Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In spring 2015, Paige Willey ‘16 took an honors seminar called “Culture, Identity, and Power” with Shervin Malekzadeh. When she registered for the class, she did not know whether Professor Malekzadeh would still be at Swarthmore when she took her Honors exams her senior year.
Professor Malekzadeh came to Swarthmore as a Visiting Assistant Professor in fall 2012, on a three-year contract.
“Initially when I had him my freshman year, I was really upset to learn that he was only staying for 3 years. […] Over the past couple of years, I’ve recommended him to a lot of my friends and peers, saying, ‘You should totally take his intro class.’ But that’s not there anymore when he leaves. I see that as a huge loss for other people who would enjoy his class, who I know would feel very stretched by the material,” Willey said.
As the student body grows and the faculty courseload drops from 2-3 (5 courses per year) to a 2-2 (4 courses per year), this situation will only become more common.
As one faculty member who requested to remain anonymous phrased it, “What’s happening now at Swarthmore is as the student body grows and the faculty does not grow, Swarthmore is not simply replacing a tenured line with a visiting professor, they are staffing an entire line with only visiting professors.”
I tried to investigate whether the school would indeed see a greater proportion of visiting professors in the coming years, and if so, what affect that might have on the school. To do this, I spoke with more than a dozen visiting professors, the Provost, and three students.
I found that visiting faculty tend to agree that being a visiting professor at Swarthmore is better than being a visiting or adjunct professor at most other schools. There is also a huge range of experiences behind being a visiting professor. Tenured professors come to teach at Swarthmore from other schools and do not have to worry about job security. Others, like visiting professors, face varying degrees of hardship when it comes to finding housing, developing relationships with students, and figuring out how to advise and teach standardized introductory courses.
What is a Visiting Professor?
If you go on any Swarthmore department website, you will see most professors are listed as a “Professor,” “Associate Professor,” “Assistant Professor,” or a “Visiting Assistant Professor,” though there are many other variations, with named professorships, lecturers, etc. These titles simply imply rank, with assistants at the bottom and full professors at the top. Assistants typically do not have tenure.
The essential difference between a tenured and a non-tenured professor is that tenured professors have near-perfect job security and the liberty to teach and research what they like without fear of being fired from the College. A tenure-track professor is a professor who does not yet have tenure, but is eligible to receive it down the line.
What are the differences between visiting professors and tenure-track professors?
This is a question I asked every professor I interviewed, along with the Provost. Here are the main differences, on a scale roughly from most concrete/tangible to most nebulous:
- They are chosen differently. Tenure lines are decided by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), which is chaired by the Provost. They typically put out a call in September for proposals from departments in which departments must argue for why they need a tenure line. The committee typically receives about 25 proposals per year. Visiting professorships are allocated at the discretion of the Provost.
- According to guidelines set by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which Swarthmore is a member of, Swarthmore is only allowed to employ visiting professors for a maximum of 6 years.
- Tenure-track professors typically receive “start-up” funds to allow them to get going on their research. For professors in the natural sciences, this can include funding for lab equipment.
- Visiting faculty do not get sabbaticals, though some departments might offer a course release (allow that professor to teach one fewer courses in a given semester) for a visiting professor on occasion for a long-serving visitor.
- Visiting professors also advise students less frequently but are not shielded from service work such as serving on committees.
One huge benefit to departments of having visiting positions is it allows for flexibility within the department. Younger faculty tend to bring in new, innovative ideas. They are also critical for leave replacements, where visiting professors teach classes in place of a tenure-track or tenured professor going on sabbatical.
According to this table on faculty provided by the Office of Institutional Research, we have 21 leave replacements for the 2015-16 year. There are also a number of rotating visiting positions, where instead of replacing professors on sabbatical, professors cycle in and out permanently. That is currently the case for Professor Malekzadeh’s comparative government position in the Political Science Department.
In order to compensate for the increase in the student body, the College is adding four new faculty lines each year, of which three are tenure-track, according to Tom Stephenson, the Provost. The chart below shows entering faculty for the past three years.
The main obstacle for visiting professors is building relationships with students, which can be difficult if they are only here for one or two years. They also need to coordinate with other members of the department quickly in order to teach standardized introductory courses like Intro to Computer Science or General Chemistry.
Dan Lai ‘17 began doing Honors cell biology research with Jodi Schottenfeld-Roames the summer after his sophomore year. Schottenfeld-Roames had a two-year position at the time, though it has now been extended in the same way as Professor Malekzadeh’s contract. Since there was the possibility Schottenfeld-Roames would not be around his senior year when he had to present his Honors research, they had to plan on doing research advising remotely via Skype during Lai’s senior fall.
