Valley Voices

Mark Somma: Fresno State needs to elevate its quality of instruction

Fresno State must focus more on the quality of instruction and less on the commercialization of education, writes Mark Somma, a professor of political science at the university.
Fresno State must focus more on the quality of instruction and less on the commercialization of education, writes Mark Somma, a professor of political science at the university.

In 1973, 99 percent of Fresno State faculty were professors. Of the 724 faculty members, 719 were professors in tenured or tenure-track positions and five were listed as instructors. That faculty served 15,287 students. Professors at Fresno State teach full-time. Each of us teaches three or four courses every semester.

In 2015, 39 percent of Fresno State faculty were professors. Of 1,393 faculty members, only 539 were professors and 854 were listed as instructors or “other.” This faculty served 24,136 students. While some instructors meet the criteria and should have been hired on tenure-track lines, most do not.

We’ve had a 25 percent drop in professors in the past 40 years, while the number of students rose by 58 percent and the number of instructors rose from five to 854. If the number of professors had kept pace with the increase in students, Fresno State would now have 1,136 professors. The contribution of 597 additional Ph.D. research and teaching faculty to the Valley would be substantial.

In the past three years, Fresno State expanded by 2,000 students with no net increase in the number of professors. The percentage of full-time Fresno State employees serving as professors fell from 33.6 percent in 2003 to 24.2 percent in 2015.

Hiring a tenure-track faculty member requires an extensive search. Candidates must pass a rigorous screening process, possess the appropriate advanced degree and present a record of research and experience. The competition for tenure-track positions is fierce, with each open position eliciting as many as 100 applicants from an international pool of candidates.

Hiring an instructor is quite the opposite. Anyone can become a full-time faculty member at Fresno State as an instructor. Department chairs have almost complete autonomy to hire anyone they choose. No demonstrated expertise in the subject is required, nor is an advanced degree in the subject. No research record or previous experience as a teacher is required.

The decline in professors arose from a transfer of funding from the academic side of the university to the administrative and corporate side and declining support from state government. University administrators strive to transform universities from educational and research institutions into multifaceted business corporations. Increasingly, universities surround themselves with state-subsidized commercial businesses that draw resources away from the classroom and the research lab.

To manage this growing empire of administrative, political and commercial activities, additional administrative offices and staff are required. Replacing professors with instructors releases funds to finance the additional administrators and their swiftly growing staffs. By 2003, 57.3 percent of all full-time employees at Fresno State were administrators or administrative staff.

Enter the faculty union. In the mid-1990s, the California Faculty Association faced a dilemma. Administrators were replacing professors with instructors and significantly lowering the quality of instruction.

Should the CFA fight to maintain standards and protect the professionalism of university faculty or abandon that fight and admit unqualified instructors to the union (and expand union membership and revenue)?

The CFA chose to accept the administration’s argument that a Ph.D. and expertise in a particular field are not required and instructors began to receive a kind of “back door” tenure with guaranteed three-year contracts and “first in line” rights to course offerings. The CFA switched its focus from representing the interests of professors to representing the interests of lecturers, who now outnumber professors systemwide.

It’s now true in many disciplines at Fresno State that you can achieve a bachelor’s degree with minimal contact with professors. Many of the introductory courses across disciplines and the general education courses required of every student are taught by instructors with no particular expertise in the field. In some disciplines, you can graduate with a bachelor’s degree and never take a course from a professor.

Instructor positions earn somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 per year with full California state benefits. Hired by department chairs and requiring no advanced degree or previous experience, new instructors gain immediate job security from university administrators and union officials. The capacity for mischief in such a process becomes apparent as increasing numbers of friends, family members, partners and business associates suddenly appear in course catalogs as faculty. Professors with Ph.D.s and research records discover that they have full-time colleagues they’ve never met and whose records they’ve never reviewed.

Expedient decision-making to finance administrative expansion and repurposing universities into commercial corporations has taken down a world-class California state university system. University administrators and union officials have failed to focus on quality academics. Now, more than ever, our students and communities need the highest-quality instruction and research.

Mark Somma, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Fresno State.