Guest blog post by Meera Komarraju, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, SIU Carbondale
On most campuses, faculty members welcome alumni to their classes to talk with students about their careers and expertise. At SIU, alumni also regularly volunteer to serve as mentors to our students in multiple ways. Sometimes these activities happen on an ad hoc basis, and sometimes they occur more formally. For example, the SIU Alumni Association offers a formal “extern” program in which alumni and others host students in their workplaces over spring break.
Most faculty simply informally ask a graduate to come to class to speak. At SIU, we also have a formal policy to grant adjunct status to a “professional person engaged in instructional and research programs of the university but who is not employed as a member of any educational unit of the university.” These individuals in no way replace our faculty. They enhance our programs by offering the opportunity to consult with our faculty, to mentor our students, and to support our academic initiatives.
In some cases, a qualified individual is invited to participate as part of a graduate student’s master’s or dissertation committee – usually because of particular expertise that is of benefit to the student’s research or creative endeavors. Such an individual must be approved for adjunct graduate faculty status. The Graduate School’s operating paper states: “Individuals who can fulfill a specific need in the department’s graduate program but who are not eligible for regular membership in the Graduate Faculty are eligible to be appointed adjunct members of the Graduate Faculty by the Graduate Dean.”
These individuals, whether or not they are alumni, must meet the same academic standards as any member of the graduate faculty. Unless they are SIU professional staff members with terminal degrees and appropriate qualifications, they are not eligible to direct dissertations. Adjunct faculty have been appointed routinely through these processes in the past in support of our students’ academic success.
Valuing alumni contributions
Before I go further, I think it is important to emphasize that engaging our alumni in the academic life of the institution benefits our students in multiple ways. Alumni serve as role models, mentors and subject experts who show our students what success looks like after graduation. In fact, our goal is to graduate students who are well equipped with strong, relevant professional skills and experiences. Connecting them with outstanding, knowledgeable, successful alumni is a powerful contribution toward this goal.
Alumni also benefit from engagement with students by giving back to their alma mater, sharing their knowledge, and in some cases building a network of potential future employees. The university and its faculty also benefit, since student interaction with alumni can support retention and lifelong engagement with SIU.
A pilot project
About a year ago, the SIU Alumni Association started an initiative to identify alumni who might be interested in giving back to the university in multiple ways – from recruiting students to volunteering at our food pantry. One focus of the effort involved an alumni-initiated proposal to create an alumni professional network that would engage well-qualified graduates as occasional lecturers and mentors of our graduate students.
The pilot program emerged from the commendable commitment of our alumni to give back to SIU and to support the next generation of scholars and researchers. The goal was to build a pool of interested, volunteer alumni who were keen on giving back and give them the opportunity to do so. The proposal was well received by former provost Susan Ford, and I continue to support it in my current role.
A common question when talking about bringing anyone into the academic realm relates to qualifications. As noted earlier, we already have policies and procedures in place to evaluate an individual’s qualifications for adjunct appointments. We are applying our existing standards and procedures to the pilot project. Because we wanted to ensure that alumni weren’t making an indefinite commitment, consideration was being given to a three-year term.
As part of the effort to gather the names of potential participants, we invited department chairs in three colleges to identify alumni who may be interested in being part of the pilot program.
Intent vs. perception
Unfortunately, the outreach to engage the campus in a voluntary, good-will initiative proposed by our alumni was misunderstood as an effort supplant the work of our excellent faculty with “unpaid labor.” This perception tapped into understandable national concerns related to adjunct faculty.
Replacing the work of our faculty was never the intent, and it will never be our goal. We deeply value and respect the work of all of our faculty members, who deliver every day on our mission as a national doctoral research university.
This was not a project that was initiated to save money, to address budget shortfalls, or to undervalue or replace the work of others. Instead, the intent was to formalize something we already do – engage our outstanding alumni in the academic work of the university and in our student success mission. The goal, in fact, was to make it easier for faculty to identify qualified alumni who might provide an occasional guest lecture, mentor current students or provide specialized expertise on a thesis committee. The project simply makes what we are already doing more intentional.
This misunderstanding has sparked thoughtful conversation on our campus that will help us refine, clarify and improve upon the pilot project. I am grateful to all who have reached out, as well as to the alumni who have proposed the pilot project. Our faculty are the heart of all we do academically, and our alumni are a valuable resource. We will continue to identify ways they can collaborate to benefit our students.