Lecturer layoffs make way for tenured professors

By Danielle Stoppelmann, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 5, 2012

Lecturer Brian MacPherson has worked in the philosophy department for the last 16 years. In September, he received a letter informing him he would be laid off June 1, 2012.

MacPherson isn’t the only lecturer who will be dismissed in June. He and Lecturer Gregory Sax have both been laid off by the Department of Philosophy to be replaced by tenured professors who will teach introductory courses. According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, philosophy is one of many University departments to hire tenure-track professors in place of lecturers as part of a University-wide attempt to increase the number of tenured research professors.

Fitzgerald said the University is in the process of hiring 150 professors to teach in to various areas of study, in contrast to other universities around the country that are laying off faculty. He added that the University has already hired half of a proposed 100 junior-level faculty members and is expected to hire an additional 50 faculty members.

“We see that as a very positive thing for the University,” he said. “It’s a pretty significant commitment among major U.S. universities today.”

Yet these changes are being made at the expense of qualified lecturers such as MacPherson. Fitzgerald said the department made its decision after much deliberation, and gave the lecturers fair warning. He added that the dept. has been available to offer assistance to those affected. He said the layoffs that are happening in the philosophy department are not indicative of a general trend of lecturer layoffs at the University.

“I know the department feels strongly that this is the right move for the department,” Fitzgerald said. “Generally, there certainly are people who would see this as a positive move to have more introductory classes taught by faculty … tenure and tenure-track faculty.”

Kirsten Herold, vice president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and a lecturer in the School of Public Health, administers union contracts for LEO, which sets guidelines for the relationship between lecturers and the University. Herold said the University is expecting to have more tenure-track faculty teaching undergraduate courses — which has already begun to happen over the years in departments such as geology, Spanish and English — but added that the situation in the philosophy department has been more extreme.

“(MacPherson and Sax are) being laid off because they’re lecturers,” Herold said. “The department has basically decided that they don’t want lecturers anymore. It’s not because of the quality of undergraduate education, because these two are incredibly good and popular teachers.”

Usually, if a department wants to replace lecturers with professors, the lecturers are relocated within the department to teach a lower-level course. However, Herold explained that MacPherson and Sax are already teaching introductory courses.

Herold added there is a greater distinction between the levels of courses in other fields of study and it is easier for the University to have instructors other courses, noting that lecturers can teach introductory levels and professors can teach advanced material. But that isn’t the case in a department like philosophy, where tenure-track faculty teach lower level courses, according to Herold.

Herold said the philosophy department is not financially struggling since it holds independent wealth from private endowments, and therefore firing lecturers is not a financial necessity but a strategic decision for the department to employ more researchers.

“They didn’t have to do this,” Herold said. “This is not a department that is struggling … in terms of their budgets. They did it because they wanted to.”

Herold said she is outraged about how MacPherson and Sax have been treated.

“I’m really upset about this,” she said. “I’m so frustrated and angry about it … their professional life has been spent here.”

MacPherson said the letter he received justified the layoffs as a “curriculum change” and called the letter “very cold, very impersonal.”

MacPherson said these changes mean that smaller courses, which are usually taught by lecturers, are being replaced with larger, lecture-based courses taught by professors, adding that increased class sizes take away from how students will learn in the classroom. With larger classes, most of the students will interact more with graduate student instructors rather than directly with the instructor, he said.

“I think it will decrease the quality of education because instead of having a class of maybe 50 students … now it’s this mega-course,” MacPherson said. “You may not even really get to interact with the professor at all.”

MacPherson added that philosophy is taught more effectively in a smaller, more personal setting that better facilitates learning.

“If you increase the class size of a philosophy class, you’re defeating the purpose of teaching philosophy … you may as well not teach it,” MacPherson said. “It makes me feel … bad for the students.”

Sax agreed with MacPherson, and said he doesn’t see the benefits of tenured faculty teaching over lecturers.

“I can’t see any principal difference between a lecturer, as a teacher of undergraduates, and a tenure-track faculty member,” Sax said. “I couldn’t say in general it’s going to get worse, unless of course classes get bigger.”

Sax said all student-teacher relationships begin in the classroom, and if a class size is too large, it will be harder for conversations to take place. He said the fact that tenure-track professors at the University have to put their research first can also affect how well students get to know their teachers.

“I think I had a phenomenally good relationship with my students,” Sax said. “I don’t want to be anything other than what I have been doing. It’s a dream job for me … I love my work,” Sax said.

Despite the concern of growing class sizes, Fitzgerald said new measures are being taken by the University to prevent classes from swelling in the wake of the new faculty hires.

LSA senior Grace Bowden said in general, she has had better learning experiences with some of her lecturers than with professors, who are not always as accessible.

“They are enjoying teaching, they’re not doing it for research as much,” Bowden said.

Bowden, who took a bioethics class taught by MacPherson last semester, said she is outraged by the decision to let him go.

“I think it’s a huge shame to lay off people that are really fantastic teachers just because they’re not full professors,” Bowden said.

Bowden said MacPherson engaged students and challenged them to consider other perspectives, adding he always put the class first.

“He was super interactive,” she said. “A lot of professors do tend to just lecture but he always asked us questions.”