Faculty Job Security in an Online World: Highlights from a Teleconference

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Information technology is making an impact on nearly every aspect of our lives, from the way we shop to the way we acquire information. Higher education has already benefited from IT in research, communications, and the dissemination of scholarly information. Yet some of the implications of the rise of IT are troublesome for faculty members. As computers begin to perform some traditional faculty functions and, perhaps more to the point, require faculty members to do their jobs in new ways, many questions arise: What will become of faculty? How will professors' job descriptions change? Are traditional privileges such as tenure and academic freedom jeopardized by information technology? Who will monitor and assess academic quality and pedagogy in an online world? Will there be enough full-time, tenure-track jobs to absorb the number of PhDs graduating in coming years, or will the trend toward filling vacancies with part-time, poorly paid adjuncts continue? Will information technology ultimately enhance student learning or pave the way for commercialism to compromise it?

On October 12, 2000, the award-winning Dallas Teleconferences, in concert with PBS Adult Learning Service, broadcast the live, interactive teleconference, "Are You History? Faculty Job Security in an Online World" to more than 200 downlink sites in the United States and Canada. The program featured informed discussion among three experts from diverse backgrounds, agendas, and points of view. The panelists included Mary Burgan, General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Frank Newman, director of the Pew-funded Futures Project at Brown University, and Laura Palmer Noone, President of the University of Phoenix. This article is a compilation of the most germane teleconference moments, taken verbatim from the program's transcript.

[Please make the body of your article more discursive, by (a) beefing up your introductory paragraphs in each section, in order to more clearly set up or highlight the conflicts and issues, and (b) providing internal cohesion by linking quotes within sections with a sentence or two (or three or four) of your own. That is your chance to explicate, develop, challenge, or explain the quoted material. This will help orient the reader, who may get lost reading nothing but quoted material. More importantly, readers also want to know *your* opinions rather than just the opinions of the panelists, which we can get by reading the transcripts -- you should respond more and report less, because it's your opinion as an expert commentator on these three experts that we, as readers, are after. You may find that you need to quote less and explain more.]

Collegially Agreeing to Disagree [This section needs to be a little more cohesive. The quotes included don't clearly address the same single issue: the first is about the profit motive, the second about unbundling, the third about research vs. teaching.]

The 90-minute program featured a lively, articulate, reflective, and often humorous exchange about faculty and academe in an increasingly online world.

I really worry about the intrusion of the profit motive in the accreditation system. Some of them, as I have said, will accredit a ham sandwich, and I think it's very important for us to make sure that they're independent and not being bought off by the Internet. -Mary A. Burgan

There's absolutely nothing wrong with ["unbundling" professorial responsibilities among several different faculty members]. Is there something wrong with teaching from a text that you didn't write? ...I've met many Ph.D.s in economics who'd never heard of Bloom's Taxonomy and couldn't construct a reasonable learning objective if it smacked them in the face. So I think that it's a rational approach to this to "unbundle," to capitalize on the best skills of those people available to you. -Laura Palmer Noone

At most traditional universities, the person who is really effective at teaching, but isn't spending their time turning out articles, is a second-class citizen. ...[L]et me say something very unpopular about the research function. We've confused research with publication. We have now a huge number of people writing articles that no one reads.... So what we need is first-class citizens who are doing teaching. One of the wonderful things about this tremendous revolution going on, it has taken teaching from a back seat and put it right smack in the front seat. -Frank Newman

The Nature of the Change

As is always the case when informed and intelligent people of different backgrounds and agendas are in a room together, there were divergent notions about even mundane, foundational things, such as the nature of the coming change [How is this mundane? It seems, in contrast, enormously important.]:

[T]he technology is getting better, more sophisticated where we can do things simpler, better, easier, cheaper. So, it is a radical change that's coming, and we're just beginning to realize that this will affect every facet of higher education. There's going to be no institution that escapes the effects of these forces. -Frank Newman

Well, I worry about the global kinds of statements about "radical change"—"everything is going to be changed." I think we're being told that. ...[B]ut I do think we have to be wary of engaging in hyperbole, and we have to look back at what's going to remain the same. ...[T]he student, the mind, and the information, practice, skill, the ability to absorb ideas and use them, those will remain the same. And the question will be how those can be activated in what kind of study. ...I think that online education, the Web, and so forth will become part of the panoply of pedagogical tools. -Mary A. Burgan

I think that online education is only one small part of a much larger sociological impact of the World Wide Web. It clearly is redefining what it means to get an education, and it probably is highlighting that "not one size fits all," that there are a variety of learning modalities, a variety of differences in people and the way that they learn, and we have another arrow in our quiver to address the needs of the learners. -Laura Palmer Noone

Will I Have a Job? [Your section headings need to be consistent in form -- as it stands, two are statements and two are questions. Please make all four the same form.]

