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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1997

A Bug’s Eye View of the University

Bill Bruneau

Differentiated Roles

A couple of years ago, a UBC dean circulated a document called Differentiated Roles for Faculty. Few were surprised, as administrators across Canada have been talking about differentiation since the 1960s as a way to encourage "research-intensiveness."

What is differentiation? At UBC, it meant that "each faculty member will have an apportionment of academic responsibilities (a teaching-enriched (e.g. teaching 75 per cent/scholarly activity 25 per cent); scholarly-activity-enriched (e.g. teaching 25 per cent/scholarly activity 75 per cent); or balanced academic workload). The apportionment will be determined by the Head or Dean in consultation with the faculty member and will take into consideration the overall teaching/scholarly activity balance in the Department/Faculty ....Yearly performance evaluations will be based on the balance agreed upon by faculty member and Dean."

A committee would develop "evaluation criteria that relate to success in teaching and learning." Promotion would be open "to those who make outstanding contributions to teaching or scholarship... commensurate with their agreed allocation of duties."

There is, of course, some differentiation in any university department. Since research and teaching are so closely tied, teaching may sometimes be a primary source of new ideas in our careers, only to become less paramount at other times, as we turn to the laboratory or the archives to do our academic work.

Still, the differentiation model won't go away. Some think that if x is good for Mother Nature, it must be good for us, too. They point to ants, bees, and termites — all highly "social" insects whose activities are extremely differentiated. It's only a step from the bee hierarchy and the anthill, they say, to the university.

It is however more than just a step from one to the other. They are a universe apart. The mechanisms that drive bees and ants and termites may interest us, but as models for human relations they are socially impossible and morally wrong.

Like so many administrative innovations we are asked to embrace, the pedigree of differentiation is doubtful. Besides, there are practical reasons why we should think twice about differentiated staffing.

  • How many collective agreements contain detailed provisions resembling the definition of differentiated staffing given earlier — and will differentiation undermine those agreements?
  • In universities all academic appointees teach and do research. It would be inconsistent to appoint people who will do little but teach quantities of undergraduates.
  • Differentiation assumes professors could be evaluated on teaching more than on research (publications and grants), or on research more than teaching — then, after some years, to change the balance of teaching and research. Unfortunately, it may not always be possible to move from the teaching category to the research category, or vice versa.
  • Supporters of differentiated staffing claim this innovation shows they "take teaching seriously." But collective agreements already permit and invite administration and boards to take teaching seriously.
  • For years, administrations have claimed to take seriously teaching and research. In practice, they often give an advantage to "research." If 75 per cent of one's merit will be "driven by one's performance as a teacher or as a researcher," one must measure that performance with a precision not yet achieved. Is this just a way of introducing highly mathematized performance indicators into the evaluation of professors?
  • Faculty members routinely shift the balance between teaching and research as they move through their career and life cycles. Why impose formal structures on people and their careers to regulate these?
  • Differentiation might allow an attack on discovery-based or curiosity-driven research. Outsiders wanting the university to do research-for-hire may not be committed to a university-wide balance between teaching and research.
  • Proponents of differentiation say apportionment of teaching and research responsibilities "will take into consideration the overall teaching/scholarly activity balance in the department/faculty." Does this mean I won't be allowed to become a research concentrator if everyone else in the department has previously chosen to be a research concentrator?

University teachers have tried for years to make a practical and positive difference in research and teaching. Differentiated staffing isn't likely to be one of those ways.