Governance and Faculty Satisfaction

Shared governance may be more important than money in determining faculty satisfaction.
By Joan E. Test and Jef Cornelius-White

The current economic crisis is having a debilitating effect on faculty satisfaction and morale on college campuses. Decades of research, from the 1970s through the 1990s, found that support for teaching, as well as support for research and service, helps a faculty member feel satisfied in his or her work. In the current economic climate, faculty members face decreasing or stagnant salaries as well as an array of institutional cost-saving measures that affect the support they receive for teaching, research, and service. Such stresses on faculty morale can diminish creativity and productivity in the university. A recent survey of faculty at Missouri State University reveals, however, that faculty satisfaction during a time of economic stringency may well depend more on the level of shared governance than on the level of resources an institution enjoys.

The faculty at Missouri State University will receive no salary increases for 2009–10. Financial support to attend professional conferences has decreased, and faculty members are teaching extra classes without additional compensation, while a number of adjuncts have not been reappointed. There is a general sense of belt-tightening on campus, emphasized by meetings the university president held with each college’s faculty in spring 2009.

The Faculty Concerns Committee, an elected body with a representative from each of Missouri State’s forty-four departments, deals with issues raised by faculty members throughout the university. Working in conjunction with the faculty senate, the Faculty Concerns Committee has conducted a biennial survey of full-time faculty morale on campus for the past twelve years. The survey currently consists of ninety questions and examines everything from overall satisfaction to specific levels of satisfaction with facilities, policies, compensation, teaching and research support, administrator performance, grading pressures, and more. The faculty senate and university administration use the results of this survey to address faculty concerns. In recent years, more than 50 percent of the approximately eight hundred full-time faculty members on campus have participated. (The survey reports for 2008 and 2006 are available at http://www.missouristate.edu/FacultySenate/56739.htm.)

Some interesting patterns emerged as we looked at what factors were linked to overall faculty satisfaction this year. As we expected from previous research, faculty satisfaction with support for teaching, research, and service was associated with overall satisfaction, yet only moderately. More strongly associated with faculty satisfaction were other factors that reflect faculty perceptions of general university governance issues. These include satisfaction with the level of shared governance, the direction in which the university is moving, the particular policies and procedures of the university and its colleges, and the degree to which the administration is faithful to written policies. Interestingly, given the current stresses of the financial crisis, most compensation and budgetary items in the survey were not as strongly related to overall faculty satisfaction as were these general university governance issues.

We also surveyed faculty members’ thoughts and plans about leaving the university to discover whether faculty turnover or potential turnover was related to overall faculty satisfaction and to satisfaction with particular issues on campus. This year, as one might expect in the current economic climate, we found that fewer faculty members were planning to leave the university than in previous years. Plans to leave the university were moderately associated, as is typical, with current compensation and future salary prospects. Faculty members’ thoughts or plans about leaving the university were also moderately associated, however, with general governance issues, especially satisfaction with the level of shared governance, the particular policies and procedures of the university and colleges, and the degree to which the administration is faithful to written policies.

The pattern we discern from these results is that faculty satisfaction with university governance critically affects overall faculty satisfaction and turnover and is quite possibly a stronger correlate of faculty satisfaction than are compensation and support for teaching, research, and service. This is not to say that compensation and support for teaching, research, and service do not matter; they, too, are critical elements in fostering faculty morale and productivity. When there are fewer resources, however, and, as a result, no salary increases and fewer supports for teaching, research, and service, giving attention to governance issues on campus has the potential to counteract the debilitating effects of the economic crisis on faculty morale. If faculty and administrators make a good-faith attempt to work together on shared governance, the university’s mission and direction, and university and college policies, as well as to ensure that administrators adhere to university policies, these efforts may have a positive effect on general faculty morale and resulting productivity on university campuses, without any increased economic commitment.

At Missouri State University we have experienced some of this coming together over the past few years. The administration, in response to issues raised in the Faculty Concerns Committee’s 2006 survey, attempted to improve relationships between administrators and faculty. A number of these changes enhanced shared governance. The president and provost attended numerous departmental meetings, and the administration created a “provost fellows” program to increase faculty involvement in upper administration activities and make these activities more transparent to faculty. The president and the provost also sought to improve communication: the president writes an online “Friday Focus” column with a form for feedback, and the provost maintains an online blog called the “Provost’s Communiqué” with an open submissions system. A compensation system overhaul included multiple faculty surveys for input throughout the process. In our most recent faculty morale survey, conducted in 2008, levels of overall faculty satisfaction, satisfaction with governance, and most other issues surveyed were the highest on record, despite worsening economic conditions. Although our data prove no direct causal connection—the survey results are simply correlations—our experience provides interesting supporting evidence. While we are all feeling the stress of decreasing financial supports on campus and in our personal lives, morale among full-time faculty at our university remains higher than in previous years.

Joan E. Test is assistant professor of childhood education and family studies at Missouri State University. Her e-mail address is joantest@missouristate.edu.  Jef Cornelius-White is associate professor of counseling, leadership, and special education at Missouri State, chair of the World Association of Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counseling, editor of The Person-Centered Journal, and author of more than fifty publications, including Learner-Centered Instruction (with co-author Adam Harbaugh). Test and Cornelius-White both are members of the Faculty Concerns Committee at Missouri State University.

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