While Willey worked with Professor Malekzadeh throughout her time at Swarthmore, she was less lucky with other visiting professors.
“I took an architecture class with a visiting professor on Frank Lloyd Wright my sophomore year and it was really good. He was a really good mentor, but he is gone now, so if I wanted a letter of recommendation from him, or if I wanted to take a second class with him, I can’t do that. Those resources are just out of your life. So you’re really losing out on people who you hit it off with in a mentor-mentee relationship,” Willey said.
The temporary nature of visiting professorships also impacts institutional memory within departments.
Jamie Thomas, a visiting postdoctoral fellow in the Linguistics Department noted that part of the difficulty with being a visiting professor is that many come in with one foot already out the door.
“It’s hard to invest in the institution because you need to start looking for jobs almost immediately once you get in because the academic job cycle starts in the fall. So sometimes when you land at a school and you start in the fall, that’s often the same time you have to start looking for your next job,” she said.
“You need to start looking for jobs almost immediately once you get in because the academic job cycle starts in the fall.”
– Visiting postdoctoral fellow Jamie Thomas.
Visiting professors have taught General Chemistry (“Chem 10”) for the past five years, in part because those professors are filling in for Tom Stephenson, who is a chemistry professor but currently teaches no classes because he serves as Provost. This continued rotation requires a lot of coordinating between professors since Chem 10 is such a foundational course for intermediate chemistry classes. In computer science, the department makes sure there is always at least one tenured professor teaching CS21 who can mentor visiting professors, and all labs are standardized across the course so visiting professors do not need to start from scratch.
Not all visiting professors are assigned academic advisees by the school. In this respect, there are vast inconsistencies across departments, mostly because there are vast discrepancies in enrollment across departments. There does not appear to be any school-wide policy on whether visiting professors should advise students, and if they do, how much training they receive on how to advise students.
Both students and visiting professors I spoke with said that there was inadequate training for visiting professors to teach them how to do academic advising, especially honors advising.
Claudia Lo ‘16, a special honors major in Gender and Digital Culture, explained that she nearly always has visiting professors as advisors because there is no tenure line in the Gender and Sexuality Department.
“You are basically reinventing the wheel. My advisor was asking the same people I was asking about how to run an honors seminar and what should be expected of me,” Lo said.
Lo explained that in some ways she was afforded a lot of freedom because she designed her own honors preps, which is a non-honors class or independent study that is adapted to be equivalent to an honors seminar. However, it was a lot of work for her to essentially be her own advisor on top of doing her regular schoolwork.
“I would prefer some stability in the form of somebody who understands how this process goes. Somebody who understands how the honors process works, somebody who can say ‘Your honors preps are coming up. This is what we need from you, this is when it is due, this is what a syllabus looks like, etc,’” Lo said.
Malekzadeh admitted to feeling unprepared for his advising duties when he first arrived at the College.
“It’s a lot of work to advise, but it’s sort of unfair to my colleagues in my colleagues in the department if I don’t advise. Having said that, not so much in my third year or fourth year, but in my first year or two, I didn’t feel like I was in a position to advise. […] It’s probably the least favorite part of my job. I love sitting and having conversations with students informally but I felt unqualified,” he said.
One visiting professor described the extent of the orientation he received as a new faculty member: “You’re told everything in this big three-hour meeting. You’re hungry, you’re tired, and you’re surviving on coffee, and you’re barely paying attention and everything’s new and you’re excited about your new job. But then you actually have to advise somebody and you’re like ‘Alright. I know they said something about this three weeks ago but I don’t remember.’“
Multiple other professors noted that they received very little training in advising. Some faculty members are assigned faculty mentors to help familiarize them with different aspects of being a professor at Swarthmore, typically faculty members who are at Swarthmore for more than one year.
Service Work and Faculty Governance
While tenure-track professors are protected from committee work in order to allow them to focus on research, visiting professors are not. In Modern Languages, where many of the sub-departments are very small (departments like Chinese and Arabic are considered sub-departments), visiting professors may also be sub-department chairs, whereas most departments do not allow visiting professors to be chairs.
Though visiting professors are welcome to participate and vote in faculty meetings at the departmental and school-wide level, many visiting professors report that they do not feel invested enough in the College to go to school-wide faculty meetings. When they do go, they often do not participate, though there are certainly some visiting professors who go to every faculty meeting and participate in the discussions.
