The part-time academy?
It is now nearly 25 years since I first assumed academic management responsibilities. At the time, after the untimely death of my head of department in Trinity College Dublin, I became Acting Head of TCD’s business school. In that capacity I found myself interacting with a group of part-time staff who played a major role in some of the School’s programmes. The individuals concerned were business practitioners of one kind or another who delivered some of our teaching in a part-time capacity. Students loved them (mostly), because they brought with them direct knowledge of the actual business world and because they would be good later for helping them to network. They were valuable colleagues, but it would also have to be said that their involvement was limited due to their main professional responsibilities. In my subsequent roles (as a Dean and as a university president) I continued to engage professional part-timers in a variety of subject areas. Two that spring to mind were John Bruton, former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and John Crown (a very prominent and outspoken consultant oncologist in Dublin).
More recently it has become a matter of comment about the higher education system in these islands that, to a much greater extent than those in other countries, it relies critically on full-time academic professionals, for whom an academic job was their first career choice. It has been suggested from time to time that universities would be more effective if a greater number of people moved between academic, business or other practice-based jobs and higher education. But assuming that the most likely major involvement by such people will be on a part-time basis, it it might also be asked whether an academy that increasingly relies on part-timers would become something rather different from what we now think it to be. If you consider that even academics who cannot right now find full-time jobs in universities for budgetary reasons may increasingly develop their teaching experience initially on a part-time basis, then you begin to see a higher education community that is fundamentally different and, necessarily, somewhat more detached.
So as not to be misunderstood, am totally in support of engaging part-time faculty whose main work is in the outside world; they genuinely add an important dimension. But if they become numerically too dominant, other elements will be lost, including the idea of a community of scholars. I fear that the growth of part-timers at this time is being brought about for budgetary reasons – and from a pedagogical and scholarship point of view that’s not the best basis for such developments. As we consider what kind of institutions universities may be in a generation from now, we should perhaps reflect a little more about how part-time colleagues can add significant value, and where we need to ensure that full-time academics are numerically strong enough to maintain a sense of dedicated scholarship.
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