College faculty should work full-time; here’s one thing to keep them busier

My dozen years on the faculty and staff at a small liberal arts college followed a three-decade career in the chemical industry. One of the most surprising things I learned when I began teaching is how little presence the faculty has on campus for large portions of the year.  

From the day after commencement until the start of the fall semester, you can shoot a cannon across a small college campus and not run the risk of hitting any faculty members. The same holds true from mid-December until mid-January. Add in a few days for fall break, and an entire week for spring break, and you have large swaths of time that could be used to address challenges and improve learning outcomes.  

That prevents the institution from applying critical resources to addressing the many challenges facing liberal arts colleges today. 

I know, I know. Faculty members say they need those summer months and other downtime to travel, study, prepare courses, and to do a million things other than what I’m going to suggest.  

But I have been there. I know how much time is required to prepare a course, or update an existing course. I also know that most of our liberal arts colleges are focused on teaching, with little or no research required of tenured professors. Faculty time is available and should be better utilized to improve the way a college delivers its product. 

In particular, I believe that colleges need to dramatically step up their game in terms of student course selection and coordination of electives across disciplines, and also to link more substantively to the employer community. 

My first inkling came early in my academic career, when I was teaching a course in international marketing to a small group of seniors. I asked each of them how they chose their elective courses.  

The responses were disappointing: the course fit my schedule, I heard the instructor was easy, I thought I had to take all electives in the department of my major, etc. None of them said they’d chosen an elective  because they thought it would add specific value to them after graduation.  

At that point, I told them that I had spent time looking at every course that the college offered, and had selected ones that I, as a hiring manager, would like to see a graduate in Business and Economics have under his or her belt. These included courses in international relations, global governmental systems, psychology and sociology, contract law, patent law and many others.  

I also explained why I thought each of the courses would add value to them in their careers. The students looked at my list and said nobody had ever discussed with them how best to match electives and career choices. 

From their comments, it was clear to me that sessions with their academic advisors were more institution-oriented (what numbers and kinds of courses you need to graduate) than student-oriented (what type of career are you contemplating, and which courses would best prepare you for the future).  

At a departmental meeting of the Business and Economics faculty a few days later, I read my list of recommended electives and shared with them the student reactions. One full-time professor said something to the effect, “We basically do this as part of student advising—but  could I have a copy of that list?” That pretty much told me what I needed to know. Advising sessions were superficial, primarily checking off the boxes needed for graduation. 

Colleges seem to be content to list courses required for a major, along with additional electives to be taken inside the same discipline. In addition, there may be a requirement to take courses in the Common Core. Students then get the rest of the credits they need by fulfilling the school’s “distribution requirements” (a few courses in this field, a few in that field) and any other courses that look convenient, fun, easy, or perhaps even enlightening. 

The Career Services department then assists the students with securing internships and full time employment—usually by holding job fairs, linking students with alumni in different geographic areas, sponsoring speakers on career and graduate opportunities, and the like. 

Something is missing here. Course selections and the career service function should be much more rigorous in design and more tailored to the individual student.  

In the case of a science major, for example, courses in science should be accompanied by courses in business, since most scientific endeavor is carried out in a corporate environment. For that matter, courses in politics and international relations should also be part of the electives selection, since business cannot be divorced from politics in today’s world. The same type of thinking holds true for academic disciplines across the board. 

I recommend that college faculty take the initiative to do all of the following: 

  • Convene a committee composed of members from each college division (sciences, humanities, social sciences, etc.) to take a hard look at all departmental courses, determine for each major the non-departmental courses that will best prepare students for their career choices, and design a set of tailored electives that will most help each student. 
  • Each college division should assemble a volunteer “Board of Advisors” from the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors to review both the departmental courses and the newly designed slates of electives that are recommended to students. This Board will look for academic content that is relevant to today’s world, and make suggestions on courses that should be included, modified, or dropped.  
  • These Boards represent organizations that are looking for the best talent they can find. They should cooperate with Career Services to tailor internships at their own organizations, designed to offer a progression of experience and responsibility each year, and to coordinate “study abroad” programs with selected internships in their international organizations. 

These course coordination activities, the search to assemble a truly engaged Board of Advisors, and the scheduling of regular meetings of the Boards will take a lot of time—time that faculty members typically do not have during the course of a semester. 

But there is plenty of time to do all of that. After all, thirty weeks worth of semesters leaves five months of available time to work on the systematic improvement of the college’s product and to partner with key constituencies that can add value to the students’ education.

Deans tread softly on issues like teaching loads and should anticipate a lot of blowback to this proposal. But in truth, faculty members should want to be working together and with administrators to advance institutional objectives. 

The tenured faculty is the ultimate steward of a college’s programs and product. They need to step up to face these challenges and completely commit themselves to their institutions. This can no longer be done on a part-time basis.