Professor of practice designation implemented at UW

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LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — For Brian Toelle, a visiting professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming, it's been an enjoyable change of pace for the industry professional in his second year teaching courses and working with students.

"I love it," Toelle said. "I'm really enjoying it."

But visiting professor appointments aren't really meant to last for extended periods of time. That's why Toelle is hoping to obtain the recently adopted faculty designation professor of practice. Not only would doing so allow him to continue teaching and conducting research, but it would allow two graduate students, Zhe Chen and Marcin Pankau, to continue working with Toelle.

The professor of practice position was brought forward by Michael Pishko, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in summer 2015 on behalf of students and faculty in the college. Following a unanimous Board of Trustees vote during its December meeting approving the designation, industry professionals whose careers apply to an academic program at UW can obtain the title of professor of practice. The one-year contracts for professors of practice call for annual evaluations of performance and funding availability before reappointments.

Despite the trustees' unanimity on the matter, some faculty members at UW are concerned about the designation. Regulations do not allow for a route to tenure, but responsibilities "may also include some research and advising." Additionally, professors of practice do not necessarily need to have a teaching background or high-level academic degree, such as a master's or Ph.D.

As a Ph.D., Toelle has published peer-reviewed articles and conducted research projects. As an industry professional with much of the academic experience a tenure track faculty member could also have, Toelle said he has the ability to contextualize complex concepts in a macro point of view.

"I guess you would say I'm more familiar with how to integrate specific disciplines over a broader field than if I had focused specifically on a very well-defined problem," he said. "I think departments are already very strong academically and their research is very focused and concentrated on specific issues, where a professor of practice will be more an integration-type specialist."

Some faculty members supported the designation, emphasizing how industry professionals can bring unique perspectives to teaching. However, the Faculty Senate voted 28-18 against supporting the proposed change during a March meeting.

Faculty Senate Chair Scott Shaw says in an email that many oppose the designation because it could place faculty morale at risk.

"This job title perpetuates the fantasy that people who worked outside academia for their entire lives are somehow qualified to waltz into a university and teach like tenured professors," Shaw says. "Practical experience can be valuable, but it doesn't necessarily translate into teaching ability."

Amid a fiscal crisis at UW that's causing many faculty members to leave with offerings of early retirement and separation agreements, Shaw says morale is already "dangerously low."

Many faculty members think the professor of practice title diminishes the rank of professors who spent their careers working in the academic field while going through rigorous tenure and promotion practices, he says. In a year of no raises for faculty — though UW President Laurie Nichols said she hopes to implement pay raises in the coming year — Shaw says the outlook for faculty compensation rates is "bleak."

"There is the additional concern that professors of practice will be hired in at high salaries, higher than many other faculty," Shaw says.

Shaw says many on campus see a decreasing number of tenured faculty that are being replaced with academic professionals. For some of those concerned faculty members, Shaw says the professor of practice designation seems to be another way UW is putting academic freedom at risk.

"The less people you have in tenured positions, the less people you have speaking their full minds," Shaw says.

Toelle is an industry man. He worked as a geologist for Texaco, he supported a seismic interpretation program for GeoQuest Systems and worked in exploration geophysics for Saudi Aramco. After Saudi Aramco, Toelle went back to work for GeoQuest after it was purchased by Schlumberger — the world's largest oilfield services company — doing consulting services for its Petro Technical Services group and teaching industry level courses for its Network of Excellence and Training (NExT) group.

"Once NExT had enough people signed up for a particular week, they'd fly me in anywhere in the world, and I'd stand up on my feet for eight hours and lecture for five days," Toelle said. "It was grueling, but I enjoyed it."

While he understands the concerns of many of UW's tenure track faculty, Toelle said his background is "different than what they might be envisioning a professor of practice might be." As he waits to find out whether he will receive the designation, Toelle said he hopes those faculty members can come to see that he and other professors of practice can make contributions to UW.

"I think my background as an explorationist makes me an optimist," Toelle said. "I've worked with geoscientists who are pessimistic and they always find reasons to not drill, and if that's the case, you don't find what you're exploring for. . I always had to have a glass half-full concept. What's the possibility and what's the potential? I would hope eventually other professors in the university would realize this is an opportunity for our university and various departments that are trying to grow."


Information from: Laramie Boomerang,

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