Defining the Role of a Middlebury Professor

by / editorial (0) in Opinions /

One of the College’s greatest strengths lies in its professors. The Princeton Review recently ranked the College seventh in the “professors get high marks” category, a fact that is likely unsurprising to many students here. What is surprising, however, is that a primary criticism that came from the College’s 2011 reaccreditation process was that faculty members should be more involved in the governing of our institution.

The faculty’s role in governance has come under further consideration after the Oct. 1 faculty meeting was adjourned because the number of faculty members present failed to meet the necessary quorum of 169 professors. A quorum was declared at the Nov. 12 meeting, which was largely centered on a resolution to change the definition of the quorum, and an overwhelming majority of faculty members present voted to change the quorum to one-third of the faculty population on campus.

We would hope that faculty members care about and are involved with the governance of the College. The decisions voted on at faculty meetings — involving grade changes, the approval of graduates and practices relating to the firing of professors, to name a few — have direct effects on students and faculty alike. For this reason, we were disheartened to hear about the general pattern of low faculty attendance.

Before we cast judgment, we must examine what, exactly, the role of a professor entails. Too often we think of teaching — and the grading and planning that it necessitates — as a professor’s sole responsibility. The reality is that in addition to teaching, our faculty members are expected to be accessible to students outside of the classroom, produce research and scholarly work and, as evidenced by the quorum necessary for faculty meetings, participate in the governance of the College.

It is clear that we ask a lot of faculty members here, which begs the question of what the primary obligation of a professor should be. Most of us agree that students should be the first priority for professors, but it is less clear how our professors can and should best facilitate an enriching learning experience for us. Is a professor who shows up to faculty meetings to vote on academic policy inherently more attuned to students’ needs than the professor who makes him or herself available to meet with students for extra help? Both actions are important in that they affect students directly, but it is difficult to say whether one is more valuable to students than the other.

One thing that is clear is that our professors are incredibly committed to facilitating the academic growth of students, and for this we are grateful. This enthusiasm and passion for teaching does not exist solely within the confines of the classroom. For the most part, professors here make themselves readily available to students who want to meet outside of class time, whether for extra help or just enlightening discussion.

But while this commitment to the individual growth of students is commendable, we feel that it is also important for professors to be able to balance this commitment with their responsibility to contribute to the governance of the College as a whole, and we call on the administration to help faculty members do so. The revised quorum may be one such way, as it allows for faculty meetings to take place even when some professors have conflicting obligations.

One problem may be that there are few clear motivations for professors to attend long faculty meetings, whereas there is great incentive to being a good professor inside the classroom. Effective teaching is awarded with student growth and learning, as well as positive feedback from students. Does the College need to provide incentives for professors to attend faculty meetings? The fact that the meetings are now run by a faculty moderator instead of President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz may be one such enticement. The administration and the faculty together, should examine if further changes are necessary.

Students on the whole have many responsibilities, such as long assignments and papers, sports practices, club meetings and off-campus jobs. The only way for students to keep up is to find a balance. For many of us, that means occasionally skimming an academic article or skipping a meeting to cram for an exam. The same can be said for our professors, who, on top of having additional responsibilities to their families and to their outside communities, are expected to teach with enthusiasm, be accessible to students and help govern our institution. So while we believe that it is part of the duty of a professor to attend faculty meetings, we recognize that, like their students, professors have to strike a balance between conflicting responsibilities. At the same time, a good solution is not one that entails neglecting important facets of one’s job, such as attending faculty meetings.