The Professoriate Reconsidered

What might the faculty look like in 2050?
By Adrianna Kezar and Elizabeth Holcombe

What will the work of the faculty look like in 2050? We suspect it may be quite different from both of the models that currently predominate: research-oriented faculty members with tenure or on the tenure track, on the one hand, and, on the other, non-tenure-track, mostly part-time faculty members, who typically carry out little research. Neither of these models, in our view, is adequate to today’s enterprise—one that is increasingly focused on teaching first-generation and low-income students, often online. Over the last fifty years, higher education has moved from being a mostly elite enterprise to one that serves a large and diverse public. New institutional types and approaches to education have emerged, and the faculty today is certainly not a homogeneous group. But despite the fact that approximately 70 percent of instructional faculty are now outside the tenure system, the ideal of tenured research faculty persists. New models of faculty work may be present on some campuses, but they have largely not been viewed as ideal models for the future.

While there have been calls for rethinking the faculty for well over three decades, little progress has been made. In fact, most of the changes that have occurred, like the increasing reliance on adjuncts, have further deprofessionalized the faculty. In contrast, positive efforts that might move the faculty forward have gained limited traction. Most of these efforts have focused on expanding faculty work to include important areas that are marginalized, such as teaching or community engagement and service. For example, Ernest Boyer, in his well-known 1990 book Scholarship Reconsidered, argued that the profession should value research on one’s teaching as much as traditional academic research. The American Association of Higher Education’s forum on faculty roles and rewards met for more than a decade to consider ways to alter faculty roles and rewards to emphasize teaching. Preparing Future Faculty, a joint initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, examined ways to educate graduate students about the many different institutional types and missions that exist and to better align faculty preparation with these diverse roles. But such efforts took place at a time when fewer faculty members were teaching on contingent appointments, and they were often met with resistance or lacked broad scale. No models have yet emerged as an alternative to current arrangements at scale.

Earlier research from the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success has indicated that new faculty models have been difficult to develop in part because there is no shared vision among key stakeholder groups for the future of the faculty. Lacking any compelling options or ideas around which changes might coalesce, the enterprise has remained at a standstill or devolved as non-tenure-track (mostly part-time) positions have grown.

Most commentators suggest that faculty members and administrators are at odds about the faculty role. We wanted to test this assumption by surveying different groups about their views of the future faculty. In particular, we wanted to test the proposition that unions and unionized faculty are preventing the development of new, more productive faculty roles.

Our survey study included tenure-track and non-tenure-track, part- and full-time, and unionized and nonunionized faculty members; campus administrators; board members; accreditors; and state-level higher education policy makers. We examined views on the attractiveness and feasibility of potential attributes of new faculty models to advance the conversation around the future of the faculty in meaningful and concrete ways. The survey included thirty-nine two-part scaled response items, each presenting a potential attribute of a future faculty model. These survey items were organized into eight categories related to faculty roles: faculty pathways; contracts; unbundling of faculty roles; status in the academic community; faculty development, promotion, and evaluation; flexibility; collaboration and community engagement; and public-good roles. Our total sample numbered 1,553, with more than 1,100 faculty members of all types and approximately 350 administrators (provosts and deans) and policy makers. We focus here on responses from faculty and campus administrators, since participants from other groups were quite small in number.

General Agreement on Many Core Issues

Our findings both surprised and encouraged us. There is general agreement on the attractiveness of many of the ideas presented in the survey, indicating potential for common ground and a way forward in creating new faculty roles. In our report, we define varying levels of interest and agreement as follows: moderate interest existed when support for a proposal fell between 50 and 74 percent for a group. Support at or above 75 percent on a survey item is termed strong interest or strong views on the attractiveness of an idea. When seven of eight groups fell into these defined ranges, there was strong agreement, and when all eight groups fell into these ranges, there was unified agreement among stakeholder groups.