One professor, who chose to remain anonymous, noted that this lack of participation was not because visiting professors are stigmatized:
“The faculty don’t know each other very well so you don’t necessarily know in faculty meetings who is visiting and who is not. So in that sense, there is no distinction whatsoever in visiting faculty. All faculty members have as much right to vote or speak as anybody else,” the professor said.
This has not always been the case. Until last year, only full-time faculty could vote in decisions, but faculty changed that rule to include part-time faculty. Not all part-time professors are visiting professors, but all visiting professors filling in for leave replacements are categorized as part-time.
“At the same time, for those who do know, there does seem to be a pecking order,” the professor continued. “There just seems to be a sense of ‘let those who are here permanently take care of things.’ It’s not that voices are discounted, it’s just that they are not listened to as attentively.”
“There just seems to be a sense of ‘let those who are here permanently take care of things.’”
One of the main obstacles to recruitment and retention of faculty identified last year in a survey run by the Committee on Faculty Diversity and Excellence (CFD) was housing, which has specific relevance to visiting professors who cycle in and out of the College.
According to Sunka Simon, Associate Provost and Chair of the CFD, the CFD subsequently researched and addressed faculty housing and dual-career support this year. The committee presented their report to the faculty on April 1, and in May, they will present a proposal to the Board of Managers and President Smith asking them to review their faculty housing policy.
The College currently has two programs to assist incoming faculty with housing for the purpose of attracting and retaining talent. The first is a rental program. The College owns 100 units of faculty housing available for rent.
One of the issues with the rental program is that there are no transparent eligibility criteria for College-owned rentals. So, for example, if 10 visiting professors come in a year but there are only five rental units of their desired size open, there is no codified process of deciding who gets one of them.
“Chairs can advocate for their new faculty. So it’s a little loosey-goosey. It has its advantages if you get a good place, everybody is happy, but for those people who really wanted a place and didn’t get it, there is no guarantee,” Simon said.
Another CFD recommendation for rental policy reform is to offer an annual house-buying mortgage workshop to help junior faculty transition to ownership, and to create and maintain a website for rental properties that features data on all the units, such as average utility bills. Many of the College’s rental properties are poorly insulated, so many professors are surprised when their utility bills run as high as $800 in the winter, which they did not budget for. Alternately, the committee recommends including utilities in the rent.
“It’s a little loosey-goosey”
– Professor Sunka Simon on the way faculty housing is allocated.
There are also two to four larger rentals that are frequently unoccupied because there is more demand for smaller units among the junior faculty, so the committee recommends the College convert these large houses into multi-family homes. This would require negotiations with the Boroughs of Swarthmore and Wallingford, whose zoning laws do not currently allow for multi-family homes.
The second proposed program is a mortgage subsidy program. The College currently offers mortgage subsidies for houses within a 1.5 mile radius of Parrish tower, with the exception of Media and parts of Chester. This rule is a relic of the era when Swarthmore professors would teach seminars at their houses instead of teaching in classrooms, and the College did not want students (or faculty) to have to travel far to attend class.
This policy has not been updated to modern times, except to include houses in Media and Chester. According to a survey of 20 of Swarthmore’s peer institutions conducted by the CFD, 69% of these other colleges subsidize mortgage plans within a 10 to 25 mile radius, and some go as far as 50 miles. The CFD’s proposal will ask the Board of Managers to extend the radius along the regional rail corridor to encourage SEPTA use instead of driving to work.
This change in policy would address dual-career support for professors with spouses who work in Philadelphia or commute elsewhere for work, like New York or New Jersey. It also would give faculty members a choice to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods. According to the 2000 Census, the towns within a 1.5 mile radius of Parrish tower (Ridley, Springfield, Wallingford, and Swarthmore) are predominantly white.
Focus on Research over Teaching
Some of the professors I spoke with also mentioned that there has been a general trend in academia towards privileging research over teaching experience, though this may only be true for some fields.
One visiting professor, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “Tenure track faculty are primarily going to be judged on research because that’s the thing that’s going to be contributing to the school in the long-term, and the teaching is often thought of as secondary. […] If you’ve got somebody who’s a naturally gifted teacher, but a mediocre researcher, then that’s not somebody the school wants to invest in because they’re not going to grow to become a better researcher.”
Some noted that they did not perceive this to be as true for visiting professors, as their primary function within the department is to teach. This is not true for all departments, however: Jamie Thomas, for example, has a visiting position with a strong research focus given that she is a postdoctoral fellow, so she is given half the normal teaching load to give her time to research.
