Researcher reflects on studies of faculty issues
If attacks on tenure are cyclical – and Cathy Trower thinks that they are – the outgoing director of research for the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University became interested in researching faculty careers during another “trough.” That was when she was a Ph.D. candidate in higher education policy, planning and administration at the University of Maryland at College Park, in the mid-1990s.
“Faculty members were such as essential part of academe, and it was actually interesting at the time, looking at the generational influences on the faculty,” she said. “Younger people coming into the academy saw the work a bit differently than older faculty,” and Trower wondered how those different attitudes impacted their careers and lives.
But rather than engage in the tenure debate from an emotional, “vitriolic,” perspective, Trower sought to take a “detached, scholarly look” at the impact of tenure on professors and institutions. At about the same time, Richard Chait, one of her professors at Maryland, moved to Harvard to begin a research project on faculty recruitment, and recruited Trower – with her love of data and past experience as both an adjunct instructor of marketing and an administrator -- to help him.
By 2005, that project had evolved into COACHE, which now has more than 200 member institutions. The organization regularly surveys faculty members on their job satisfaction and other measures. Through COACHE, which she directed before asking to take the lead research role six years ago, Trower has influenced the way both faculty and administrators think about faculty careers. She’s researched, written and presented on competitive faculty recruitment, tenure policies and procedures, and the special challenges facing younger faculty, as well as women and minority professors. Although there is progress, particularly in the science, technology, math and engineering fields, she’s said women find the traditionally inflexible trajectory of academic work incompatible with family life.
Trower has identified the burn-out experienced by many associate professors, and advocated for more transparency and clarity in the tenure and promotion process. She’s stressed the importance of mentorship throughout a professor’s career – not just through making tenure – and, in research and by virtue of her own example, challenged assumptions about career prospects off the tenure track. In addition to numerous articles, chapters, and a book on nonprofit board leadership, Trower published Success on the Tenure Track: Five Keys to Faculty Job Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins University Press) in 2012.
Adrianna Kezar, professor and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California, has worked with Trower in several capacities. Kezar said Trower’s and Chait’s work “helped rethink faculty roles from a single model based mostly on research universities to examining how faculty roles and rewards should change as new institutions [such as colleges and urban institutions] with different missions developed.”
Perhaps more controversially, Kezar added, Trower is known for challenging tenure as a “sacred cow” by suggesting that non-tenure-track lines, if well-supported, could be “robust” positions within the academy.
Chait, now a professor emeritus of education at Harvard and chair of COACHE's National Advisory Council, said Trower’s legacy at COACHE will be highlighting challenges faced by faculty, in particular junior faculty, by eschewing traditional “sermons” on tenure and instead “bringing data to the table.” Doing so removed “shrillness” from important, needed conversations about tenure and faculty life, he said.
Chait said Trower also will be remembered – and missed – as the tireless “energy cell” of the organization.
Although Trower said she enjoys working hard, she admitted she had become, if not tired, concerned about maintaining the quality of her work at COACHE and her side university governance consultancy. Because being a researcher and consultant by definition mean there’s “always something you should be doing,” she said, it was simply time to focus on just one job. She leaves COACHE next week to focus on Trower & Trower, the firm she shares with her husband, William R. Trower.
In a recent interview, Trower answered a series of questions about her work and faculty life.
Q: Critics of the tenure system say it stifles productivity, especially among longtime professors. What do the data say?
A: The research about productivity after tenure is mixed. Some empirical studies have shown that that faculty scholarly production drops after tenure, but other studies have shown that it improves. Still other studies have shown that it stays fairly level – that however you were doing when you got tenure is where you’re going to stay, and that’s presumably a good thing, because you were working very hard to achieve tenure. And the same is true for faculty who have had tenure a long time, so I think the main point is that productivity is less a function of employment contract than it is about the individual’s interests, skills, and institutional supports for success.
Q: Some would like to see the return of the mandatory retirement age for faculty. Would you?
