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Faculty Quality—A Forty-Year Perspective from a University President
Regardless of an institution’s size, mission, location, or focus, higher education faculty are a remarkable and unique group of individuals. Across disciplines and fields, there is no arena more richly diverse than the professoriate. America’s colleges and universities mirror the political, cultural, and ideological diversity of society itself. We all work, on a daily basis, to balance the demands of the educational enterprise with the diverse talents, interests, and approaches embodied by our faculty.
Much has changed in the fifty or so years that I have worked in higher education, the greater part of those years as the president of one institution—Xavier University of Louisiana. America’s campuses have changed dramatically through new programs and instructional improvements, and the revolutionary impact of technology. Nonetheless, faculty remain as vital to the development of a democratic and informed society today as when Socrates first engaged minds in the shade of an olive tree many ages ago.
The model of higher education has evolved, in some ways radically, but has at its core the need for qualified instructors and a cadre of students who are interested in learning from them.
At the heart of the matter is quality teaching, meaningful experiences, and learning that is measurable and relevant. Each school must provide evidence of the difference it makes, the value added of the college experience. We cannot rely on default college attendance as a rite of passage to adulthood. Now more than ever, we must be clearer about what distinguishes our school from others. The quality of the faculty will be a critical component in appealing to those students whose educational goals align with our respective missions and programs.
As institutions of higher education, there are certain challenging questions that we must collectively consider.
- What is our “shared vision,” the common purpose for higher education in this country today?
- Why do we do what we do?
- What role do we play in supporting the common good and general welfare we honor in this nation’s constitution?
- Recognizing that higher education is a multibillion-dollar industry, with costs that increase annually, how do we reconcile education as both a mission and a business?
The answers to many of these questions lie with the quality of an institution’s faculty. The teachable moment, the intellectual exchange between instructor and student—that is where the magic happens—or doesn’t. Good faculty, be they adjuncts, tenure track, or tenured, tend to have a much broader and nobler understanding of their profession than the details in their contract.
I leave you with a few nuggets of academic clarity I have managed to discern in my years at Xavier. This five-point reality check will hopefully identify what is essential for all of us with stakes in higher education, whether we are administrators, faculty, staff or simply concerned citizens.
- Never forget our reason for being: students are our priority. We exist to educate students.
- The teaching and learning environment, policies, processes, and the way we do business must enhance the education of our students.
- We must create an institutional culture that respects and honors quality, integrity, and excellence in all human development.
- We must exhibit every day that we care, and expect students as well to care about developing their God-given talents.
- We understand that there will be failures, but we make every effort to prevent them and learn what we can from them when they occur.
We cannot accomplish these goals alone. Work hard and collectively at your institutions to be superlative in some things, exceptional in others, and good overall. This is a simple but useful standard for gauging the general health of an institution, but equally applicable as a reality check by which to view faculty, regardless of their classifications or terms of appointment.
Norman C. Francis is the president of Xavier University of Louisiana