Consulting Professor

Have you ever thought about the difference between mercenary soldiers and the “regular” military? The mystique is that somehow the mercenary can’t be trusted as much (to do what is not clear) but that they may be more ruthless, better trained and perhaps better equipped. After all, their life is on the line and all they have is their reputation to keep them alive and earn them the next job.

I don’t know about mercenary soldiers, but I do know About the modern day equivalent in proprietary (for profit) universities. It has been my pleasure and frustration for the last five plus years to be a mercenary (dare I use that term rather than the politically correct “consultant”) for a number of online universities. This article is written to encourage the reader to consider the similarities between the university consultant and the myth of the mercenary soldier and ponders with me the implications for the future of education. Let’s start with…

Similarity #1: More Efficient and Effective

If you are hired for piecework, you get very efficient at producing just what the customer demands. If you teach as a consultant, you efficiently streamline your workload so that you can meet the expectations of your employer while increasing your profit level per hour of effort.

All people learn from each context in which they work. That is the reason that someone who has left a corporation, worked for others and eventually “boomerangs” back will likely be hired on at a greatly increased salary. A diversity of work experience equates to broader understanding of the marketplace in which you work. In a similar fashion, those of us who teach for a number of universities understand the broader context of proprietary education as well. This leads me to…

Similarity #2: Can’t Be Trusted?

Trust and allegiance are closely connected and as some might say, “You get what you pay for.” Military commanders must feel they can trust their troops to follow them anywhere as that is what they signed on for. For that, the country is willing to pay benefits, often long after the term of service is over. While there is always some desertion, it is so dishonorable that few would consider it, even in the face of an officer sending troops into a location where they will likely be killed. In a similar fashion to career military personnel, the typical university has tenured professors who, although they frequently grouse among themselves will basically toe the party line on university policy. They are attached and take personal ownership in the outcomes and would seldom desert.

Unlike the tenured professor, whose university has shown allegiance to them to the point they know they will be taken care of for life, the proprietary university has no allegiance to the professors who teach for them. Employment is on a contract by contract basis, easily terminated at the end of every term. Just as mercenary troops won’t hire on to commanders who are known to make fool-hearty decisions, since their lives are on the line, university professors who are employed on a term by term basis will choose to cut back or stop working altogether for a university where the rules they work under greatly inhibit their work, or the compensation does not make it worth the trouble.

Of course this leads to an emotional reaction among the staff of the university that they can’t be trusted. Natural tensions arise on both sides. It may seem to the professors that the university Deans want and expect all the support that they would be offered on other, less contractual grounds. The likely outcome here is that contract professors seldom tell the whole truth to those who employ them, giving instead the politically correct tone and “flying low under the radar.” This subtle duplicity is both necessary for continued employment and plays into the the perceptions of them not being completely trustworthy. It is a hard catch 22 and leads me to my last point…

Similarity #3: Various Points of Connection or Grist for the Mill?

Education is at its heart and soul a matter of connection between people with the outcome intended to help one or both of them expand their lives. In a traditional university, the working environment is one of a great deal of connection between the administration and the faculty. It may seem as though year after year the students come and go but the faculty remain. Therefore of course the greatest connections are between those individuals, to the extent that they may form strong “good old boy”clubs to the exclusion of others. Proprietary university education, by nature of being a business, concentrates its focus on the students who are their customers. To read University newsletters as an example you will find many short stories about professors helping students achieve, helping them get past personal trauma and still stay at the University, or helping them graduate. The administration and such universities are focused on the students while maintaining high expectations for faculty behavior, often not hesitating to make more rules to bring more faculty in line with those expectations. Of course this is a particularly reasonable point of view from their perspective and will at the end of the day create strong educational outcomes, which is their business. Nevertheless, it puts the university consulting educator in the role of “grist for the mill” as it is they must manage these new roles and expectations on top of their workload for no extra financial benefit. Since financial benefit is the only quality that keeps the connection between administration and faculty, there is a loss of warm feelings between the two every time the university adds extra demands without recognizing the cost.

And still I recommend it? At one point in my career I was chair of the doctoral program at a proprietary online university. While I had to step down from that position because I could not ethically hire people knowing that they were going to be treated merely as grist for the mill, I still highly recommend the job to others. In other words I don’t mind being grist, I love having the flexibility of minding my own business, my own time, and my own finances, but it’s an individual choice and people need to go into it knowing what they’re getting into. It might be made somewhat easier if university administrators could understand the consulting or mercenary professor’s point of view. But while I may dream of the day when the university says, “We really need this to happen, what do you need in order to make it fit with your life?” (as one would expect between any two negotiating parties), that is not so likely to happen in the near future. The realities of the market economy are that there are many people applying for online positions, so many so that administrators usually have an attitude of, “leave if you don’t like it.”

Still at the end of the day being a consulting professor offers you the same flexibility it offers the students taking your classes, you choose the time you to do your work (as long as the feedback to students is enough to satisfy them), and you manage how much you work you have and to a large extent the amount you get paid (working for multiple universities as needed). As a basically entrepreneurial spirit this works for me. I have flexibility and freedom in my life that I need to build the future that I want, with few encumbrances (or at least none that I can’t manage) from the people who sign the checks. The rewards are different, in that seldom are my collegial relationships within the university a source of my sense of connection or satisfaction in my work. Instead my connection to the doctoral students I mentor, and, less often, the students in my classes gives me the job satisfaction that I need. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! But only if and when that person understands the issues and is willing to take them on. After all, a mercenary lifestyle is not for everyone.

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