A US university’s plan to recruit volunteer PhD-holders who are alumni to lecture classes, write grant proposals and serve on graduate thesis committees has raised concerns of possible exploitation of early-career researchers.
But questions remain about the plan’s actual intent and its potential impact on US universities’ current and future policies around existing faculty members.
In April, Michael Molino, an English professor and an associate dean at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, sent an email to department chairs that outlined a plan to seek “qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.” The appointments would last for three years. The letter encourages department chairs to nominate “some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU.”
The email went public after a concerned senior faculty member forwarded it to Karen Kelsky, the founder and president of The Professor Is In, a Eugene, Oregon-based career consulting company. Kelsky posted the letter on her company’s Facebook page, along with a plea for readers to contact Molino to tell him that “replacing faculty/adjuncts with *unpaid PhD labor* is unacceptable.”
Reached for comment, Kelsky says that the plan seems like an extension of the “exploitive internship economy that has taken over so many fields.” She also notes that many universities are increasingly depending on relatively poorly paid adjunct, or part-time, faculty members to perform academic duties, but says that at least adjuncts receive some compensation for their work. “This takes things to a new level,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In an email to Nature, Molino says that the programme “engages alumni who are eager to give back to the university; they can serve as mentors, role models and future professional contacts for our graduate students.” He adds that the plan “is in compliance with university policy.” Molino didn’t respond to a request for follow-up information. The university later posted a statement attributed to Meera Komarraju, the university’s interim provost and vice chancellor, that was identical to Molino’s email to Nature.
In a blog post, Komarraju notes that alumni of SIU often volunteer their time in many ways, including by mentoring students and speaking to classes. The new initiative, she writes, formalizes that arrangement. “These individuals in no way replace our faculty,” she adds. “Engaging our alumni in the academic life of the institution benefits our students in multiple ways.”
The situation bears watching, but the implications are still unclear, says Anita Levy, senior programme officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the American Association of University Professors, a Washington DC-based advocacy organization. “It seems a bit odd to ask alumni to teach for free, but we need to get all of the facts,” she says.
If the programme is merely formalizing the volunteer activities of alumni, she says, “it could be fairly innocuous.” Above all, she says, her organization wants to be assured that the initiative doesn’t infringe on the power and job security of paid faculty members. “We want to make sure faculty have meaningful control over the situation,” she says.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.