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Pipatjarasgit ’21: Why does Brown have so many visiting directors of undergraduate studies?

When you declared your concentration, did you ever pay attention to the rank and title of your director of undergraduate studies? At Brown, each concentration has a DUS. Some serve as the concentration’s sole advisor, while others enlist the help of faculty colleagues within the academic unit to serve as concentration advisors. Most concentrations have just one DUS, but some concentrations split the role among multiple faculty members. Occasionally, the job is held by a dean, but directors of undergraduate studies are usually regular faculty members, meaning individuals with full-time appointments of indefinite length (such as professors with tenure) or definite length but with opportunities for renewal (such as senior lecturers or assistant professors). 


But for many years, many of the University’s concentrations have had directors of undergraduate studies who are not regular faculty members, meaning their short contracts generally do not explicitly offer opportunities for renewal. Non-regular faculty members typically have the term “adjunct,” “research,” “visiting,” “practice” or “fellow” in their title. The University should allow non-regular faculty members with at least two years of service as DUS to be considered for a regular appointment. Doing so would ensure that directors of undergraduate studies can best perform in their role and build relationships with undergraduate students to the fullest extent possible while being incentivized and adequately recognized for their efforts. 


The DUS is usually the most visible, student-facing representative of an undergraduate concentration: Most directors of undergraduate studies staff the concentration fair, support the student leaders of the concentration’s departmental undergraduate group, approve study abroad and study away coursework for concentration credit, clear students for graduation and oversee all advising matters in the concentration. They are referred to as the “key bridge between the department and its undergraduates.” Clearly, the DUS holds many responsibilities and has a significant, ongoing commitment to be available to students for advising. In most concentrations, this is a crucial role that often requires a substantial time investment in order to do it well. Because of their central role in advising, it is a disservice to students to have a DUS whose appointment at the University lacks stability, which is the case when the DUS is a non-regular faculty member.


The College’s description of the role outlines excellent goals for strong concentration advising. But it is difficult for these goals to be met if the DUS position is given to a faculty member who may not have the opportunity to stay at Brown long-term. To be clear, I have nothing against these individuals, and I have personally met several excellent directors of undergraduate studies who just happen to have non-regular appointments. But as Herald reporting from 2017 notes, the “year-by-year nature of adjunct and visiting positions … results in a dearth of job security,” in the view of one anonymous faculty member interviewed for the story. By contrast, faculty on the lecturer track, who hold regular positions with opportunities for promotion, anecdotally “have pretty good job security” and “are generally renewed at Brown.” 


Contract lengths are usually one to three years for lecturers, four (or sometimes two) years for assistant professors and six years for senior lecturers and distinguished senior lecturers; all of these faculty members are afforded clear expectations outlining the processes and requirements for contract renewals. By contrast, non-regular faculty members are not entitled to “specific advance notice from the University regarding possible reappointment” because their contracts are “terminal appointments.” Moreover, untenured regular faculty members have “the right to appear before (the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee) at the time the Committee takes up the department’s recommendation” that a reappointment or promotion be denied, according to the Handbook of Academic Administration. No parallel process exists for non-regular faculty members. One visiting faculty member told The Herald in 2017 that “there’s no real recourse” for the reduction in one’s teaching load and loss of pay if the University were to indiscriminately make such a decision.


As a student, seeing so many non-regular faculty members serving as directors of undergraduate studies sends a strong message about the University and its priorities. I understand the need for regular faculty to take sabbaticals or leaves, which may require a non-regular faculty member to temporarily serve as DUS for a semester or two. However, I do know of several non-regular faculty members now in their second, third or even fourth year as DUS. In one undergraduate concentration, the DUS role was even passed from one visiting faculty member to another. By contrast, a thorough review of Brown’s Ph.D. programs shows that, as of fall 2020, not one of the programs’ directors of graduate studies was a visiting faculty member. While I concede that the nature of doctoral programs compared to undergraduate concentrations is very different, I still don’t believe this sends a very constructive message about the value the University places on cultivating excellence in mentorship in Brown’s undergraduate programs. 


The term “visiting” has clear connotations of temporariness. A part of me wonders how long I will have with my DUS and if it is worth trying to form a good advising relationship with the non-regular faculty member. I imagine that this is also not a great dynamic for the visiting faculty who take on this role. Many visiting faculty members struggle “to feel involved and included in their respective departments,” The Herald reported. How are these directors of undergraduate studies, who are not even afforded the dignity of regular faculty member status, able to build these bridges between students and the rest of the academic unit? How fair or democratic is it that non-regular faculty, who do not have rights as voting members of the Faculty, are expected to advise more and more undergraduate students?


To be fair, being a visiting faculty member at Brown does not mean that permanence is an impossibility: Maud Mandel P’22 was a visiting assistant professor at the University before earning a tenure-track appointment that eventually led her to Dean of the College and Professor of History and Judaic Studies. Of course, a regular faculty member (either in the professorial or lecturer ranks) serving as a DUS is no guarantee of stability for students either; faculty can leave Brown, lose their tenure or not be re-appointed (in the case of assistant professors and lecturer ranks). That being said, what each title implies is important. A senior fellow who will be at Brown “for a limited time, usually for one year, in order to conduct research” and is also serving as DUS gives me much less confidence than seeing an associate professor or senior lecturer in the DUS role.


Non-regular faculty members who currently demonstrate excellent performance in the DUS role should be considered for regular appointments on the lecturer or the professorial tracks. Rules in the Handbook of Academic Administration against preferential hiring of non-regular faculty members for regular faculty positions (defined as “pre-selection”) should be reconsidered and waived if a non-regular faculty member has demonstrated excellence in undergraduate concentration advising over at least two years. They have shown their willingness to invest in the Brown community with little expectation of meaningful return for themselves, so they deserve greater respect from the University and a path toward job security and stability if they so desire. Not only is this the fair thing to do for non-regular faculty members, but it is the least the University can do to support them, and by extension, improve the stability and quality of undergraduate advising at Brown. 


Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 can be reached at poom_pipatjarasgit@brown.edu. As a concentrator in anthropology, French and francophone studies and Latin American and Caribbean studies, he has had five directors of undergraduate studies as a declared concentrator. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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