We found agreement about the desirability of
1. increasing the number of full-time faculty;
2. creating teaching-only tenure-track positions;
3. reducing reliance on part-time faculty;
4. ensuring some sort of scholarly component in all faculty roles;
5. fostering more collaboration among faculty across and within campus;
6. revising incentives and reward structures and policies to better reflect different institutional priorities;
7. allowing some differentiation of roles focused on teaching and research, and developing a broader view of scholarship such as that epitomized in Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered;
8. allowing more flexibility to stop the tenure clock for family or other personal needs; and
9. protecting academic freedom, inclusion in shared governance, equitable pay, opportunities for career advancement and professional development, fair grievance procedures and due process, and access to resources to conduct one’s work.

Our findings dispel the pervasive myth that an impassable gulf exists between different groups on views about the faculty.

The groups viewed greater flexibility and variation in the foci of faculty work and roles as changes worth strongly considering. This would allow faculty to have differentiated roles focusing primarily on teaching, research, or service, rather than the current model, which privileges research but expects faculty to maintain a focus on all three roles. We also found strong agreement across groups that faculty roles should be differentiated among different types of institutions that have distinct missions.

Faculty members, administrators, and policy makers demonstrated strong agreement and strong interest in ensuring that faculty members were supported in maintaining some role in scholarship, regardless of whether the primary focus of their work is on teaching, service, or research. (It is important to note that we emphasized that scholarship should be broadly defined and not limited to traditional research.) A state higher education officer, writing in an open-ended response section, reflected a general consensus on the importance of a broad definition of scholarship:

Teaching faculty have to have some way to stay current. “Scholarship” as it is traditionally defined is probably not the best way to ensure this happens, but something needs to take its place. While participation in research may not be the best way to keep faculty up-to-date, it does help.

Another idea drawn from Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered, “creativity contracts,” met with moderate interest and strong agreement across groups. Creativity contracts facilitate faculty members’ participation in a broader range of scholarly activities by engaging them in highly customized and continuously changing faculty roles. Each group agreed that giving faculty members the ability to take on a variety of roles over the course of their careers—rather than the narrower foci and largely unchanging roles that are a part of faculty work today—is an important feature to consider for future faculty models.

We also found unified agreement about and moderate interest in the use of consortium agreements. Such agreements allow neighboring institutions to create shared, full-time faculty positions for individuals who would otherwise be hired by multiple institutions in the consortium individually, often on part-time contracts.

The groups showed unified agreement and strong interest in measures that would grant greater flexibility to tenured and tenure-track faculty members—for example, by allowing them to stop the tenure clock or to move to part-time appointments to care for family members or attend to other personal situations that might arise. We also found strong agreement and strong interest across groups in creating greater flexibility for faculty members to address personal needs on campus by offering access to services such as child care or meal plans.

All of the groups were unified in their agreement that encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, fostering connections between faculty members and the local community, and creating new partnerships with industry, business, nonprofits, and government were attractive ideas.

Reprofessionalization

One particularly encouraging finding is that all of the groups acknowledged the need to maintain or restore the professionalism of the faculty. Some of the highest levels of interest in proposals that the survey presented, as well as the highest levels of agreement across groups, were found in response to items concerning the improvement of status and professionalism across academic ranks. The groups showed unified agreement and strong interest in ensuring that all faculty members have the same protections for academic freedom, equitable compensation for performing similar duties, and access to all of the information and tools needed to do their jobs. There was also unified agreement on the attractiveness of proposals that would provide all faculty members with opportunities for promotion and ongoing professional development.

Although the findings from this section might seem intuitive, the strong agreement about ensuring equitable status across faculty ranks often is not reflected in the current conditions experienced by non-tenure-track faculty, particularly part-time or adjunct faculty. It is possible that in completing this section of the survey, some participants gave what they believed to be the most socially desirable responses. However, when considered alongside the strong levels of interest demonstrated throughout in proposals to redesign parts of the current system that have perpetuated inequity, it is reasonable to conclude that these responses reflect genuine concern about higher education’s growing reliance on contingent labor and its implications for institutions, the ability of all faculty members to do their jobs, and the future of academic professionalism.

