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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1997

Another slant on the differentiation of university roles

In the February CAUT Bulletin, Bill Bruneau outlined his concerns about differential roles for faculty. He based his argument on a particular document that circulated at UBC a few years ago. I haven’t seen that document, so my comments come from a more general consideration of the issue.

Many universities declare teaching and research are both of major, and approximately equal, importance, and that service is of secondary importance. But as Dr. Bruneau himself acknowledges, in practice there has to be some variation when performance of individuals is evaluated. We aren’t automatons all programmed to carry out identical tasks. So, with some important caveats, I don’t read the principle of "differential roles" quite as cynically as Dr. Bruneau.

The first caveat is that all tenure-track faculty who aspire to unimpeded career progress in a university must be active in teaching and research. Full time continuing faculty should not be hired to do one or the other, the "social insect" metaphor is clearly an exaggeration which cannot apply to one who claims to be a "scholar."

The second caveat is that some activities can be construed as either teaching or research depending on your point of view. For example, when you teach a graduate student in science a laboratory technique required for the thesis program, is that teaching or is that research? In fact, this argument might be extended to almost any level of university teaching, inasmuch as an undergraduate degree is a prerequisite for advanced study and research. Here I share Dr. Bruneau’s belief that both teaching and research should be regarded as essential components of scholarly activity.

The third caveat is that ‘differentiation’ should be a fluid or dynamic function of our careers. There may be all sorts of reasons for a scholar to vary his or her academic focus as the career progresses. For example, it is sometimes the practice that junior faculty be given a lighter teaching load for a few years so as to favour the establishment of a solid research program.

Moreover, an institution’s recognition that focus of activity can lean heavily towards research for a defined period is manifested in sabbatical leave and distinguished research fellowship programs.

On the other hand, when a department wishes to develop new courses or new curricula, some faculty members may be given the responsibility of carrying out that task. But in most cases there is no memorandum of understanding that "research activity" may diminish for that period, and that career progress will not suffer as a result.

Similar arguments can be made for the service component of scholarship. Formalizing a differential role for a defined period might be a way of protecting the faculty member from being asked to carry out a major project (in teaching, for example) and then to be found wanting on the research that couldn’t be done as a result.

Another case can be made for differential roles. We are now back in an era, not experienced since the sixties, when the number of faculty are inadequate for the job to be done. Of course, the reasons are different: back then it was hard to find the expertise; now there is simply the unwillingness to provide the resources. Many administrations have answered the challenge by hiring sessional instructors in unprecedented numbers.

I see differential roles among continuing faculty as a possible alternative. I think it far wiser to recognize differential talent, than to arbitrarily force everyone into the one-size-fits-all model of scholarship. Of course it would be unacceptable if the decision to differentiate were made unilaterally. There must be an assurance that all affected parties agree to the differential role.

One side of the coin: Those who are making an outstanding contribution to our international reputation through their research are already rewarded more or less adequately. But why do we tend to isolate them from the undergraduate community at large? One way in which universities could enhance their accountability to the public would be to showcase more of our international stars in the undergraduate classroom.

The other side: The reduced undergraduate teaching load of the outstanding researchers will have to be absorbed by those who are active in research but who are not in the outstanding class (by definition only a minority can be outstanding). In effect, we are doing this already. But if the status quo could become formalized as a "differential role," everyone would benefit.

Until teaching gains the respect it deserves, a portion of the merit increment pool may have to be set aside for it. Now we would have a system in which merit is itself recognized as a multifaceted entity. Now we would regain a sense of true collegiality, in which we could all capitalize on our strengths on behalf of the common good, and receive a rightful share of the rewards.

We would all benefit from a greater sense of worth; our students would benefit learning from scholars who no longer look upon teaching as a "load" or as "a cost of doing the important stuff," and the public at large would appreciate our mission and accept that we are truly relevant to society.

W. Reuben Kaufman
President, Association of Academic Staff
University of Alberta