-level instruction. The more we encourage our students, high school teachers, and students’ parents to see no difference between courses taught within the high school and university-level courses taught to students after they have come to our campuses, the more we encourage the devaluing of the instruction that university professors provide. As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in a 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education article in which they rebut criticism of their book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom (2015):

Isn’t something critical gained between the one-to-two years of extra coursework typically required for the M.A. and the work of synthesis and integration required to complete Ph.D. or M.F.A. projects making original contributions to one’s field? And isn’t that training just as important for the success and confidence of our faculty in classrooms as in laboratories?

Better for our institutions

As the previous paragraph implies, employing faculty who don’t hold a terminal degree has negative consequences for our institutions and, by extension, higher education as a whole. The more ways in which the public is able to align universities with high schools, the less value that will be ascribed to the education we provide. If individuals with the level of qualifications deemed appropriate for high school teachers become the norm in university general education classrooms, then the value of university instruction becomes more open to question. This questioning is part of what gives rise to the adjunctification of university instruction.

For this argument, I am leaning significantly on Bérubé and Ruth’s work. The two make a powerful argument that increasing the number of non-tenure-track faculty and faculty who do not possess a terminal degree has undermined the reputation of higher education, the ability of institutions to engage in real shared governance, and academic freedom. Bérubé and Ruth argue that “the profession of college teaching has been drastically deprofessionalized over the past 40 years” (The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, p. 11), and that the growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty, adjunct appointments, and faculty who have not earned the terminal degree have contributed to that deprofessionalization.

Requiring that general education faculty possess the terminal degree would, over time, increase the respect with which research faculty view the teaching mission of our universities, help to draw a clear distinction between university general education courses and advanced high school classes, and emphasize the quality and pedagogical commitment of our teaching faculty. Such a shift would also give our institutions a competitive edge in national rankings that include the percentage of faculty with a terminal degree within their ranking formulae or that rely on perceptions of the quality of an institution’s faculty.

Better for the faculty themselves

Requiring a terminal degree also benefits the faculty themselves in a number of ways. The increased respect with which research faculty would view them and the units in which they teach is likely to increase faculty morale and decrease stress. All too often, non-tenure-track general education faculty are either perceived or perceive themselves to be second-class citizens. Terminal degrees, as Bérubé and Ruth put it, “are not just credentials, not just pieces of paper, but evidence of years of real intellectual work.” They increase the potential for job mobility and, therefore, bargaining power. They permit faculty to stand on equal footing with other faculty on campus and to have their voices and their intellectual position taken more seriously. (If faculty lack tenure, however, even with a terminal degree they still lack full access to academic freedom both in the classroom and in governance bodies.)

Elsewhere, Bérubé and Ruth make the argument specifically in reference to faculty members who teach general education courses:

Professors teaching introductory composition or introductory foreign-language courses often complain that their work is devalued, consigned to the lowest tiers of the profession (and the lowest tiers of the pay scale) by the widespread belief that anybody can teach such courses regardless of the level of their professional training. They are right. We agree that this belief is pernicious and deeply wrongheaded; this belief is paradoxically strengthened by people who insist that there is no difference between a master’s degree and a doctorate, and who continue to hire people without terminal degrees.

Without the PhD, if general education faculty are pushed out of their current non-tenure-track positions, they face a shrinking pool of universities interested in hiring them. While the academic market for faculty positions for individuals with PhDs is small (especially in the humanities), the academic market at universities for individuals without them is smaller. If a faculty member wants to have options for the future, possessing a doctorate increases those options.

How can we move forward?

Fortunately, it seems that the pandemic, coupled with attention to student success issues, have spurred an interest in improving conditions for such faculty. The Delphi Project at the University of Southern California in particular provides many resources for campuses that want to improve the employment conditions for their faculty members. The argument that Bérubé and Ruth make in their 2015 book—that teaching track tenure positions filled by terminal degree-holding faculty who have been hired by a comprehensive national search—is a key recommendation.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, has recently moved a number of their non-tenure-track faculty onto a teaching-centric tenure track. Still, there are limitations. According to their Delphi Award report, WPI has set a goal for 40 percent of its teaching faculty to be moved onto the tenure track by 2023 and has expanded multiyear contracts for faculty who “cannot or choose not to pursue the new tenure line.” Limiting the percentage of tenure-line teaching faculty for general education teaching faculty members seems potentially unuseful and problematic: while administrations need some flexibility to adjust to enrollment shifts and budgetary challenges, general education courses are a part of the instructional curriculum that may be less subject to changes in student interests, and it is a part of the instructional curriculum that demands excellent teaching that will spur students to persist in pursuing their degrees.

Nonetheless, the path described by Bérubé and Ruth and implemented with modifications by WPI charts a path toward improving the professional status of faculty who provide general education instruction that many US universities would benefit from examining. Strengthening that position supports our students’ success, our institutions’ strength, and our colleagues’ careers.

Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.