Many of the comments in the open-ended response sections address the disconnect between the ideal of professionalism for all faculty members and the current reality. Faculty members are concerned about what future changes to faculty roles might mean for them, having thus far witnessed only the steady degradation of the academic profession. Implicit in their comments is a distrust of proposals that come from the administration. As shown in the two following comments, the first from a tenured or tenure-track professor and the second from a part-time, non-tenure-track instructor, faculty members are open to new models but are cautious, skeptical, and sometimes cynical about whether administrators will make choices that will improve conditions rather than continue to degrade them:

These statements leave out the key question—who determines the new standards. At my university there is far too much distrust of the faculty on the board and in the upper administration to allow for significant faculty input in a renegotiation of workload.

The survey has presented lots of interesting possibilities for improving the teaching/working environments in higher education. Unfortunately, administrators seem more bent on maintaining the status quo for their own benefit than improving the quality of their institutions. After 20 years as an adjunct, I look with dismay at the corporatization of the universities, where profitability has displaced learning as their defining purpose. It will not be easy to turn the ship around.

Why do our current practices fall so short of what so many respondents believe we should be doing? Financial challenges or a lack of trust and cooperation among stakeholder groups may contribute to the gap, but greater discussion and exploration of this issue across groups is needed.

A Look at Unions

Collective bargaining agreements will constrain most public universities with unions, making most of these options impossible.

Implementation of most of the issues presented in this study would require renegotiating faculty union contracts. . . . This is the overriding issue in our ability to change faculty workloads (even if the majority of the faculty agree with a suggested change).

As the above comments, both by deans, suggest, some administrators see unions as a major obstacle to change. To test the validity of these perceptions, we compared the responses of faculty members in collective bargaining units to the full sample of faculty members in our study. Our findings suggest that negative views of unionized faculty are based on stereotypes rather than facts.

Unionized faculty members in our survey were not especially resistant to change; indeed, their views were not much different from those of faculty overall. Although the collective bargaining process might add a layer of complexity to making decisions about faculty employment and contracts, our survey responses indicate that the views of faculty members who are in collective bargaining agreements are not appreciably different from their nonunionized peers. In fact, in some ways unionized faculty members expressed more openness than other faculty members to altering faculty roles in ways that support the overall higher education enterprise. For example, full-time non-tenure-track union members showed more interest than their nonunionized counterparts in providing multiple pathways for long-term focus on teaching, research, or clinical practice (which unionized faculty found 11 percent more attractive), creating different contracts and roles among different institutional types (which they found 14 percent more attractive), and focusing a majority of faculty roles on teaching and student development (which they found 13 percent more attractive).

Like their tenured and tenure-track colleagues in collective bargaining units, unionized non-tenure-track faculty members were more open to other changes as well: 12 percent more found expanding exclusive teaching-, research-, and service-only positions attractive, 17 percent more found increasing technology use in instruction attractive, 10 percent more found making greater use of paraprofessionals attractive, 12 percent more supported unbundling the faculty role to focus on essential tasks, and 11 percent more had an interest in developing partnerships with external groups like governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses.

Gaps between Attractiveness and Feasibility

Many stakeholders viewed some of the ideas presented in the survey as desirable but difficult to accomplish. They registered concerns about the feasibility of proposals such as creativity contracts, more customized or flexible faculty roles, and the creation of consortium-based hiring arrangements, citing budgetary and financial concerns, the bureaucratic difficulty of implementing some proposals, and resistance from unions. One comment from a tenured or tenure-track faculty member illustrates typical concerns about bureaucracy:

Individual faculty pathways . . . strikes me as ideal, though negotiating these would be incredibly time consuming and would exacerbate and encourage the bloat of middle administration.

Though we found unified agreement among groups that consortium agreements were an attractive approach to hiring, nearly every group believed this option was likely not feasible. Participants indicated a range of reasons for this belief in the open-ended responses to the survey, citing the difficulties of collaborating with potential competitors, navigating different institutional cultures, geographical isolation, and other impediments. The following observation by a provost is one example:

The competitive nature of our higher education climate makes partnering with other universities difficult. When we have done this in the past in two graduate programs the results were so negative that we dissolved the agreements, with all parties happy to do so.

While all groups felt it was important to ensure that all faculty members have the same academic freedom rights and protections, each of the faculty groups, the accreditors, and the state higher education executive officers questioned the feasibility of this proposal. Comments, such as the following from a part-time, non-tenure-track faculty member, indicated concerns about whether academic freedom can ever be truly protected for those faculty members who lack tenure:

Tenure is the essence of academic freedom; how does a contingent employee whose contract is renewable semester-by-semester feel free to research and develop his/her own scholarship, teaching style, and community involvement?

