The Office of Academic Affairs recently announced its decision to increase the course load of full-time visiting professors. The new policy, which will affect new visiting professors and visiting professors who plan on returning to teach at the University in future semesters, has frustrated many students and has left some visiting professors questioning their future at the University.
Currently visiting professors are hired as either per-course professors, who are paid by the course and do not receive health benefits, or full-time visiting professors, who are expected to teach two classes each semester, or a two-two course load, and are given health and other benefits. The new change in policy would require full-time visiting professors to teach five courses over the course of two semesters, or a three-two course load.
Writer-in-Residence Paula Sharp plans to leave Wesleyan at the end of her contract because of the changes in health benefits.
“I greatly regret leaving my students,” Sharp said. “Wesleyan students are special; they’re talented and bright, and there’s a wonderful spirit of camaraderie in creative writing classes here. It’s a privilege to teach Wesleyan students.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of English Douglas Martin said that he had heard about the proposed policy, but that he was unsure what his contract next year would look like.
“I’ve not yet been offered a new contract for next year, but I’m hoping that the college extends to me the opportunity to continue offering the most to the students as well as maintain my artistic career as a writer,” he wrote in an email to The Argus.
President Michael Roth said that the new course load is commonplace among other top universities.
“This year the deans and provost proposed—and I think it’s a really good idea—that we have all full-time visiting professors have a three-two [course] load,” he said. “If you look at the top 12 schools in the U.S. News & World Report, I think only two of them have a two-two load for visitors, so it’s not unusual.”
This new decision has angered some students who feel that the change reflects a troubling shift in the University’s priorities.
“I think that there are a lot of other things that [the University] should be divesting money from before they start divesting money from having good professors here, and from having professors who are able to give us the best academic environment we deserve,” said Nate Dolton-Thornton ’15.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Rob Rosenthal said that this decision was made after an increase in visiting professor requests from departments this year. Rosenthal, along with other academic deans, decided among three options: denying visitors to some departments, meaning the classes would not be taught; converting full-time visiting professor slots into per-course slots, meaning more visiting professors would be teaching fewer courses each; or equalizing full-time visitors’ teaching loads so that all visitors would teach a three-two course load.
“Faced with far more requests from the departments for visitors than we had available funds, the academic deans and I [had three options],” Rosenthal wrote in an email to The Argus. “We elected this third option as best for students and best for the visitors, given the options.”
He said that with the second option there would be fewer visiting professors advising students and advising theses, as per-course visiting professors are paid less because those responsibilities are not stipulated in their employment. Rosenthal noted that another rationale for this decision is that visiting professors are not expected to do research while they teach here, so they would be more able to teach a three-two course load than a tenured professor who would be completing research along with a two-two course load. He added that exceptions would be made for the new three-two change if visiting professors were teaching very large courses, or if they had previous agreements with a department.
Roth said that current visiting professors would not have to change to a three-two load until their contract was up for renewal.
“Having the three-two, full-time load wouldn’t apply to people currently here, [since] we’re not going to change their contract while they’re here,” Roth said. “But for some departments, this is an increase in the teaching expectation of the visiting faculty.”
While there have been rumors that the change would result in a loss of health benefits for visiting professors, Rosenthal and Roth said that was not the goal of the new policy. According to the new definition of full-time visiting professors, visiting professors would lose healthcare benefits only if they decided to keep a two-two course load, making them a per-course visiting professor.
Rosenthal presented the information on this new decision to professors at a faculty meeting this past Tuesday. He said that he does not expect many noticeable changes to occur because of the new policy, and he also noted that some departments already have visiting professors and adjunct professors teaching three-two course loads.
“Other than some visitors now teaching one more course, I don’t expect any changes,” he wrote. “It’s possible some visitors will decline to take a job with us because of the additional teaching load, but since a three-two visitor load is and has been the norm at most of our peer [institutions], I wouldn’t expect much change.”
Roth said he also expects that most visiting professors will most likely choose to stay as full-time faculty.
