Three Faculty Communities

Academic labor across institutional types.
By John S. Levin

Three distinct perspectives. Three types of institutions. Three academic communities. This is the disparate reality of full-time academic labor in public institutions of higher education in the United States.

As more and more reports on US higher education point to deteriorating conditions for faculty members and threats to their professional status, those of us who teach in colleges and universities need to undertake a detailed examination of faculty work and identity. An accurate understanding of academic labor is critical, as the claims about us can shape both policy and practice.

Notwithstanding efforts to encapsulate US academic labor—college and university faculty—in one aggregated understanding, as education professors Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein did in their book The American Faculty, the academic community is in fact a number of communities. These communities are best conceptualized by looking at the missions and purposes of their institutional types. The exception to this conceptualization is likely those who work part time: their labor has much in common across institutional types, with teaching as their principal activity and research and service as nonexistent or negligible. Full-time nontenure- track faculty constitute another occupational class outside the traditional notion of the academic community. For full-time faculty, a category that at many institutions includes full-time non-tenure-track faculty, the institutional context shapes behaviors and reinforces attitudes and values. In other words, full-time faculty conform to their institutional context and adopt the professional identity that characterizes their institution: research institutions are sustained by knowledge developers, comprehensive universities by knowledge disseminators, and community colleges by knowledge applicators.

Recent research I have undertaken with Virginia Montero-Hernandez and Sarah Yoshikawa addresses full-time faculty work and identity at three distinct institutions: a research university, a comprehensive university, and a community college. Our project is unique not only in its data collection through field methods research at three institutions of different types, all located in the same community, but also in its analysis of interview data. We used theoretical concepts drawn from sociological, anthropological, psychological, and higher education literature.

For the study, we examined the identities and practices of faculty in biology, psychology, chemistry, and sociology. We found high levels of consonance, not across institutions within the categories of discipline or program, but within institutions. This consonance suggests that faculty community is tied to faculty labor—and labor and the discourse about this labor are aligned with the institution.

Our research drew on the Carnegie classifications. In adopting these rubrics in 2005 and instituting them in 2010, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching established a complex framework for the classification of institutions of higher education in the United States in order to represent institutional differences. Within the basic classification framework, drawn from the traditional classification framework of six types—associate’s colleges, doctorate-granting universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, special-focus institutions, and tribal colleges—we focus on three types: doctorate-granting universities, master’s colleges and universities, and associate’s colleges. Within these types, we address faculty in three subcategories: research universities (with very high research activity); master’s colleges and universities (with large programs); and associate’s colleges (public multicampus institutions serving urban areas).

Among the public and private institutions, including for-profit ones, there are 283 research institutions (very high research, high research, and doctoral/research), 663 master’s institutions (large, medium, and small), and 1,814 associate’s institutions (generally community colleges). Numbers of both full- and part-time faculty at the three institutional types are surprisingly similar: 392,500 at doctoral institutions, 239,900 at master’s institutions, and 374,000 at community colleges, according to the US Department of Education. As a whole, college and university faculty constitute a significant labor force; they are not, however, a homogeneous professional body.

Three Types of Faculty

The self-characterizations of faculty work and professional identity match the purposes and missions of the distinct institutions. At a research university, a chemistry professor we interviewed characterizes his professional role in 2010 as primarily research-oriented and his labor as entrepreneurial: “So it’s very much like running a small business. You have to be able to do most things yourself... . The things I talk about, like communication, getting research grants, and all that, it’s not so different from what a small businessperson would have to do. And so you have to be ... self-sufficient and independent in that way.”

This characterization aligns with that of the “academic capitalist” popularized by higher education professors Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie in their 1997 book, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, and followed by other works on a similar theme in the past fourteen years. Conceptualizations of academic labor in the United States are normally developed through examinations of national statistics on faculty that frame faculty as a nearly identical group engaged in identical activities (for example, research, teaching, and service) and the study of faculty at single types of institutions, which lead to a skewed understanding of academic labor.

The chemist quoted above is a full-time tenured professor at a public research university with a very high research profile, one of 167 such institutions of higher education in the United States in 2010. His self-characterization is vastly different from that of a full-time community college chemistry instructor we interviewed: “[Teaching is] what the job is all about. It’s only teaching really... . We teach about sixteen hours. We have about five classes, about sixteen hours with labs. Then we have office hours. Six hours or something. And then for each class we teach, and an hour preparation, grading and all that. And then we’re supposed to be ten hours available for the community ... like working on a committee.”

This professor’s characterization of faculty work at the community college is consonant with that of scholars W. Norton Grubb and others, including me, who conceive of this population as a teaching labor force. Community college faculty work requires long hours of teaching students with a range of abilities and with multiple identities and commitments, including family and work.

Another interview subject, a full-time tenured biology professor at a master’s institution, offers a third perspective on academic labor. She emphasizes a large teaching load, considerable work with students, committee work (which she does not enjoy), and moderate attention to research publications:

When I chose this type of position, I ... wanted to get involved with students and educate them in the science of biology and how to do research and how to be engaged in finding new knowledge, and making a difference in their life in a very altruistic sense... . So research ... in the lab ... is not for me. It is only for the students. It’s an opportunity for them to experience that. To me, it means nothing anymore... . I know the reality is that for me to sustain the kind of activity that would make it in terms of publications and new grants, I don’t have that energy. I don’t have the inclination... . I was awarded a big grant last year to train students in ... research. We got ... $1.4 million... . And it started this year, so I have a lot of responsibilities keeping track of the students, and we have new courses that we need to teach.

