Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday Chat With Dr. David Helfand

by Daniel Bennett

Dr. Helfand was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule as President of Quest University in British Columbia, Canada's first private not-for-profit secular college, to chat with me about the implications of faculty tenure and an alternative approach. Dr. Helfand has led a fascinating and commendable career in the academe, spending the majority of his 30 year professorate as a non-tenured faculty member at Columbia University, and by choice. He turned down the opportunity for lifetime employment at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world for ideological reasons.

I asked Dr. Helfand to describe the main problems with tenure. His response was to describe an implementation problem with perverse incentives. In summary, tenure:
1) Denies academic freedom for non-tenured faculty more so than protecting it for tenured faculty.
2) Produces a selection effect in which very smart, risk-taking and entrepreneurial professors are filtered out due to a faulty reward structure that rewards research and public stature and punishes teaching, in favor of risk-averse scholars who want job security.
When asked if being a non-tenure faculty ever inhibited his academic freedom, Dr. Helfand responded with a chuckle, stating that the concept of academic freedom is a state of mind and that he never felt shackled with what he could say, nor have there been any consequences for speaking his mind at faculty and other university meetings; however, conceding that the outcome may have been different had he been employed at a public institution. He suggested that he was "not a shrinking violet" during his academic career and that he felt more protected by the 1st amendment than a non-legally enforceable tenure agreement.

I inquired as to whether professors who choose a path similar to his were extended additional compensation to account for the lack of job security. The answer was a profound NO. In fact, there is an inverse relationship in the academe, citing the examples of lecturers and adjuncts. He did suggest, however, that his renewable contracts were accompanied with compensation commensurate with his accomplishments and that his salary was comparable to his tenured peers, adding that the periodic self-reflection of accomplishment and 5-year goal setting has greatly enhanced his career perspective.

Given his personal experience, I asked Dr. Helfand how employment contracts can be structured to best benefit faculty, students, colleges and taxpayers alike. With an excitable tone, he proceeded to describe the manner in which Quest University, has structured its faculty contracts. Let me premise this by stating that Quest has a unique teaching environment in which students take one class at a time in 3.5 week blocks and each faculty teaches 6 blocks per semester.

All faculty hires begin with an initial one year contract and their performance is reviewed at the end of that year. If the university decides to extend the contract, then the faculty member negotiates a 3-year contract with the Chief Academic Officer in which the criteria for performance evaluation are agreed upon based on the strengths of the faculty member (teaching, administration, recruitment, research, community service, curriculum development, etc). At the end of the 3 years, a committee reviews the faculty performance according to the criteria agreed upon by the CAO and employee. If acceptable, then a new 3-year contract is negotiated, in which the criteria for evaluation can be adjusted. If not acceptable, then the faculty member is permitted to teach for an additional year while seeking another job. At the end of the second 3-year contract, a committee again convenes to review the performance in accordance with the agreed-upon criteria and if acceptable, the faculty member negotiates a new 6-year contract and so forth.

I asked if a professor really loved teaching and wanted to increase his/her teaching assignment from the 6 blocks per semester, if they could do so at the expense of the other job criteria. Somewhat jokingly, Dr. Helfand responded that the university would be open to the possibility, although no one has yet expressed an interest in doing so.

Dr. Helfand and Quest offer an innovative approach that is certainly a breath of fresh air for evaluating faculty employment contracts. It dissuades diminishing faculty productivity while at the same time rewarding performance, without stifling academic freedom. Dr. Helfand believes that this sort of structure will attract talented, motivated and entrepreneurial professors that will add significant value to the educational opportunities of its students, especially as colleges continue to shift away from the tenure practice in lieu of less costly adjuncts and lecturers, a shift that he views as exploitation.

I asked if this sort of contract structure would catch on at other colleges. With a slight laugh, Dr. Helfand responded that it will be a less daunting task to begin new colleges with this sort of structure than to change the existing system, thus exasperating the problem higher education is an industry resistant to change.

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