Northeastern University is purging its communications and journalism program of instructors who lack doctorates in a move students say is motivated by the university’s quest to improve its U.S. News & World Report ranking.
The university recently implemented a new policy requiring faculty to hold the highest degree in their field. The policy has mostly affected the College of Arts and Sciences’ schools of communications and journalism, where 10 professors have been notified that their contracts would not be renewed.
Dr. Susan Powers-Lee, the university’s executive vice provost, says the policy is part of the university’s academic investment plan, created by its former president, Dr. Richard M. Freeland, and executed by the new president, Dr. Joseph E. Aoun.
“Although other kinds of instructors can bring very valuable qualities to the classroom, fulfilling every aspect of our teaching model requires teachers who hold an advance degree, and who themselves are deeply committed to the generation of knowledge in their field,” says Powers-Lee.
One of the first professors whose termination was publicized on campus was Susan E. Picillo, who has been at the university for 10 years and nominated twice for the Excellence in Teaching Award, as reported in the Northeastern News, the student newspaper.
Picillo could not be reached for comment, but she told the newspaper that she was shocked when she received her letter of termination and was told her contract, which expired earlier this month, would not be renewed for the upcoming school year.
Students reacted to the news by holding a rally on behalf of the professors. Several students started online petitions urging the university to “support exceptional teachers.”
Out of the top 100 national colleges and universities, Northeastern ranks 98, according to the U.S. News’ list. Robert Morse, U.S. News’ director of data and research, says the “percent faculty with top terminal degree” is worth 3 percent of the total ranking.
Michael DeRamo, interim vice president for academic affairs for the student government association, has been the liaison between the student body and administrators on the issue.
“It definitely does [have to do with the ranking],” says DeRamo. “It came up when we were discussing Picillo’s case. The university needs to take a more holistic look at faculty and how they are performing and not the rankings, which are arbitrary to what they are teaching.”
Six of the 10 professors are currently still with the university, in large part because of the student outcry. College of Arts and Sciences spokeswoman Kristin Stanley says the six professors, including Picillo, have been reassigned to other departments and have received new contracts.
Dr. Barbara Brittingham, the director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, says the new policy is common for universities hoping to advance academically.
“Universities are constantly looking for better professors, and having an advanced degree is one of the standards institutions take in trying to get better,” she says.
Bill Durkin, a recent Northeastern graduate and a former student government president, says he supports the new policy even though he says he believes it has more to do with U.S. News’ rankings than with improving education for students.“
Durkin was one of the spearheads in the fight to restore Picillo’s job and spoke at the student rally.
I support the university’s goal of increasing its faculty members who hold Ph.D.s, but there should be exceptions,” he says. “I had Susan Picillo and she was exceptional. I was disappointed to see that the university let her go.”
Dr. Wayne Wanta, president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says that university administrators are often overly focused on advanced degrees, especially in fields like journalism that rely largely on real-world experience.
“The problem lies in university administrations, because journalism schools admire and appreciate experience,” he says. “The administration appreciates a Ph.D. and an emphasis on research and tenure.”
Wanta’s university ranks 88th on U.S. News’ rankings. He says that although the journalism program is considered one of the best in the country, less than half of its staff hold doctorates.
Lorraine Branham, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, says Northeastern is making a mistake.
“If you look at the top 10 journalism programs, they use practitioners,” says Branham, who does not hold a doctorate but has more than 25 years of experience as a newspaper editor. “Any strong journalism program needs extensive professional experience, not to downplay the Ph.D.”
Branham says journalism schools aren’t “just about telling war stories, but teaching from experiences. It is different from teaching from a book.”
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