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MSI Faculty Struggling to Find Career Balance

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by Jamal Eric Watson


Dr. Langston Clark is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Nutrition at The University of Texas at San Antonio. (Photo courtesy of Langston Clark)

Dr. Langston Clark is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Nutrition at The University of Texas at San Antonio. (Photo courtesy of Langston Clark)

When it comes to his teaching load, Dr. Langston Clark has few complaints.

“It can be lighter,” he says of the three classes that he teaches at ­the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) as a newly appointed tenure-track faculty member. “But it’s not too bad.”

An assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Nutrition, Clark is faring far better than many of his colleagues at other financially strapped institutions who teach as many as four or five classes each semester. Many also advise dozens of students and serve on several college committees.

“I received a course release last semester,” says Clark, who was hired at UTSA in 2014, after completing a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at ­The University of Texas at Austin. “­The university has allowed me to teach the same classes every semester.”

Over the years, UTSA — a Hispanic-serving institution — has increasingly been pushing its tenure-track faculty to crank out academic books and publish in peer-reviewed journals, according to officials. It’s a trend that’s becoming more commonplace at institutions that once placed teaching over service and research.

­That trend is likely to continue, experts say, particularly in the wake of rising budgetary costs and the refusal by many colleges and universities to add tenure-track teaching lines.

­The task of balancing teaching, service and research responsibilities is important for new faculty members who hope to have longevity within the academy, says Clark. “I came into my position prepared to do research,” he says. “Graduate school prepared me for that.”

Heavy workload

But at many of the nation’s state-funded institutions and those designated as minority-serving institutions (MSIs), junior faculty members often have little time to pursue their research agenda.

Although many MSIs are designated as teaching institutions, some have revised their tenure requirements and now demand that their faculty have several publications under their belt. “It’s a challenge because we are saddled with teaching and advising,” says one faculty member at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. “Many of our students require individual attention and mentorship, so there is little time to engage in scholarship, which is why I decided to become a professor in the first place.”

Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, has been offering seminars and workshops for junior faculty at MSIs to help them navigate the tenure process. She also provides ongoing mentorship for younger faculty new to the world of academe.

“At most minority-serving institutions, they are teaching focused and their teaching loads are heavy. But what has happened is, as more and more institutions want to ratchet up their publications, that has put a lot of stress on faculty,” says Gasman, who is also a professor in the Graduate School of Education. “Presidents and provosts at minority-serving institutions have to keep in mind their heavy teaching loads and they have to release faculty by giving them time off, or allowing them to get grants to do their research. And they have to be supportive of their work.”

Finding balance

Among a dozen of the junior faculty members interviewed for this article, most declined to be identified. In an age of fiscal cutbacks within the world of higher education, they did not want to appear ungrateful for their teaching job, particularly in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

“So many of my friends who I attended graduate school with are adjuncts today because they cannot find a teaching job,” says one professor at historically Black college and university (HBCU) Hampton University. “They are struggling to supplement their income by teaching at three and sometimes four institutions. They have no time to tend to their research. I wish I had more time for sure, but I’m also just happy that I have a job.”

Still, at many institutions — both minority and majority — experts say that new faculty members are often overburdened by the pressure of committee work.

“Younger faculty come in and older faculty say, ‘Oh, there are new people here, let us ask them to do this,’” says Gasman. “You have to learn to say no, but that’s hard because you are really vulnerable, so it takes an older person like a chair or a dean to protect the younger people and to realize that’s the only way they’re going to make it.”

Dr. Michael Steven Williams, an assistant professor of public affairs at Baruch College, was hired on the tenure track after spending time as an adjunct and completing a visiting professorship at the public institution that is part of the City College of New York system.

Now, Williams teaches two courses a semester — an undergraduate and graduate class — and has “more time than I know what to do with.”

Thanks to a supportive chair and older faculty members, Williams has been protected from joining too many committees, although he does serve on the diversity committee.

“My faculty colleagues have told me not to feel pressure to do service,” says Williams. “They’ve told me to write because that will make the case for tenure.”

Williams is on campus two days a week, and then he treats his research almost like a 9 to 5 job, taking refuge in a coffee shop or a bookstore to write.

Williams, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University (OSU), says he watched how his academic mentors — Gasman and Dr. Terrell Strayhorn of OSU — successfully managed to be both visible in academic circles and productive.

“I feel like I have all kinds of support from the top,” says Williams, who has been encouraged to not only write and speak in public but to present at academic conferences across the nation.

Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Dallas, says that new faculty have to decide what their long-term goals are when they are choosing an institution to call home.

None of the faculty members at Paul Quinn are tenured. That makes sense to Sorrell, who does not believe in “blanket protection” for all instructors. “I think you are protected by the quality of your work,” he says.

The lack of tenure has not prevented Sorrell from receiving applications from newly minted Ph.D.s, some of whom are graduates from prestigious universities, he says.

They arrive knowing that they will teach many classes and will be a visible presence on campus.

“I think we’re a great place if a faculty member aspires for a career in administration. We want to make sure that they get experiences that really lead them to decision-making capacity in terms of administrative stuff,” says Sorrell. “We are always going to be a teaching institution because we think our students deserve that.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com.

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