Jessica Pesce

Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Student Affairs Has an Association; Faculty Affairs Needs One, Too

Full vitae student affairs

Image: iStock

Whenever I ask people in a faculty-affairs office how they got into the field, I get some version of the following answers:

  • Colleague No. 1: "I just sort of fell into it."
  • Colleague No. 2: "I am a faculty member, so I thought I would be good at it."
  • Colleague No. 3: "My dean had nowhere else to put me."

Sound familiar? I’ve spoken with many faculty-affairs administrators — those with M.B.A.s, those who are self-described "failed" academics, those who used to work in human resources — and rarely have I found someone who actually trained in this field and wanted to be in faculty affairs from the start.

The idea that anyone, with any training, can do faculty affairs devalues and, in some cases, impairs our work. Specialized training and research is the essence of academic life. Faculty members should be alarmed at the amateurish way in which their affairs are often handled.

Conventional wisdom says that faculty affairs is just HR for professors, but it’s more than that. While those us us in faculty affairs do, indeed, deal with typical HR issues — pay parity, leaves of absence, merit increases, annual reviews — we also handle cases of tenure and promotion, contract renewals, sabbaticals, research grants, start-up funds, and faculty searches. One of the most crazy-making elements of the job is counting faculty members for annual Ipeds and other national surveys — full time, part time, tenured and tenure track, nontenure track, clinical, teaching assistants … the categories are endless.

With the increasingly central role that faculty-affairs administrators play in higher education, the need for a standard of professionalization in our field grows clearer each day. A national organization, the development of a research agenda, and stronger norms for the profession are all ways of accomplishing that goal.

The term "faculty affairs" is fairly new on many campuses. Advanced degrees in higher education as a field aren’t even that old. Perhaps that is an explanation for the lack of training in faculty affairs, but it’s no excuse. We’re in academia — a universe that loves to name, categorize, and theorize concepts the moment they are conceived. We live to debate and investigate ideas and then create conferences to talk about their findings. Specializations abound in every discipline — classicists specialize in obscure second-century Roman authors, professors in religious-studies obsess over single words in 3,000-year-old religious texts, biologists devote entire laboratories to the retinal development of zebrafish.

But where are the faculty-affairs specialists? It might seem strange to argue for more specialization when overspecialization is a key critique of academe now. However, this is a distinct area where specialists crucial to the success of higher education are missing.

While some notable academics do research on faculty members — scholars like Kerry Ann O’Meara, Anna Neumann, Ann E. Austin — for the most part, faculty members do not seem to want to study themselves. For students seeking a Ph.D. in the field of higher education, it’s often hard find someone to work with when they say they want to study faculty members.

In my own doctoral program, I worked with someone who studied adult development and learning, but that was the closest I could get to finding an adviser with scholarly expertise on the topic of faculty members. There is a clear gap in terms of scholarly production and focus, which means that a large portion of the higher-education population is understudied. Faculty members in doctoral-granting departments in our field tend to specialize in the study of students. That’s why the field of student affairs has grown so much since it was first conceptualized in the 1920s, and why it has become a highly studied, developed, and professionalized field.

Doctoral students who wish to study faculty members often work with an administrator on their campus who handles faculty-affairs issues. That’s what happened to me in graduate school, and it was the best career move I could have made. However, what usually results is that those administrators develop and mentor more administrators when the field of faculty affairs needs scholars.

Sometimes it also means that the theoretical foundation behind the practice is lacking. For doctoral students in higher education to work with an administrator is great practical training, but it delegitimizes faculty-affairs professionals in the eyes of professors, who, for the most part, respect research and scholarship more than professional training.

Practitioners in faculty-affairs jobs aren’t always up on current literature and best practices; many don’t even have a basic background in higher-education history or theory. None of that is their fault. This kind of training was not deemed necessary for these jobs. In fact, when I tell colleagues and faculty members that I actually wrote a dissertation in which I studied faculty members, they are surprised.

We need to legitimize faculty affairs as a field of study and as a profession. There’s no reason for faculty-affairs jobs to be staffed by people who were trained to do something else, like teach literature. And there’s no reason for these jobs to be staffed by faculty members who face other professional demands on their time, whose expertise is unrelated, and who are often too busy to devote their full attention to an administrative post.

Instead we need to nurture and expand the field so that it can be taken more seriously. Faculty members often voice concern about administrators making decisions without fully understanding faculty members’ particular fields of study. Isn’t it worse to have administrators making decisions without fully understanding their own field of study — that is, scholarship on the faculty?

Professional organizations exist for even the most obscure subfields of a subfield. So why isn’t there an association for faculty affairs? Where can entry- and midlevel professionals in faculty affairs go to learn about our field? Where can I go to examine another institution’s policies on sabbaticals or leaves of absence? Whom can I talk with about the amount of additional pay we should offer when a faculty member gets a fellowship that doesn’t cover his or her salary? What are other institutions offering for start-up packages, junior leaves, and housing allocations when recruiting new hires?

Believe me, this stuff is not in faculty handbooks, many of which exist on password-protected sites. There’s no easy way to discuss or share best practices in our field — or to geek out with others when discussing terms like "faculty workload" and "summer salary."

A few professional organizations do focus on faculty-related issues, like the POD Network, which promotes professional development for folks working in teaching-and-learning centers. Coache, a membership-based research organization out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, does great work with faculty survey data in trying to understand aspects of the faculty life cycle. It has even put together a list of professional organizations that are related to faculty affairs.

But honestly — to those of us who actually work in faculty affairs day in and day out — that is not enough. The Association of American Colleges and Universities does not look at the detailed work of granting sabbaticals and buyouts. The American Council on Education doesn’t care how many external letters I have to request when I have a faculty member going up for tenure.

In the field of student affairs, Naspa brings practitioners together to network, share best practices, learn about new research in the field, and challenge one another to develop the field further. That is exactly what we need for faculty affairs. The simple act of convening an annual meeting of faculty-affairs professionals would yield significant benefits for institutions through the development of a shared set of best practices.

I’ve heard numerous tales of tech vendors and search consultants presenting on faculty-employment issues at national conferences on higher education. Some claim to be experts in faculty affairs because they make software for use by faculty members or because they are external consultants working for search firms. Yet most of them have never worked in a university, never mind having worked in faculty affairs. Have they had to counsel junior faculty members who won’t make tenure? Have they had to write policies on parental leave? If people in faculty affairs let tech vendors claim to be experts in our field while ignoring trained specialists, that is to the detriment of all of higher education.

We need a professional organization. There is nowhere for young faculty-affairs professionals to go for advice, or for midcareer faculty-affairs professionals to go to network and to advance their careers. There is nowhere for faculty-affairs administrators to go to check on best practices at peer institutions, nor, when they cobble together these resources on their own, is there any place where they can share information, tips, and approaches with colleagues.

How can we develop this field — which is growing, especially with the diversification and increased stratification of the faculty — if we do not professionalize it?

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.