Some say will lessen university’s commitment to undergrad education

The Faculty Affairs Committee of the Notre Dame Academic Council recently proposed a hotly debated amendment to the Academic Articles which would convert Special Professional Faculty (SPF) positions from faculty to staff.  The proposed change has been rejected by the Faculty Senate and has prompted criticism from numerous faculty members.

The change, which the Faculty Affairs Committee passed by a 12-2 vote, would primarily affect departmental directors of undergraduate studies as well as members of the Office for Undergraduate Studies, including those with assistant dean status.  The committee estimates that the university currently has about 270 employees designated as SPFs.

While the Academic Articles currently define SPFs as “professionals who make a direct and significant academic contribution to the educational process at the University through teaching, research, or administration,” the amendment would eliminate “administration” from this definition while adding “creative work.”

The proposal states, “Historically, the SPF Classification has been applied somewhat inconsistently and without clear rationale, becoming what has been referred to as a ‘catch all’ classification.”  Current SPFs would be permitted to remain as faculty.

The Faculty Senate strongly opposes the change.  In their response to the proposed amendment, the Faculty Senate stated that it “will not correct any concrete evil, nor will it leave the University in a better position to complete its mission. We feel that this limitation is unnecessary and will result in a degradation of the quality of the academic experience of our students.”

Groups of SPF members from the College of Science and from the College of Arts and Letters have produced statements that provide a more detailed rationale for their opposition.  In addition to concerns about future advisors’ ability to guide students well and to write effective letters of recommendation, the statements also articulate a concern for the university’s ability to retain and to attract high-quality members for less prestigious staff positions.  The SPF group from the College of Science also predicts a decreased ability to procure grant money under the proposed amendment.

Several members of the Faculty Affairs Committee declined to comment on the proposal or its reception and referred The Rover to the chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee, Professor of Business Ann Tenbrunsel.  Tenbrunsel declined to comment, stating that the comittee is “still receiving and reviewing comments on a preliminary proposal.”

According to one member of the Faculty Affairs Committee, Notre Dame Physics Professor John LoSecco, “It was thought that many administrative positions do not require faculty level personnel.  The SPF members of the Academic Council were consulted before any proposal was circulated.  All faculty have been consulted concerning a draft of the proposal.”

Commenting on the feedback he has received at this point, LoSecco said, “I have heard little from the teaching and research faculty.  A number of SPF faculty have contacted me.  The majority of SPF are doing teaching or research and would not be changed.”

In an interview with The Rover, professor and chair of the Notre Dame Department of Political Science Michael Desch said that he does not believe the proposal will affect the quality of undergraduate education at Notre Dame.  Instead, he sees the proposal as the result of “a widespread recognition that the SPF designation is used indiscriminately.”

“In general I support the Academic Council’s proposal, with the caveat that departments and colleges need some flexibility in regard to these positions,” said Desch.  “There are a lot of people in SPF positions who ought to be in staff positions.  The idea is to limit faculty positions to those who are engaged in teaching, research, and significant creative activity.”

Notre Dame Professor of History Fr. Wilson Miscamble, CSC, stated, “The Faculty Affairs Committee proposal reflects a lack of appreciation for the crucial role played by good advising in the education of our students and it fails to take due account of the demanding and wide-ranging academic roles played by our SPF colleagues.  I trust the full Academic Council will not proceed down a path which is certain to damage the quality of undergraduate education at Notre Dame.”

Professor Daniel Graff, the Notre Dame History Department’s director of undergraduate studies and associate director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program, strongly opposes the proposed change.  He believes that, if enacted, the amendment “will cause significant damage to the university’s core mission of educating and mentoring undergraduates.”

In an email to The Rover, Graff drew on the scholarly work he engages in while serving in his administrative role, which includes teaching history courses, directing honors theses and independent student research, and conducting research.

“It is crucial that directors of undergraduate studies (DUSs) are faculty members, because DUSs are central to the education process, which includes mentoring new faculty as teachers and advisors,” Graff asserted.  “If a DUS in the future is not a faculty member, she or he would not be able to teach, supervise student research projects, write letters of recommendation for professional and graduate school, fellowships, et cetera, and apply for internal and external research grants.”

“The proposal’s most shocking suggestion is that advising is not a core faculty function at the university,” Graff said.  “Advising students – in courses, on research, on life goals – is the responsibility of the entire faculty of the university, and it should remain the responsibility of faculty.  I don’t know a single colleague in (the College of) Arts and Letters who feels otherwise.”

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