Letter From the Editor

In December 2007, the Yardly Consulting Group delivered its strategic assessment of graduate programs at the University of Idaho to university president Timothy P. White. According to a letter from White to the college’s faculty, the whopping 400+ page report was to be viewed “as a catalyst for discussion about and the implementation of improvement in key areas.” The University of Idaho asked the Yardly Group to compare the quality of the graduate programs at the institution with national peers, and to, again according to White’s letter, “evaluate our ability to function in a highly competitive national market.” In short, White commissioned the report to as a first step toward making the institution’s graduate programs more attractive to students and to accrediting agencies.

One of the proposals of the Yardley Group was for the University of Idaho to use part-time faculty for undergraduate instruction. Only nationally-ranked professors who conducted research would be eligible to be tenured. Needless to say, there were numerous howls of protest from the faculty at the institution. In fact, there were complaints that, gasp, the report blamed the faculty for some of the shortcomings in the graduate programs.

Let’s leave Idaho for a moment and go to Iceland, one of the richest countries in the world. At the same time the University of Idaho was trying to gauge the competitiveness of its graduate programs, the University of Iceland’s leaders set the lofty goal of bringing the institution into the list of the top 100 colleges and universities world-wide. Currently, the institution is not even in the top 500 of ranking lists published by the Times Higher Education Supplement or U.S. News and World Report. The institution charges no tuition, and must accept all qualified students who apply.

Though there are only eight colleges in the entire country, the University of Iceland’s quest to reach the top 100 was a result of domestic competition. A decade ago, there were only four colleges and universities in Iceland. One can study law at four different universities in Iceland, with a population of just over 301,000. That’s the same number of universities that offer law degrees in Finland, with a population of 5.2 million. In the U.S. one may study law at over 196 accredited law schools. One of the University of Iceland’s main competitors is the nine-year-old Reykjavík University, a private institution that charges about $2000 per term for an undergraduate degree.

Enrollment at Reykjavík University has doubled in the last few years. The University employs about 500 faculty, including part-timers. There, faculty enjoy perks like unlimited fresh fruit, professional development programs and salaries higher than those offered at the University of Iceland. However, there is no tenure. The continued employment of temporary faculty and full-time professors is based on their “research, quality of their teaching and the service level they provide to students,” according an article published in the Iceland Review.

So, without tenure, and using part-time faculty to staff undergraduate courses, upstart Reykjavík University is giving the established University of Iceland a run for its money, literally. In Iceland, per student government funding is the same whether a student chooses a school which charges tuition or not. It was due, in part, to this increased competition that pushed officials at the University of Iceland to declare their intention to join Harvard, Cambridge University, Kyoto University and the University of Zurich in the top 100.

What interested me, though, was the similarity between what the Yardley Report suggested the University of Idaho do in order to ratchet up its own graduate program rankings, and what Reykjavík University does quite successfully. In both instances, tenure is drastically redefined, and part-time faculty are acknowledged as primary undergraduate educators. The reaction of faculty at the University of Idaho was horror at the suggestion. In Iceland, according to Minister of Education Thorgerdur Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, the nation’s renaissance of post-secondary opportunities is helping to push the economy to new heights. “Part of the economic boom in Iceland is that we have been taking care of the educational system.”

Look at the ranking of the top 100 universities in the world, and you will see that 60 percent of them are colleges and universities in the United States. To be sure, our education system is envied worldwide. However, we are approaching a cross-roads. On the one hand, there are those who see the betterment of higher education coming with a return to a time when the majority of faculty and faculty appointments were on the tenure-track.

Evidence the much-touted $20 million dollar plan to add 2000 new full-time faculty to the 80+ campuses throughout New York State over the next five years. That’s a start. However, it ignores the basic fact that there are now over 600,000 non-tenured faculty teaching in the United States. At this point, it would take billions of dollars in non-existent state and federal funding, tuition increases, and other sources to replace those faculty with tenure-line slots. At this point, I’m just not sure it would be money well-spent.

I think the Yardley Report and Reykjavík University are both on to something. Temporary faculty already handle the bulk of undergraduate education in our country. Compensate them with pro-rata salaries, health care and benefits. In return, expect them all to hold terminal degrees, conduct research, participate in student service, professional development and college governance. Such a change would require an increased financial commitment on the part of state legislatures and the federal government, but nowhere near the billions it would take to reverse the current nationwide 70-30 part-time/full-time faculty numbers.–P.D. Lesko

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