Her characterization is comparable to accounts of university faculty in popular culture and in studies of faculty work, such as Ernest Boyer’s 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered, as well as in conceptions of the purposes of higher education that address student education, such as Vincent Tinto’s theory of student persistence and Estela Bensimon’s concept of equity for all, and understandings of the public good embedded in the work of Ann Austin, William Tierney, Brian Pusser, and others.

Three Distinct Institutions

At the public research university, full-time faculty in the fields we studied direct their energies and labor to the creation of scientific knowledge, making sense of the nature and order of the natural and social world. When we asked another chemistry professor what had motivated him to pursue academic work when he was a graduate student, he replied that it was research and the preparation of future researchers: “Watching faculty up close and personal, and to see somebody who was on the top of their game and ... the purpose of being there was to do [the] best research that they could and to train the next generation in the discipline ... I just thought, ‘Wow, how great is that?’”

These research faculty participate in an environment that emphasizes knowledge construction, research productivity, research grant seeking, competition, and prestige. They view undergraduate students as ethnically diverse in their backgrounds and uneven in their academic performance. Hence, graduate students, who exhibit academic competencies that enable them to engage in research activities, are more prominent in the academic lives of research university faculty. Research faculty recruit graduate students and work closely with them to promote the production of knowledge and the expansion of the scientific community through mentorship and career guidance. The student-faculty relationship, in which graduate students work hand in hand with faculty members to ensure research productivity, enables the strengthening of the academic self as oriented toward the abstract and scientific.

Meanwhile, at the public master’s university, fulltime faculty in these areas direct their energies and labor toward finding ways to communicate the relevance and meaning of research through their teaching. Another chemistry professor at a master’s institution notes her understanding of both her personal characteristics and talents and her goals as a professor: “I’m not cut out to be a Nobel Prize scientist, and so I am never going to contribute that way. But day after day, week after week, I can make a difference in individual people’s lives as a chemistry teacher... . I enjoy interacting with the students.”

Public master’s university faculty participate in an environment that emphasizes knowledge construction and teaching, as well as research and training grants. The students, who are primarily undergraduates, are viewed as diverse in their backgrounds and in the degrees they will attain. Faculty members endeavor to maintain continual and close social interactions with undergraduate students to help them make sense of science and its limitations and possibilities for intellectual development. The purpose of this form of relationship is to instill in the student population the interests and skills needed to pursue knowledge construction and application.

Community college faculty direct their energies and labor toward providing academic support to nontraditional students. They participate in an environment that emphasizes academic support, student services, effective instruction, and academic remediation. Another biology professor not only characterizes the student population in her community college but also underlines her understanding of her professional role: “I think what we do really, really well, is the nurturing. Those students that are a little bit shaky, we’re on them... . If you’ve got thirty of them in a lab, you can get them and you can sort of nudge them and nag them and praise them and, you know, kick them... . [If] we need to do a little pre-something, like pre-math or a little pre-chemistry, then we’ve got time to do that. So it’s definitely a more intimate experience [than at the university].”

Faculty work at the community college frequently entails developing sustained and caring relationships with an ethnically diverse student body in order to help students make sense of and excel in an academic culture. The interactions with nontraditional students reinforce the relational-supportive orientation of the academic self of faculty members in community colleges.

Not a Singular Institution

The implications—and thus the significance—of these differences are pertinent not only to understandings of academic labor but also to institutional practices. These differences characterize the nature of faculty communities and help to place the traditional triumvirate of academic labor—research, teaching, and service—into a more coherent context. Teaching at a community college entails interpersonal relationships with students and support connected to students’ backgrounds, often as nontraditional students. Teaching at a master’s institution involves not only the intellectual development of students within the context of their academic attributes but also the stimulation of knowledge construction and application through the social interactions of faculty and students. At a research university, teaching can entail large lectures and the dissemination of information without interpersonal interaction with undergraduates, or it can involve intensive side-by-side investigations with one or more graduate students.

These conditions, along with other institutional behaviors and reward structures for faculty labor, shape and reinforce the faculty community at distinct institutional types.

Mimetic tendencies across organizations are misdirected when a research university models its instructional practices after a community college, or a master’s university patterns its tenure standards after those of a research university. Conceptually, it may be prudent to think of the academic professions rather than the academic profession. This broader frame of reference will be useful as scholars conceptualize contingent academic labor and practitioners consider the reformation of governance structures for different institutions, improvements in hiring so that particular kinds of faculty fit particular kinds of institutions, and changes in the evaluation and assessment of faculty work. Neither conceptualizations that assume a homogeneous labor force nor practices that are standard across higher education institutions will suffice. 

John S. Levin is Bank of America Professor of Education Leadership at the University of California, Riverside, and director of the California Community College Collaborative. His e-mail address is [email protected]


Having been a student at a community college, a "public master's university," and a research intensive university, and completely agree with the description provided in this post.  My visceral reaction is that consumers (students & parents) should also be aware of this phenomenon because it has huge implications for their educational experiences.  However, most students I know, never look at a school's mission statement before applying to it, and do not understand it's implication.  This should be sent to David Brooks or Thomas Friedman at the nytimes. It would be nice to see something about this written around the time students start thinking about applying for colleges (Septemberish).

T. N.