It keeps getting more interesting, more confusing, and perhaps more controversial. Budget cuts and a growing student population might lead to a change in faculty duties at the University of Texas-Pan American, and the possibility of implementing a heavier teaching load has some professors worried, while others remain unfazed.
According to Ana Maria Rodriguez, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, faculty work in three main areas; tenure-track faculty must balance their time teaching, doing research and providing service to the university.
Three years ago, faculty were required to teach a total of 24 semester hours during a nine-month period, which meant they were under a 4/4 teaching load, doing four classes in the fall and four in spring. This heavy teaching load meant that professors had little time to work on research. In the past, if a professor wanted time to write scholarly articles or do experiments, he or she would have to request it before permission for a release time was granted. However, after a recommendation from a task force set up to review faculty workload policy in 2004 by former President Blandina Cardenas, a shift in policy changed everything.
At that time, neither the state nor UTPA were facing the economic crunch that began with the 2008 recession. The long-term institutional goal became to transition toward becoming a “research-centered teaching institution,” as the phrase went. Thus, the teaching load was reduced from 24 semester hours to 18, meaning professors would only have to teach three classes per semester. Some were even granted permission to teach fewer. The implication was that professors would take those extra six hours to produce more research and/or grants.
However, in a memo dated March 31 of this year, President Robert Nelsen announced the appointment of a 16-member task force that will once again review the current workload and promotion policies for faculty. The group is to submit recommendations in the form of a report by Dec. 4, and was asked specifically to review the teaching load, or the number of classes per semester professors are required to teach. Rodriguez says increasing enrollment and a need for more faculty teaching, among other things, prompted the review.
According to Human Resources, 659 full-time faculty members and 195 temporary were employed from 2008 through 2009. Current data was not immediately available. Total enrollment for fall 2008 was 17,534 and 18,337 for fall 2009.
“There may be faculty, and or departments, and or deans who believe that there needs to be more productivity in terms of research, and with a 3/3 teaching load some faculty have been more productive, others have not, even with the reduced workload,” Rodriguez said.
According to a December 2009 memo sent by former Provost Dr. Paul Sale to faculty, from academic year 2006-07 through 2008-09, refereed publications increased by more than 33 percent, and approximately 33 percent more external grants proposals were submitted.
“We need to take a look at it again,” Rodriguez said about the workload. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to change it necessarily, but we need to revisit it. We need to look at, ‘is this giving us the most for what we’re investing in it?’
THEREIN LIES THE RUB
According to Rodriguez, who has been with the university for 35 years, faculty members are usually hired as assistant professors under a probationary system. Those who seek tenure, or a permanent position with the university, are given a 5-to-6-year probation period in which they must prove themselves worthy of indefinite employment. To gain tenure and promotion from assistant to associate professor, they must meet certain criteria established by each college, which are heavily influenced by professional accomplishments in terms of research.
Some professors, however, see a possible increase in the teaching load as an obstruction to tenure and promotion.
“It’s provoked a lot of frustration and fear in faculty about what’s going on. If you’re not producing research, you will not get tenure” said an assistant professor who is on tenure-track and wished to remain anonymous for fear of ramifications. She was hired in 2005 under a 3/3 teaching load, and doesn’t know if the potential change would affect her because of the terms she agreed to when being hired.
However, both Rodriguez and the memo state that if there is a change, everyone would be affected.
She speculates that if the teaching load is increased straight across the board, some professors who are intent on producing research will leave, but the vast majority will stay. Many long-time professors who came to UTPA when it was strictly a teaching university with research receiving less attention may find that their original situations have been re-instituted.
Dr. Irmo Marini, professor and coordinator in the department of rehabilitation, says that if he were required to teach more classes he would not be happy about it, but wouldn’t leave. He currently teaches two graduate courses, but is vigorously producing research.
“The workload issue doesn’t bother me,” he said. “If I had to go to three classes from two, it would probably affect the number of publications I have each year. I typically average about four a year not including books, but I still would publish a minimum of two studies a year without difficulty.”
He adds that research is what separates the university from a community college. At the latter style of institution, faculty do not have to publish; they primarily teach.
The need for teaching faculty however can be clearly seen in the biology department, where lecturer Cindy Martinez-Wedig takes on more work than she would like. Martinez-Wedig, who has been with the university for 17 years, does not do research, and is classified as part-time faculty and part-time staff. Because she heads the Baylor Medical Program, she only has to teach half of what full-time professors are required to teach. This semester however, she chose to teach almost double the requirement because there were not enough professors to man courses in the program that students needed.
“I am all in favor of a reduced workload for those faculty who have research as the primary emphasis,” she said. “But the big problem the department runs into is there is student demand for courses and insufficient faculty members to cover all the courses that need to be taught to meet the needs of the students.”
Dr. John Abraham, tenured computer science professor, has been with the university since 1976 and has seen it go through many changes. He remembers teaching up to 15 hours per semester when the school was strictly a teaching university and says the workload should reflect the school’s mission.
“If the mission of the institution is to teach, then we should have excellent teachers who do a lot of teaching. If our mission is research then we should have excellent researchers,” he said. “That’s something that the university has to decide. Which direction are we going in?”
Abraham suggests having a workload that is not too rigid, but defined by certain guidelines. The ideal situation is a staggered approach in which teachers teach and researchers do their research. Without standards, he believes, people will abuse the system.
Faculty will have an opportunity to voice their opinions through various outlets including Faculty Senate, the College Council, and representation on the task force, which has two faculty members from each college. Nelsen also started meeting with various colleges to address these issues more thoroughly. The first meeting was held March 4, and he expects to finish meeting with every college by the end of next month.
Rodriguez says she sees tremendous future growth for graduate programs at the university and said that for the last 20 to 30 years the university’s goal was to provide access to higher education for Hispanics in the community. She noted that the percentage of Hispanics with undergraduate degrees 25 years ago was very low compared to the national rate.
“I think we have now accomplished that goal to some extent,” she said. “But the next level of need is graduate programs. The number of people with graduate degrees in the Valley is very small.”
She says only 10 to 12 percent of Hispanics in the nation have a master’s degree, and only 2 percent holds Ph.D.’s.