Niketa Brar: GW must boost efforts to keep professors happy here

With all the changes that GW has seen this year, two things have stayed consistent thus far: we’re still the most expensive school in the country and we still underpay our faculty.

Last week, the University of California, Berkeley announced that the Hewlett Foundation would supplement Berkeley’s $2.5 billion endowment with another $113 million, to be matched by other organizations. This endowment will total $220 million – and the majority of it is being used to attract and retain the brightest minds in academia. Why? Well, because private schools are stealing their teachers away.

This top-notch California university with a multi-billion dollar endowment has been struggling to hold onto its best professors, but it knows exactly what to do to get them to stay. Research money combined with higher salaries makes for an irresistible package. And Berkeley’s not shy about offering it.

Here on the East Coast, we seem to be employing a different strategy. While I admire all that former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg did for GW (taking it from a commuter school to No. 54 in the nation), part of me believes that if a school president is ranked the best businessman in a place like D.C., he might not have academics as his highest priority. The land GW bought up and the deals it made with businesses certainly helped it grow. But here’s where we hit the hard part in the growth curve. It gets much more difficult to grow now, so we have to adopt a new strategy.

If we want to compete with numbers one through 53 on that list we all consider worthless (but would love to move up on), we need to focus on what makes a university tick. We need to focus on the minds.

It’s not the land we own or the neighbors we piss off that makes this place a school. It’s the interactions between students and professors on a daily basis. It’s that adjunct professor sharing his life experiences with a student who wants more than the textbook can provide. But without the right incentive, how long can these dedicated faculty stick around simply for the love of teaching?

Around campus, I often see my fellow under-informed GW students figure that professors get by just fine. To be completely honest, I often read those GW adjunct faculty unionization posters multiple times while daydreaming in class, never really digesting what they said. But maybe it’s time for us as students to pay attention. Sixty percent of our instructors are adjunct faculty. They’re paid by the course at an average of $3,200. This is the same pay they’ve received since 1999, when GW’s tuition was at a measly $22,625.

Now maybe it’s just me, but part of the reason why I’m able to ignore that daunting tuition price-tag (and sleep at night) is because I believe that the money I pay specifically for tuition goes to, well, educational resources. Number one on that list of resources is who teaches the classes I spend hours a week sitting in. I agree that our flashier resources – the Duques Hall stock exchange, the intimidating grandeur of Elliott and the constant renovation of J Street – might be impressive to our prospective students. But to be completely honest, I don’t care much for such bling. I want great teachers. And my daddy’s check every semester demands them.

I’ve been told University President Steven Knapp is prepared to take the University in a new direction. If that direction is to be more academically-geared, he’s got to start by providing our faculty with more incentives. How long can we honestly operate on an army of adjuncts? Show our faculty what they mean to this school, deepen their ties to this student body, increase the number of reasons they have to show up for work in the morning.

I’m currently taking a class with an adjunct professor who spends her days working at a great job at the State Department. Her one-night-a-week class at GW is an effort to pass her knowledge to my generation and offer us the opportunity to take a class that was never offered at her college. Perhaps that’s why, when reviewing her curriculum, I realized this woman was not kidding around. From hundreds of pages in reading assignments on a weekly basis, to an interview with a professional working in the field we’re learning about, to a robust policy paper at the end of the semester, I realized she took her one-night-a-week gig pretty damn seriously. I just wish her paycheck told her GW did too.

The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs and political science.

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