Northeastern University, long known for its practical approach to higher education, is shedding instructors without advanced degrees and coming under fire from student leaders and some faculty for abandoning its roots.
The school, as part of a push to elevate its academic reputation, recently did not the renew the contracts of several longtime faculty members because they did not have advanced degrees. The move affected a few instructors who had been at the university for a decade.
Northeastern's campaign to bolster its faculty's credentials mirrors a national trend. After decades of increasingly relying on part-time and adjunct faculty, research universities are trying to hire more professors who could qualify for tenure, according to national educational groups. Tenure, which requires professors to have the highest degree in their field, is a permanent job appointment designed to protect academic freedom.
Northeastern officials hope that having a greater proportion of faculty with higher-level degrees will boost the university's national profile, attract outside research grants, and serve as a magnet for other top professors.
The effort to hire more tenure-track professors began in 2004 under former university president Richard Freeland. As the cornerstone of a $75 million plan to improve its academic programs, Northeastern has hired 75 tenured or tenure-track professors in the past three years and plans to hire another 55 in the next three. University officials say they will not dismiss as many professors as they will hire, but will end up with a higher percentage of tenure-track faculty.
As a part of its initiative, Northeastern did not renew the contracts of at least a half-dozen full-time instructors for next school year because they have not earned the most advanced degree given in their field, according to reports in the student newspaper and several faculty members. Several other faculty members said that more than twice that number had been dismissed. University officials would discuss the moves only broadly, declining to give specifics on the number of people affected other than to say that most were full-time instructors on annual contracts.
The dismissed instructors had extensive work experience in their field but did not conduct research and lacked a master's or doctorate, said Susan Powers-Lee , Northeastern's executive vice provost.
Of the university's approximately 850 full-time professors, 71 percent are on the tenure track. Some instructors with advanced degrees are not on tenure-track.
The school plans to increase the percentage of tenure-track faculty but would not reveal its ultimate goal or say how many non-tenure-track faculty members could be dismissed. In some cases, the school will hire non-tenure-track instructors with work experience.
"It's an effort to bring in what we think of as the ideal professor, who is both a teacher and a scholar," Powers-Lee said.
Student leaders and some faculty counter that dismissing teachers with years of work experience simply because they do not have advanced degrees threatens Northeastern's traditional mission of providing students practical skills in and out of the classroom and is a transparent attempt to gain prominence at the cost of good teaching.
"There's a lot of emphasis on practice here, and a lot of students are disappointed the school didn't take more into consideration than degrees," said Michael DeRamo , a senior who was a student government leader last year. "There's a lot of concern that this is all driven by the US News & World Report [college rankings]. It's like they are teaching to the test."
Hundreds of students signed a petition urging administrators to rehire popular communication studies instructor Susan Picillo , and appear to have succeeded. Picillo said this week she has been rehired for her previous lecturer position through Northeastern's School of Professional and Continuing Studies, which does not have the same restrictions on credentials as the regular undergraduate programs.
As part of the deal, she said, she is no longer allowed to describe herself as a member of the communication studies department, though her classes would not change.
Picillo, who has taught public speaking and other communication courses at Northeastern for almost 10 years, said she remains confused by the university's motives. Picillo has a master's in education but was told she needed a doctorate in communication studies.
"If I were a history professor I could understand it a bit better, but I'm in a real-world field," said Picillo, who works as an actor and voice consultant. "It's wonderful to be an expert in your field, but that doesn't make you the most dynamic educator. Students say, 'We want the best in the classroom.' They don't say, 'I'm going to take this class because she has a doctorate."
Bill Durkin , a recent graduate who had two classes with Picillo, said students were outraged by her initial ouster.
"There are great teachers with years of experience in their field who don't have a PhD," he said. "Blending real-world experience with academics, that's what's distinguished us."
The university, Powers-Lee said, is not "giving up on the real world," even as it wants full-time faculty to be engaged in research.
"They have not done the scholarship in their field," she said of the faculty who lost their contracts. "It's not just the degree, it's the mindset of being interested in scholarship."
Northeastern's hiring campaign dovetails with other efforts to boost its profile in the past decade, transforming the university into a major research institution. Northeastern now accepts less than half of its applicants, compared with 85 percent in 1995. In that same time frame, the average SAT scores of entering freshman has climbed more than 200 points, and the school has risen steadily in the US News & World Report rankings.
The percentage of faculty who have earned the highest degree in their field counts toward accreditation by regional higher education associations and is worth 3 percent of a university's score on the US News rankings.
Boston University plans to add 100 tenure-track faculty members over the next 10 years, and several officials at other area universities said they hope to hire more tenure-track faculty, but declined to say whether they will dismiss faculty without advanced degrees.
Universities hire faculty without advanced degrees for various reasons. Northeastern has prided itself on its emphasis on practical experience among its faculty and thus has traditionally de-emphasized the importance of doctorates in some fields. But hiring people with lesser credentials also is a widely accepted money-saving measure in higher education.
Bringing in top faculty with higher credentials has a ripple effect on a university, experts say.
"The better faculty you have, the better faculty you can attract," said Sheldon Steinbach , a higher education lawyer and former vice president at the American Council on Education.
John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education at UMass-Boston, said Northeastern faculty without advanced degrees are finding themselves increasingly out of step with the school's research focus.
"They are getting caught in the transition from a campus that was defined more by access than selectivity," he said. "They are very vulnerable."
Northeastern journalism professor Nicholas Daniloff sharply criticized the school's handling of the contract status of longtime journalism instructors Gladys McKie and Lincoln McKie, who are in jeopardy of losing their jobs for not having master's degrees.
"I think this a shocking way to run a railroad," he said. "They handled it in a meat- ax fashion."
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Friday about Northeastern University dismissing faculty without advanced degrees incorrectly reported Lincoln McKie Jr.'s job status. He is under contract as a lecturer in the School of Journalism until Dec. 31 and will then become editorial lab director at the school.)