A new professorial designation proposed by the University of Wyoming would create “fourth class” employees and threaten the faculty’s political independence argues UW professor Donal O'Toole.(Gregory Nickerson/WyoFile)

by Donal O’Toole

(Opinion) — It’s June 2017, a warm balmy day on Prexy’s pasture. It is the second day of academic advising for your son Cody. You and he are escorted into a conference room and, with other parents, introduced to a lineup of faculty advisors.

Cody’s advisor introduces himself as Professor O’Noodle in the Department of Veterinary Sciences. After a staff member gives a brief spiel about undergraduate majors offered by the college, Cody sits with Professor O’Noodle, who lays out a course of study over the next year and beyond. O’Noodle seems a tad rusty on advising, and does not seem to know much about the teachers in Cody’s four 3-credit courses. But, finally, Cody is registered for the fall. As you rise to leave, you ask O’Noodle about his background, and his veterinary specialty. He tells you that he has been a professor at UW for a year, and has no degrees. For three decades he managed a well-known veterinary practice in Denver. He says he knows what veterinary medicine is all about.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Like all walks of life, academia has its fads. One is the “professor of practice.” University leaders are considering creating a new type of professorship. Job-holders need no degree, although they might have one. These positions will be filled by people who the UW administration considers to have had distinguished careers, and made substantial impacts on fields and disciplines important to academic programs at UW. They will be hired on one-year contracts with the possibility of yearly renewal. Mostly they will teach. They may do “some” research and advising.

Such an academic track may be attractive to people in Wyoming. After all, we have a tradition of suspicion toward the book-smart. There is something attractive about salting the faculty ranks with professors who have been in the trenches and dealt with the real world. Students need exposure to folks like these. And with the approval of many legislators, UW continues to experiment with the value of real-world professors. Indeed, Dr. Dick McGinity might be described as a president of practice.

Most of McGinity’s career was spent in the trenches. Before he became professor of ethics in UW’s college of business in 2007, he founded and presided over School Street Capital Group, Inc. (1986-2013). He was a general partner in a venture capital firm, and president of the board of a Canadian petroleum company. He’d authored one paper that is arguably academic in nature. Not great training to run a complicated beast such as a land-grant university, but highly palatable to UW Trustees nonetheless.

The initiative to create slots at UW for such non-academic specialists originated with several deans. That idea was adopted by Academic Affairs (the university’s upper administration) which in late 2015 asked the faculty senate executive to charge a committee to examine the idea. After some study, 12 committee members voted for the concept, provided there was a one-year limit on positions, with the possibility of annual reappointment. Two members had problems with the proposal as written and therefore voted against; another three abstained.  

The administration and head of the university committee offer several arguments in favor of creating such positions. One is: there won’t be many of these folks. Academic Affairs estimates 10–15 such people on campus. Another is that the designation is “recognized” by the Association of University Professors.

Everyone agrees that undergraduate and graduate students benefit by exposure to specialists of all kinds, not least those with a national reputation in business and the professions, and networks to match. The administration argues that there has been no decrease in the number of tenure-track faculty at UW over the last 20 years, so the idea poses no threat to the tenure-track system. The term “professor” must be part of the title, the administration argues, since experienced individuals want that distinction as part of the job. In other words, appeasing people’s vanity with the professor title has to be part of the package.

Suggestions that these positions have another title — comparable to an Eminent Writer in Residence — were not accepted. Moreover, so the argument goes, we already have at least three classes of “professor” on campus lacking the protection of tenure: clinical faculty in health sciences, research professors, and visiting professors. So a fourth class should be no big deal,  right?

The proposal is both disturbing and unnecessary.

The most important concern is that these individuals would lack the protection of tenure. Tenure exists to protect university employees, and grants them the privilege and responsibility of academic freedom. Many socially and scientifically contentious issues are discussed in the classroom. These range from natural selection and global warming, to the risks of fracking and pluses and minuses of predator control. Tenure was created to protect controversial speech on and off campus, including criticizing upper administration as I do here.

At UW, tenure is granted to competent faculty members after 3 – 6 years, depending on the rank at which they were hired. Tenure is secured only after a positive votes by colleagues, their unit leader, the dean, the college’s tenure and promotion committee and, finally, upper administration. Sometimes the university-wide tenure and promotion committee must weigh in when a tenure case is not straightforward. There is a high attrition rate for faculty who do not make the cut. Your career at UW is over if you fail your tenure vote. You get one shot at it.

Freedom of expression on the UW campus has been challenged repeatedly, most recently in the Bill Ayers affair and with the premature demolition of the Carbon Sink installation. In each case, a mismatch existed between what the administration said was the reason for curbing political and artistic expression, and reality. The latter emerged only after media FOIA requests and a federal court case in which faculty exercised their freedom of speech. When controversy strikes, non-tenured employees are understandably reluctant to speak out at the state’s only university. Tenured faculty are more likely to do so, since the chances of reprisal are less.

A second problem is the nature of Wyoming. There is a constant temptation for Wyoming’s good ol’ boys to meddle in UW’s academic direction. This is most evident recently in the increased number of faculty who are responsive to the coal and gas industries, and in the flood of expensive new facilities. If a “professor in practice” class is created, it would be cheap and easy for wealthy donors to channel money through the UW Foundation, and seed faculty ranks with people who further amplify that political responsiveness. Sometimes the university administration takes the initiative of granting visiting professor status to the politically connected, as was done in the UW School of Law for former Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Such “professorships” provide not only a nice salary — in Professor Freudenthal’s case $150,000 a year —‚ but also a bully pulpit to speak on contentious issues. When a UW professor holds forth in a controversy, most members of the public are unlikely to enquire whether she earned that rank, or is instead a professor-for-a-day. Wyoming should expect, just as the university’s regulations specify, that a professor is someone who is successful in her chosen area, is competent in research and/or extension, can guide graduate students and undergraduates, undertake creative work and scholarship, teach well and provide competent service to the community.  

There are existing mechanisms to connect our students with outside specialists. I co-teach a course in equine health and disease. But my expertise is in catastrophic diseases of animals that sends them to God, not the more common non-lethal conditions that are the bane of horse owners. So my fellow instructor is George Howard, coach to the rodeo team. Mr. Howard connects well with students, and is wonderful at discussing the mysteries of equine lameness. Other specialists, such as the dressage-riding veterinary author of the text used in class, and the state’s only certified equine surgeon from Sheridan, come in as needed to strengthen the course. These practices occur across campus. It does not require a new class of professorship that is open to abuse.

The last problem is a long-term one: the gradual decline of tenure-track positions across the U.S. Today more than 50 percent of all faculty hold part-time positions. Non-tenure track positions account for 76 percent of all instructional jobs in American higher education. The national trend continues in good economic times and bad, and is not driven by economic necessity. The trend is less severe at UW, but only because of the unique geography of Laramie. A large pool of “contingent faculty” does not exist locally.

The university administration notes that the American Association of University Professors recognizes the existence of professors of practice. There is a difference between recognizing something exists, and accepting it as a positive. I recognize cancer is a facet of aging — I don’t necessarily welcome it. So too with AAUP. It fought long and hard against pressures to commodify public universities, and to protect faculty members when they try to speak in dissent of the prevailing political class. We should too.

— Donal O’Toole is a veterinarian who works as a professor at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Veterinary Sciences.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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  1. A number of undergrads probably have the necessary life experiences to become “professors in practice.” Why not let undergraduate students teach each other? Your professor in one class can be your student in another. What could possibly go wrong?

    — Richard Grayson