“There may be people who have been full-time and then don’t want to be full-time and want to go to part-time—not because of the extra class, but because they have other things they need to do,” he said. “Say they’re writing, or artists, or maybe they’re teaching somewhere else; there are lots of reasons why people decide to go part-time. It doesn’t happen very often; usually people stay full-time because the pay’s better.”
Dolton-Thornton met with a group of students at a meeting at the University Organizing Center (UOC) on Tuesday night to discuss their concerns about the change. He said that the policy, which the group refers to as “fifth course indenture,” will negatively affect visiting professors’ teaching capabilities because of the strain from the added class.
“I think that there is a balance to be found between quantity and quality of classes, and I think that implementing this proposal would sacrifice the quality of the courses to a much greater degree, rather than add to the quantity,” Dolton-Thornton said.
The new policy would result in full-time visiting professors being paid the same amount they are being paid now, while adding an extra class to their workload.
“A per-course visitor not only gets paid about 60 percent per course of what a full-time visitor—teaching five courses—gets, but gets 1/5 the benefits,” Dolton-Thornton wrote.
In a petition that Dolton-Thorton and other students have begun circulating, they outlined problems with the “fifth course indenture.” They first state that they believe the University may be erroneously reporting statistics to the U.S. News & World Report to help their ranking. They note that the University’s ranking is based on their 9 to 1 student to faculty ratio, but that this does not align with an increase in students in the freshman class and visiting professors being asked to increase their course loads.
They also asked for the University to make changes to the Writing Program so that there are enough professors to satisfy student demand, while also ensuring that each professor has a course load that allows them to give sufficient attention to students.
“Based on our understanding, almost 100 students who pre-registered for writing courses during the fall semester of 2011 were unable to enroll in any course,” the petition reads.
Several professors have also verified that there have been large numbers of students turned away from writing classes and that there are quick turnovers in the writing program because of pay and health benefit issues.
The petition also includes a more general call for the University to reverse this new policy.
“The University’s administration has either failed to understand or willingly ignored the reality of visiting professors’ experiences, the educational needs of the student body, and the active degeneration of Wesleyan’s academic environment that would be perpetrated by the fifth course indenture,” the petition reads. “The University needs to recognize and reward the time, energy, and commitment all of its professors give to the school—not continuously devalue their jobs until it is practically impossible for visiting professors to work at Wesleyan.”
Dolton-Thorton and other students involved plan to talk with students over WesFest weekend about the issue, as they feel that not enough students are aware of the change. They are also in the process of contacting all current visiting professors on campus to see if their futures at the University affected by the new rule.
Dalton-Thorton said that since many visiting professors are currently negotiating new contacts, many of them are hesitant to talk about this issue.
“They’re in negotiations, and a lot of them are somewhat upset, but at the same time there’s also the possibility of the institution just deciding to end negotiations with them and just not hire them next year and getting a professor who is willing to work under these conditions,” he said.
Rosenthal said that, while this is not the type of change that faculty vote on, some faculty were opposed to it. He said the opposition stems from the added strain it seems to be place on visiting professors, and from the fear that this could lead to tenured professors also being required to have a three-two course load in the future.
“[T]here is no logical reason that a three-two visitor load would lead to a three-two permanent faculty load, since permanent [professors] are understood to have research as a major part of their jobs,” Rosenthal wrote. “I would unequivocally oppose such a change, and there are absolutely no plans to move in that direction.”
Roth noted that permanent professors earn more than visiting professors because they are expected to do research as part of their job.
“All faculty members have a subsidy for the research they do, [because] all the research at Wesleyan is subsidized by student tuition money,” he said. “I don’t think its appropriate for us to subsidize the research of visiting faculty who are going to be here for a year or two. It would be nice for us to subsidize the research of everybody in Connecticut, but we can’t afford to do that.”
While the long-term effects of this change are yet to be seen, Roth said that the University is still committed to keeping the bulk of its professors as full-time faculty.
“The great majority of our classes are taught by full-time professors, and we want to continue to do that,” he said.
Additional reporting contributed by Assistant News Editor Sarah Sculnick.