Kevin Welch, a visiting professor in the Chemistry Department, noted that not having start-up money can be a larger burden for professors in the Natural Sciences.
“[The money we get for research] is not typically enough to do really extensive research projects. It’s not the same as having a fully-funded research lab. When we would run into a hurdle over the summer and I didn’t have the financial backing to get over the hurdle, I had to do something creative to fix it, which might take some time, and isn’t quite as fulfilling to the student researchers as it would be if I could just throw some money at it,” he said.
Even though some express regret at not being able to start in-depth projects, others say the fact that visiting professors may only be here for less than four years means that students may be more likely to complete the research projects they begin with these professors.
“There are some people who have done research for all four years with tenure-track professors and haven’t gotten anything published just because of the fact that their research is laying the groundwork for things in the future and that happens a lot with scientific research,” Lai said.
The Role of Cost
How does cost factor into the issue of employing tenure-track faculty vs. visiting faculty?
When they first come to work at the College, a visiting faculty member will make about the same amount as a new tenure-track faculty member, Stephenson said. Entry-level tenure-track salaries are around $70,000. These numbers do not include the cost of start-up funds, which for tenure-track faculty can run as high as $200,000.
It also does not account for the cost in terms of time spent in the search process for existing faculty members. Professors and administrative assistants are not paid extra for the time spent on searching for a new faculty member, a process which can take hundreds of hours per search.
Luckily, for Willey, Professor Shervin Malekzadeh stayed on another year and will be here when she takes her honors exams.
“This was a huge relief, because if I had to take the honors exam this year and he wasn’t around, that would have been a big disconnect,” Willey said.
How might the school try to minimize these disconnects and ensure they continue to attract the best possible talent and ensure a high quality of life for all faculty?
While visiting professors generally describe their experience in positive terms, especially compared to adjunct and visiting positions at other schools, there are a number of ways they said their experiences could be improved.
One main suggestion that professors I spoke with made is that the college employ more tenure-track faculty. Some visiting professors feel that they are treated equally to tenure-track professors, but others feel that the position is inherently second-class.
One professor who preferred to remain anonymous noted that the anxiety that comes with having no job security can be crippling.
“I’m not sure which is worse. The uncertainty of not knowing if you’re going to be renewed or the certainty knowing, ‘Well, that’s it. This is done. I’m leaving.’ Because there’s sort of a sadness to that that you don’t have with the uncertainty. At least with the uncertainty, there’s this hope. But either way, it’s rough,” the professor said.
While leave replacements may have to be visiting professors, it might be possible to replace some rotating visiting positions with tenure-track lines.
The AAUP itself also recently published a report on The Economic Value of Tenure which said in its conclusion, “Considerable challenges lie ahead for faculty and institutions of higher education. Chief among them is the need to reverse the soaring rates of contingency and rebuild a faculty with a strong core of full-time, tenure-track positions.”
Joshua Brody, an Assistant Computer Science Professor who served as a visiting professor for one year before applying for and getting a tenure-track line, said, “I think if there was a higher percentage of tenure-track people, not just at Swarthmore, but in all the colleges as a whole, I think there would be a better quality of life for my colleagues who are visitors now but could have been tenure-track people somewhere if there were more permanent positions.”
An anonymous professor also said, “The faculty would be very amenable to a greater allocation of tenure lines. […] What comes up as a problem is the budgetary constraints which are offered as the reason behind the limit in the allocation of tenure lines.”
Tenure lines are indeed an extensive commitment of funds. Last year was also the first year Swarthmore spent more on staff salaries than faculty salaries. This might suggest a relative deprioritization of faculty in recent years.
Many visiting professors I spoke with were hesitant to talk about these issues and many outright refused to speak with me. The Campus Climate Assessment published this year by Rankin and Associates indicated that 26.2% of faculty observed unfair or unjust employment practices—these perceptions are likely more common for visiting and untenured professors.
None of this is to say that Swarthmore does not provide an incredible amount of support for visiting professors. Every professor I spoke with expressed gratitude that Swarthmore provided conference funding and funding for summer research even for visiting positions.
However, the college will need to come to terms with is the fact that one third of the faculty is currently over the age of 55, which means the institution will soon encounter a hiring wave. The college thus has limited time to resolve its hiring issues.
Featured image shows Professor Shervin Malekzadeh with a student, by Vishnu Gupta ’18/The Daily Gazette