Missing the connection

    Ann Marie Fallon and many of her colleagues fear that teaching in University Studies could have disastrous effects on their careers.

    Fallon said the lack of connection between faculty and their chosen discipline often means professional development is sacrificed.

    ”Because it’s not connected to a department or traditional academic unit, people haven’t been able to continue to progress in their careers in the way that’s traditionally outlined in any other unit,” said Fallon, who has been teaching in University Studies for four years and was elected Freshman Inquiry coordinator in June. “That’s devastating to faculty morale for people to feel like, on the one hand, very proud of a program they’ve helped to build, and on the other hand feel like they’ve destroyed their career because they’ve been unable to progress in any way that’s recognized.”

    These instructors, the core faculty whose exclusive assignment is to the University Studies department, are responsible for teaching Freshman and Sophomore Inquiry classes and their frustration stems in part from the program’s lack of guidelines for promotions. Professors who have been a part of the program since its inception in 1994 have been denied the chance to advance professionally, despite the program’s national recognition.

    Sukhwant Jhaj, interim University Studies director, said that it is not simply a lack of promotions that has created deep concerns among core faculty.

    ”If one is only part of University Studies, they don’t get a chance to focus on their discipline and they are at a disadvantage,” he said. “They must find intellectual homes, both here [in University Studies] and in their home departments.”

    Jhaj said there are also very few tenured or tenure-track positions available to core faculty members, meaning most professors are on fixed-term contracts and must be rehired each year.

    According to Fallon, the problem has never been attracting educators to teach University Studies, Portland State’s general education system that synthesizes multiple disciplines into a cohesive program. Fallon said frustrations often surface years after professors become involved in the program.

    Freshman Inquiry professors like Fallon face a unique challenge. Freshman Inquiry classes last a whole school year and typically focus on different aspects of the same topic each term. Students stay with the same classmates, professor and mentor through all three terms.

    ”The emotional work of being with freshmen the whole year is unbelievable,” Fallon said. “Having people really engaged in the classroom is huge.”

    At an August 15-16 retreat, alongside professionals from North Star Facilitators, University Studies faculty laid out concerns that the reality of the program is straying from the ideal of the program. Jhaj participated as a faculty member and is pleased with the results of the retreat.

    ”We looked at our values that hold our core faculty together and what are the obstacles,” Jhaj said.

    At the retreat, faculty identified several goals for the next five years and the obstacles that currently prevent those goals from being reached. Goals include providing faculty with secure, rewarding careers and improving collaboration and communication between faculty members.

    ”They feel extremely vulnerable whenever there is a budget crisis,” Jhaj said. “They feel an incredible pressure, not only for being on a yearly contract but also their place in this program.”

    Fallon said tenure-track professors are discouraged from joining the University Studies core faculty because the two-year commitment the program asks of instructors could derail a bid to become tenured. As the student population has expanded, the University Studies program has grown rapidly to keep up with the demand for classes.

    When the program began, there were only four fixed-term faculty members. Now there are over 30 fixed-term part-time and full-time instructors. New Freshman Inquiry Professor Joel Bettridge was hired in mid-August, around the same time 20 of his new colleagues were participating in the two-day retreat.

    ”In terms of a teaching environment, University Studies is incredibly attractive,” said Bettridge, who received his doctorate in poetry and American literature from SUNY-Buffalo. “The challenge of the university today is how to join a liberal education with the practical skills necessary to survive. These two things are not opposite. As a teacher, this [teaching University Studies] seems ideal.”

    ”The growth in University Studies has happened exponentially without a lot of planning,” Fallon said. “It’s a big program not to have any governing guidelines.”

    Writing governance guidelines is one of the top priorities for the core faculty, as is finding methods to support faculty scholarship and deal with increased teaching loads.

    ”We’re trying to find ways of supporting people’s scholarship. They’ve had no access to research funds,” Fallon said. “We’re making sure the extra course we have to teach is in our own departments. Things like that are huge.”

    Despite the program’s numerous growing pains, 12 years after its inception University Studies remains the flagship program of Portland State.

    ”What’s so amazing about this program and what makes it so much fun to teach here is the kinds of risks people are willing to take, the risks people are willing to take in the classroom,” Fallon said.