A: For me, it’s not so much about having a mandatory retirement age as it is about having critical conversations with the faculty about their performance over their entire career. If they’re still vital and engaged and doing excellent work at 80, great. But performance review is not something we necessarily do a good job with in the academy, especially post-tenure. Prior to tenure, faculty are evaluated every year, and at most places, they are assessed against plans and published standards. After tenure, performance conversations should continue and should be about getting associate professors to full, or encouraging fallow faculty to move on or out.
Q: You were an adjunct professor of marketing and an administrator at Johns Hopkins University before COACHE. You’ve had a successful career, but never on the tenure track. Is academe’s increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty a good or bad trend?
A: There’s no simple answer to this question; it’s complex. It’s neither good or bad. There’s a difference between full-time non-tenure-track faculty and part-time, or adjunct, faculty, but regardless, there are wonderful contingent faculty at every institution doing great things. As with productivity post-tenure, the findings about adjuncts’ impact on student learning are mixed. I’m actually agnostic on whether the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty is good or bad because productivity, vitality, satisfaction, and success are less a function of type of employment contract than of what else is going on with that person in that institution. For example, when I was an administrator at Johns Hopkins in the School of Continuing Studies, all we hired were practitioners who taught part-time in the evenings and on weekends. Our job was to help ensure that those incredible businesspeople were great classroom teachers who gave meaningful lectures and assignments, and knew how to evaluate and grade student work. We helped them with setting student learning outcomes, syllabus and course content, pedagogy, and technology. We sat in on classes and gave them feedback. We held sessions for peer learning. It was a lot of work, but it worked!
Q: And what about adjuncts without other full-time jobs, who would like tenure-track positions but can’t find them?
A: This is where you hear about "freeway flyers," and where those faculty who are trying to piece together academic careers, teaching different classes at different institutions can be exploited. This can be a serious problem for those people, and for institutions, in terms of the quality of [instruction] they’re able to achieve.… Those who are hired to teach one course here or there need to be supported to do their best work. That means letting them know in advance that they’re going to be teaching a course, evaluating them, giving them feedback, and providing space on campus where they can meet with students; and, if possible, help them find a true career path at those institutions if they’re doing a great job.
Q: What will tenure look like in 10 years?
A: Seventy percent of the instructional faculty is outside of the tenure stream now. I think it’s going to continue in that direction. My hunch is that we’re going to push 80 percent in the next 10 years.… But will it go away entirely? No. There will always be a cadre of tenure-track and tenured faculty at all institutions, even those ones that aren’t elite.
Q: Your research has identified associate professors as being the least satisfied rank in the academy, due to burn-out and the stripping away of certain protections (e.g., lower teaching and service loads) afforded to them as they were working to obtain tenure. How can institutions support their associate professors?
A: There are many ways. I'll mention four. First, we can support them with mentors. It’s not as if faculty stop needing mentors once they receive tenure. Second, we can provide clarity in terms of promotion. "Here’s what you need to do to make full." Third, we should reward what we say we value. That is, if we expect more teaching, service, governance work, and department leadership, shouldn’t those activities count for promotion? Fourth, we should provide support for balancing the demands of work and home. Many associate professors still have kids at home and many have elder or other care issues, either a spouse or partner who needs help or a parent.
Q: What do you want people to remember about your work, above all else?
A: Faculty are a precious resource, without whom colleges and universities would cease to exist. My legacy is COACHE’s legacy and it is twofold. First, we gave voice to faculty who didn’t have it years ago, such as those off the tenure track, women, and faculty of color, because we gathered and disseminated data about their workplace satisfaction and support. Second, we brought about critical changes to workplace policies and practices by providing a means for faculty, including now tenured and non-tenure-track, to say what’s working well and not so well so that administrators are armed with actionable data to create great places for faculty to work. Ultimately, we hope to ensure that the academy continues to attract and retain the faculty talent it needs for the 21st century, and hopefully, beyond.