De facto differentiated staffing

Twenty years ago, Frank Borkowski became USF’s fourth president, promising to raise the institution’s research activities and national profile. Per-pupil state funding of Florida’s universities peaked halfway through his tenure with a downward trend since, and yet USF’s profile today is one of a major research university. That says much about the work of hundreds of faculty, but there have been costs to the institution. As state funding falls yet again and all of Florida’s universities face unstable and unpredictable funding, we need to see what that 20-year trajectory has done to faculty work: it has encouraged administrators to created a de facto differentiated staffing model, without a clear set of rewards for anyone. While President Genshaft has talked about rewarding academic superstars (her choice of words from the fall 2007 state of the university address), and while the provost puts together a task force without asking the faculty union to participate on the steering committee, we all need to understand that we already have a differentiated staffing model, and it’s one that is demoralizing or demeaning to many employees.

First, a reality check: AAU status is probably off the table for USF for the foreseeable future. Until USF pays its faculty better than the fourth-quintile salaries we currently have (when compared with AAUP salary data for Research I universities), we will bleed research-intensive faculty. And until USF is more generous with sabbaticals, many faculty will not have enough time to make significant leaps in research. Some research-intensive faculty are not mobile, because they have children or parents they refuse to displace in a move. Given the economy, the best faculty retention program we may have right now is the fact that you can’t sell your house. But other faculty are more mobile. And those who remain are going to be asked to teach more classes, larger classes, with less time for research and less institutional support for graduate students. This is a recipe for institutional stagnation. Even UF’s President Bernie Machen acknowledged earlier this month that his drive for “top ten public university” status is delayed at best with the budget cuts.

President Genshaft’s talk of superstars is common in higher education, and such rhetoric is misleading for two reasons. First, department status within a discipline is a team endeavor, and the department environment for research and graduate support is a common and not an individual concern. Yes, individuals can be outstanding researchers and writers in many disciplines working by themselves, but you cannot run a doctoral program with a single great faculty member.

Talk of superstars is misleading for a second reason: the research-intensive faculty who are visible to administrators are going to comprise a smaller set than the total number of productive faculty. Over the past eight years, the Genshaft administration has made clear that it assumes it can reward 100-150 faculty for being highly productive, out of approximately 1000 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the UFF bargaining unit (outside Medicine). That means that 85% of tenured and tenure-track faculty must not be productive enough to be rewarded significantly… and apart from what you think about your own work, the numbers just don’t make sense: how can USF be a nationally-recognized research university if only 150 of us are highly productive?

As we have seen through the mulling of budget cuts, upper-level administrators recognize that departments truly are the most relevant academic unit, and they evaluate academic operations by department. But department environments for research vary. Some departments are reasonably well funded through grant-writing. Others earn external grants but are still resource-poor in comparison with peer departments in research universities; their productivity is the result of the majority of faculty (not just a few) working their tails off. Other departments are relative overachievers in research with little outside funding. And in some departments, faculty who engage in extensive research fit the lone-writer image because they have to, because a department has a heavy teaching load.

The result is that USF faculty have de facto differentiated staffing, at the very least by department. That practice was embodied several years ago in a memo issued by former Provost David Stamps, who set normative teaching loads by the graduate teaching status of the department. Differentiated staffing exists across USF’s campuses as well. The university-level rhetoric of “differentiated mission” implies differentiated staffing, at variance with the expectations of a number of faculty when they were recruited to a specific campus, their skills, or their achievements. Finally, differentiated staffing exists within departments. Instructors teach more than tenured and tenure-track faculty, and tenure-track faculty should teach less than tenured faculty, on the whole. Some tenured faculty teach heavier loads than others within departments. And some departments use adjuncts or graduate teaching assistants heavily.

Differentiated staffing grew over the past 30 years as USF became larger, as different units reached for more external funding, or acquired doctoral programs and internal resources, or as departments responded to teaching loads by hiring non-tenure-track faculty and using adjuncts or graduate assistants more heavily. It developed over several presidents and provosts, through the dissolution of the old Board of Regents and the creation of the new system with local trustees and the statewide Board of Governors. No one said, “We’re going to create differential staffing, and we’re going to do it in a haphazard, incremental way while keeping most faculty salaries low.” But that’s what happened.

Over the next six months, you may hear discussion at USF of differentiated staffing, but let’s go into the discussion with our eyes open: we have differentiated staffing now, and it doesn’t currently work well either for many faculty or for the institution. USF faculty are still poorly paid in comparison with national peers, no matter how you slice the data. Currently, the university only provides one full-pay sabbatical slot for every 40 eligible faculty. Today, instructors who bear a disproportionate burden of teaching have no commitment from the university either to a promotion track or to more than a year’s notice of nonrenewal. This is not a system designed to satisfy or help faculty, and it certainly will not maintain morale and productivity through a budget crunch.

There are several ways out of this problem, and the United Faculty of Florida has put solutions on the bargaining table.

  • To give tenured faculty time to make leaps in their research, UFF has proposed increasing the number of competitive, peer-reviewed sabbaticals and creating a more flexible sabbatical system, including a new type of sabbatical modeled on UC Irvine’s “sabbatical in residence” program. Expanding the sabbatical program at USF would cost relatively little, is an efficient way to promote research based on a peer review of proposals, and promotes retention.
  • To recognize and reward the work of non-tenure-track employees, UFF has proposed creating promotion tracks for all job titles in the unit and creating multi-year rolling contracts tied to merit. Creating a multi-year contract system for non-tenure-track employees would have minimal economic impact on the university but maximum impact on the morale of instructors, librarians, and professional employees.
  • UFF has placed two salary proposals on the table, and the UFF bargaining team is still waiting for a response by USF. We estimate that the full cost of the salary proposals on the table would be a portion of the annual interest on the university’s unrestricted assets and would NOT require dipping into the principal.

These proposals would go a significant way towards meeting the legitimate needs of the faculty and the university. The bargaining team is ready to meet the administration’s legitimate interests in crafting specific language, and chapter officers are puzzled that in the past 12 months, the Trustees’ bargaining team has made no concrete proposal to move on any of these issues. I hope the summer sees more productive bargaining.


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