Are faculty members in danger of being replaced by computers? If, as David Noble [Please provide citation] has warned, the "system" [Please explain what system] digitally captures knowledge, expertise, opinions, and teaching materials of faculty members, will flesh-and-blood professors become obsolete? Information technology is already capable of delivering instruction and evaluating student progress, so is there genuine cause for concern here? The panelists showed differing levels of concern:

Mary was talking before about hyperbole and exaggeration, and I think Professor Noble is prone to that. I don't think it's "high noon [for higher education]." I do think there is going to be considerable and significant change. Higher education in the form we've known it is not going to be the same..., but the universities are still going to be there. We're going to find mixtures of everything as we move ahead. There are going to be traditional universities but with much more in the way of technology. There are going to be virtual institutions, virtual coursework. It's not "high noon." ...I think that's baloney.... We've put an enormous amount of effort into talking with various online institutions that have sprung up around the United States; most of them are online arms of traditional colleges and universities. I can find none of them that are going in... to save money or to eliminate faculty. -Frank Newman

If there are institutions out there considering offering distance education programs just because they think they are cost-effective, they're sorely mistaken. Our research has shown, and most of the current research shows, that distance educations are not less expensive to operate but more expensive to operate. I think what it will do, this whole movement, will redefine the way we look at the faculty role. And I don't think it's going to eliminate jobs, but the whole sociological impact of the World Wide Web is redefining how everybody works, and I don't know how higher education could think it could be excluded from that trend. -Laura Palmer Noone

The real issue is commerce again. You can't make money off of these courses without part-time faculty. You're going to have to do it cheaply somewhere. Education's a service-oriented, labor-intensive activity, and the only way to do it and make a profit is to cut down on the labor. And it seems quite clear to me that that's where the bottom line is going to be, and I think that would be a great loss not just in faculty jobs but in terms of the mentoring that any kind of teaching involves. -Mary A. Burgan

Will It Be a Job Worth Having?

The question of job worth encompasses many issues. Among the most important are changing faculty roles, the value of tenure, academic freedom and quality, service and research, and the commercialization of knowledge and education. Take away the job security provided by tenure, replace the traditional right to select and control curricula with "packaged" products [explain what you mean by packaged products], and the job is no longer attractive to those who entered the profession under centuries-old rules and assumptions [what, specifically, were those rules and assumptions?]. The panelists commented on the increasing use of information technology and what it portends for the ability of academe to attract and retain quality instructors:

[T]he AAUP speaks for the faculty, but we speak for the faculty in terms of its interest in academic freedom. We believe that the search for truth and the promulgation of truth and discoveries require freedom for the faculty member. And that also requires job security and due process. We're concerned that in the new world of distance education these values, and especially academic freedom, be preserved. If they're preserved we believe that students, access for students, and pedagogy will be of a much higher quality than some of the examples we've seen so far. So academic freedom is our watchword.... It's a matter of each faculty member having professional autonomy in the classroom. -Mary A. Burgan

I don't think that five different faculty all teaching English 1A necessarily guarantees academic quality. At the University of Phoenix, the faculty collectively decide on the course objectives and outcomes for a particular course, mold that into a collective syllabus that we call a module, and then teach from that and ensure that the students are at least covering the same content. They control it, but that doesn't mean that they have no academic freedom. In fact, they have great freedom to discuss controversial topics in the classroom, and we encourage that. But academic freedom, I don't think should be a replacement for at least covering the core concepts of the class. -Laura Palmer Noone

I think what [happens] is, in skillfully done technology at distance, when people are using the Internet properly, the faculty role changes. It changes from being the source of information to being the source of wisdom, if I can make that difference. To being a person who helps students learn, rather than tells them what they have to know. To my mind, that's a very positive change. -Frank Newman


"Are You History? Faculty Job Security in an Online World" sought to provide just that kind of forum: a place where tough issues could be addressed openly and honestly. [The conclusion needs to be beefed up considerably.]

Editor's Note: This telecast was awarded the 2001 Teleconference Excellence Award by the National University Telecommunications Network. For more information about this telecast, or to buy a VHS copy, contact the LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications at (972) 669-6665.

[Our two copyeditors who read this article, including the chief copyeditor, agree with reviewers that the article could be enhanced with more author commentary on the ideas presented, whether they are useful, where they fall short, etc. This kind of commentary should be inserted among the quotes, holding them together like glue. Or, to put it differently, the author's commentary should be the framework, and the quotes should fill that framework in. Quotes by themselves cannot build an article.]