Last year was an amazing year of being a professor and meeting some incredible students. It was also an eye-opening year of getting initiated to a changing educational landscape.
In June 2016, I learned that there was an immediate opening at the seminary I had attended from 2008-2010. I got the one-year appointment and left LA, where I was finishing up a PhD, to move back to Portland.
It was a wonderful opportunity and I loved being in the classroom for a year.
I also got to teach an ongoing ‘intensive’ class in a doctoral program on the east coast at a school that I have a long-standing relationship with. We decided to open up the class to MDiv (divinity) students as well as the Dmin (ministry) students.
There were some issues that stuck out to me and I took the opportunity to call my friends around the country who have tenure-track positions or who teach adjunct. They confirmed my observations. This was especially true at ‘christian’ universities (but not exclusively).
Here are my three observations about education:
- Money is the lead dog – but technology is dominant.
- Education is a product and students are customers.
- Professors are nervous.
Money is the lead dog – but technology is dominant. There is a delicate balance between ‘being profitable’ and ‘making a profit’. The margins at many schools are thin and shrinking. Both the thin margins and the shrinking profits create a very intense atmosphere of evaluation, insecurity, anxiety, and demand.
Adding to this mix are Presidents and Deans who have to do fundraising with donors who also have expectations of message and image. Students have expectations of cost-value, the ability to complete a degree, and the outlook for using the degree in the future.
Tech is also playing a larger role. Between online-hybrid classes, student portals for the curriculum, peer learning in online class assignments like message boards, and in-class audio/visual … professors have to be tech-savvy and surprisingly structured.
When you put together the institutional fundraising concerns of donors and boards, financial and time justification for students, and technological innovations embedded at every level – you get quite a demanding matrix of issues to navigate.
You can understand why faculty meetings might be contentious or there might be tension between departments. You can also see why administrators are both so crucial and so influential. Watching over the ‘big-picture’ is no piece of cake either.
Education is a product and students are customers. That might sound cynical but if you have not been around education in the past decade, you might be surprised at how influence students have now and much weight they carry. This was perhaps the biggest change I noticed from 2008 as a student and 2016 as a professor.
Due to the financial concerns listed above, and the democratization that technology empowers in any population, the scales within a school have really shifted. Students’ voices carry a surprising amount of weight.
Think about it this way: if a student is unhappy they will take their business elsewhere. If the degree is too long (too many credits), too expensive, there is too much work in class, or they get a bad grade / have a bad experience … it doesn’t matter why they choose another school, it only matters that you are losing students. So, you adjust the curriculum, adjust the degrees, adjust the cost, and adjust the ease of access/living/travel.
In our contemporary environment, student representatives and liaisons are vital and very influential. Institutions, both faculty and administration, make many of their decisions based on student input. Professors may have to adjust assignments, schedules, reading loads, and grading scales accordingly. I’m not saying that the students are in charge! I’m saying that it is a very symbiotic relationship.
Professors are nervous. Professors don’t get paid a lot but are expected to do quite a bit of work. It is a prestige thing, to be sure, but it is also a passion thing. Young professors are expected to go above-and-beyond to show their value to the institution. Older professors know that tenure doesn’t mean what it used to.
So, you can’t afford to get a bad review by a student. You also need to keep in mind the ‘mission’ of the school and the concerns of the older generation of donors and board members. You want to be proficient and competent enough to justify your work to the institution but not so innovative as to attract unwanted attention.
Then there is the LGBTQ issue. I will say more about this tomorrow, but it is important to understand that every ministry training institution that I interact with (6 in total in California, Oregon, and NY) is wrestling with this. Navigating between student enrollment, alumni, donors, and denominational leadership / funding is a tricky dance.
When you look at just these three observations – between salary, job security, ethical convictions, student expectations, and a shrinking number of full time positions … I learned a lot this year and am very grateful for the opportunity to be in the classroom and meet some amazing students!
I would love to hear your observations, comments, or questions.