Most groups also doubted the feasibility of ensuring equitable compensation and promoting involvement in shared governance and decision making for all faculty members, including those off the tenure track. Comments including the following, from a dean and a provost, respectively, expressed doubts for reasons such as departmental cultures, power differences, budgetary constraints, and the varying levels of investment that different types of faculty have in their institutions:

I think it would be very difficult for smaller institutions to address equity and space issues for all faculty regardless of type or rank, especially in the wake of the Great Recession.

Bringing adjuncts fully into faculty governance would be difficult at this time in light of our faculty culture and the limitations of adjunct requirements for academic service. We do need to explore ways to enable adjuncts to have a clear voice for their cohort.

Despite these concerns about the feasibility of various elements of potential new faculty models, many stakeholder groups saw reprofessionalizing the faculty and reconsidering such matters as faculty development, promotion, and evaluation as attractive and feasible. For example, most groups agreed on both the attractiveness and the feasibility of ensuring that all faculty members have the tools and information necessary to do their jobs, clearly defined expectations and evaluation criteria, clear terms for contract renewal or termination, and processes for addressing grievances and complaints about violations of academic freedom. In other words, most stakeholders surveyed believe that ensuring these basic requirements of faculty working conditions are necessary and achievable aims.

Disagreements

Groups disagreed in some areas, of course. These disagreements are important to consider, since they may require careful navigation or at least additional discussion. While we do not list them all here, some of the major areas of disagreement include the following:

Institutional needs versus faculty autonomy: Groups disagreed on whether faculty should more closely align their work with departmental and institutional needs. Board members, state higher education executive officers, provosts, and deans were more interested in this proposal, while faculty of all types found this to be an unattractive idea. Autonomy has long been an important part of faculty work; supporters of greater alignment with departmental and institutional goals will need to justify their argument and take the faculty’s traditional autonomy into consideration.

Unbundling the faculty role: The greatest area of disagreement was around proposals to “unbundle” the teaching role into many discrete areas. Most of these proposals, such as using more paraprofessionals or relying more heavily on technology, were not agreed upon or seen as attractive.

Phasing out tenure: Some stakeholders see tenure as a declining but still important part of the system, while others feel there is no viable place left for tenure.

Conclusion

We think the time is right to change the faculty model to support student outcomes and a high-quality learning environment. The changes that have taken place in recent decades have only degraded the faculty role, giving faculty members today an incentive to consider the kinds of changes to their role that have been proposed by higher education scholars such as Ernest Boyer, Dick Chait, Cathy Trower, Gene Rice, and Kerry Ann O’Meara. Faculty are beginning to realize that resistance and inaction are leading backward, not forward. Administrators are beginning to acknowledge that the shift to a largely adjunct faculty does not serve the purposes of the enterprise well, either. There is at least agreement that the direction taken in recent years has not been positive.

The areas of agreement identified in our survey can serve as starting points for discussions, helping to move ideas about the future of the faculty to reality. But the distrust around these issues among higher education stakeholders is both real and warranted; only through trust-building processes can we begin to make dialogue more productive. Building trust also means stopping unilateral decision making. We hope that this report will provoke a collaborative dialogue about sustainable and meaningful change in the faculty model.

Interest in new approaches is growing. We now have the opportunity to move beyond the two faculty models that exist today—traditional tenure-track roles and non-tenure-track positions—and toward a greater diversity of roles. The data presented in this article offer valuable insights about proposals that might be discussed, adapted, and implemented as institutions—and the higher education enterprise as a whole—explore the future of the faculty.

Visit http://www.thechangingfaculty.org for a complete report on this survey’s findings and other studies from the Delphi Project.

Adrianna Kezar is professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and codirector of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. She directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. Her e-mail address is kezar@usc.edu. Elizabeth Holcombe is a provost’s fellow and doctoral research assistant with the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Her current research interests include STEM reform; teaching, learning, and assessment; faculty issues; and leadership in higher education.

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