P&A employees to be eligible for awards

In the past, only faculty members have been able to receive the two top-teaching awards.

by Emma Nelson

Many of those standing in front of classrooms at the University of Minnesota are not faculty members but professional and administrative employees — the University’s largest employee group.

But until now, none were eligible to win the University’s two biggest teaching awards which carry prestige and financial incentives.

After two years of delays, the Horace T. Morse Alumni Award and the Graduate/Professional Award will likely be open to P&A instructors this year, pending approval by the Faculty Senate on Oct. 4.

While most agree these educators should be recognized, issues arose over the criteria needed to qualify for the awards. The University also used the time to make changes in award funding.

“It’s just a basic fairness issue on who should be recognized for their contributions in the classroom,” said Chris Cramer, a member of the Faculty Senate and its former chair.

Changes across the board

On May 5, 2011, the Faculty Senate endorsed a policy change that would make P&A instructors eligible for the two teaching awards. But implementation was delayed because of administrative transitions and resulting changes to the awards themselves.

“The desire was to create a single set of changes, all of which would be put together in a single new policy,” Cramer said.

The Faculty Consultative Committee voted this summer to change the University’s award policy, said Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, the Faculty Senate’s current chair. The FCC is able to act on behalf of the Senate during the summer.

“It made sense for us to take action,” she said. Kohlstedt will present the decision to the University Senate in October. Though their disapproval is possible, she said, it’s not expected.

A major part of the policy change, in addition to the inclusion of P&A instructors, is the way award funds will be distributed.

Previously, awardees were given a $3,000 annual salary increase for the rest of their time at the University. In addition, each recipient’s department was given $1,500 annually for five years, to be used by the recipient for research or professional development.

This was not only expensive, but also different from how some of the University’s peer institutions handle awards, Kohlstedt said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a number of awards, all of which include compensation of a one-time $5,000 cash award and a base salary adjustment of $1,000 per year.

At the University of Michigan, amounts vary among awards, but recipients receive only a lump sum, rather than a salary increase.

Ongoing awards are not only expensive but are also more labor-intensive, said Ole Gram, assistant vice provost at the University.

“It’s not just a matter of funds but the bureaucracy and the administration that goes with it,” Gram said.

Going forward, University award recipients will receive up to $15,000 up front, a sum recommended by the provost’s office.

Changing the way award funds are allocated required a lot of discussion, Kohlstedt said.

There was an inevitable disparity in the award amount between instructors who won it early in their University careers and those who won later.

At the same time, some wondered if ongoing recognition would be lost if the entire award was given up front.

“When you go to register for your classes, you can see that somebody’s gotten one of these awards and that stays with you forever,” Kohlstedt said.

A matter of recognition

Although students can see which instructors have won awards each time they register, it doesn’t always influence their decision to take a class.

Harishankar Natesan, a first-year mechanical engineering doctoral candidate, said he asks older students in his department for advice on which instructors are the best.

Other students, like Natalie Aumann, a genetics and microbiology senior, said she decided to take classes in the past because they were taught by award-winning faculty members. But Aumann said she also checks student-based instructor-rating websites like Rate My Professors before registering.

“But if they won an award, there are good things to say about them,” she said.

Perhaps the most prominent way in which award winners are recognized is the Scholars Walk, where the names of award-winning faculty members, alumni and students are memorialized.

Some of the savings from the change in fund allotment will eventually go to maintaining the site, Kohlstedt said.

Separate but equal?

Initially, the possibility of creating a separate award for P&A instructors was discussed.

Because faculty members have additional responsibilities that P&A employees do not, there was some concern that P&A instructors would not meet all of the award criteria.

“Most of us … regard that as a somewhat insulting proposition that somehow they couldn’t compete on the same playing field,” Cramer said.

And not all faculty members eligible for the awards have those responsibilities.

Contract faculty — adjunct professors, for example — work under one-year teaching contracts, just as P&A instructors do.

“There’s not a lot of difference between them,” said Ann Hagen, chair of the P&A Consultative Committee. It didn’t make sense for one group to be eligible for teaching awards while the other was not, she said. Particularly for the P&A instructors who “spend all of their time focusing on education.”

“Separate but equal has never worked well for this country,” she said. “Why would it work in this instance?”

But there are some criteria that may present more of an obstacle, said Arlene Carney, vice provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs.

One example is the role faculty play in curriculum development, something that P&A instructors are not responsible for.

“Someone could be an excellent instructor but perhaps not meet that particular criteria,” she said.

The selection committees will have to keep these things in mind as they evaluate each nominee this year, Carney said, something that may make discussion more challenging.

Nominees for both awards are assessed on their performance in several categories, including instruction, research and program development.

However, there is flexibility — nomination guidelines for both awards state that “the magnitude of an outstanding contribution in one area may compensate for little contribution in other areas.”

Looking at those criteria, Hagen said it was clear that there were P&A instructors who could meet them.

Julie Schumacher, an English professor who won the Morse Alumni award in 2010 and is now in her 16th year at the University, agreed.

“There are some P&A instructors who come in only for a semester or a year and leave,” she said. “And then there are some who are here, depending on the department, for a very long time. I think those people would definitely have a shot. I think some of them are absolutely excellent teachers.”