Traditional Faculty: For-Profit Institution - An Interview

I’m curious about the life of full-time faculty at for-profits for four reasons:

Sociological: I just don’t know too much about how being a professor at a for-profit differs or overlaps with life in the traditional non-profit academic world.

Professional: Could it be that a teaching career at a for-profit is a viable (and perhaps excellent) career path for Ph.D.'s and other academics?

March 15, 2011

I’m curious about the life of full-time faculty at for-profits for four reasons:

Sociological: I just don’t know too much about how being a professor at a for-profit differs or overlaps with life in the traditional non-profit academic world.

Professional: Could it be that a teaching career at a for-profit is a viable (and perhaps excellent) career path for Ph.D.'s and other academics?

Economic: As the supply of full-time tenure-track faculty positions at not-for-profit and traditional institutions decreases, there will be a market shift for greater demand in the for-profit arena (primarily in practitioner oriented fields or undergraduate arts and sciences). It's an issue of supply and demand, economies of scale, and what the market can bear, along with the shifting psychological, sociological, technological, and professional landscape of higher education

Collegial: Whatever biases we have about the growth of the for-profit educational sector, the truth is that the diversity of educators working outside of traditional academic institutions (at both for-profit universities and ed tech companies) is growing dramatically. We should get to know each other.

To kick us off, I’d like to share an e-mail interview with Dr. Sean Robinson, a professor at Argosy University, a private for-profit institution owned by Education Management Corporation.

Sean has an impressive C.V. A 2005 University of Wisconsin-Madison PhD in Higher Education Leadership and Policy, he has built up an enviable teaching, research and service record.

At this point I am unsure how representative Sean is of full-time across the range of for-profit universities (or non-profits for that matter). Nor is it fair to ask Sean to represent all faculty members of this growing and diverse industry. Please read this interview as the thinking of one faculty member, one academic, who is willing to give us a glimpse of his life and thinking.

*Note: If any other full-time faculty at for-profit institutions would like to respond to these questions with your own story please let me know, I’d like to blog more of these interviews.

Josh's Question: What are your motivations for agreeing to be interviewed in this space?

Sean's Answer: I have several motivating factors, but first I'd like to make a clarification. According to 2010 Carnegie Classification and the 2009 National Center for Educations Statistics, IPEDS Institutional Characteristics, Argosy is characterized as a DRU (doctoral research university). There are 89 DRUs listed: 27 public DRUs (30.3%), 51 private, non-profit DRUs (57.3%), and 11 private, for-profit DRUs (12.4%--this number does actually include several Argosy campuses, who are considered separate institutions in the data for some reason). Nonetheless, given these data, the primary reason I wanted to talk with you is to really give reader's an inside glimpse into my world to show that in most respects what I do and how I do it are not so different than most of my peers around the country. I think there are misconceptions, biases, and stereotypes when it comes to those working at for-profit institutions. Part of this is due to the fact that we get lumped in with "career colleges," and part of this stems from the "diploma mills" that still exist, adding to the confusion about the who, what, how, and why of legitimate institutions such as Argosy.

Josh's Question: Can you briefly describe your career path, and how you ended up at Argosy University? What brought you to Argosy as opposed to a traditional non-profit?

Sean's Answer: Ever since I can remember I always wanted to be a teacher (as an undergrad I wanted to be a high school math or Latin teacher). Ultimately I ended up working in student affairs, and hoped that someday I would be able to land a faculty position teaching student affairs and higher education administration. I ended up at Argosy accidentally, quite honestly. As I was preparing to defend my dissertation early in the spring of 2005, a former classmate of mine called out of the blue, telling me she just accepted the position as Dept Chair of Education & Counseling at Argosy, and asking if I wanted to teach as an adjunct for her in the spring. I had quit my previous position as an Assistant Dean the year before to work on my dissertation full-time, so a part-time teaching opportunity seemed like a good thing while I was finishing up my dissertation. At the time I had never heard of Argosy, but figured I could use the teaching experience as I went on the job market. The classes I taught were typical doctoral classes in higher education leadership, and at the time were offered primarily in a traditional face to face format, albeit, in an accelerated format during the week and on the weekends. One class lead to another, as the job market continued to be incredibly intense and competitive. A year later, the chair ultimately offered me a full time position, which I accepted, thinking that it would be a short-term "stop-over" for me as a continued to look for jobs at more traditional, research oriented institutions. In the future I do anticipate leaving this teaching-oriented setting and returning to a more research oriented institution, but for now I continue to practice my craft and build up my academic portfolio. I was just promoted to Associate Professor; and yes, my promotion portfolio looked like many of my colleagues at other institutions, 2 binders full of evidence in support of my teaching, service and research activities.

Josh's Question: What courses do you teach at Argosy? What is the teaching load? How many students do you teach? What is the method (online, hybrid, or on-ground) that you teach in?

Sean's Answer: I have a unique academic background that includes Counseling Psychology, Leadership/Business Management, and Student Affairs/Higher Education Leadership. This has allowed me to teach in a number of doctoral programs on my campus beyond education, including business & leadership studies, counseling psychology, and clinical psychology. I am required to teach 7 courses a year. I tend to teach 3 courses each in the fall and spring, and 1 in the first half of the summer. This allows me to take off the last 8 or 9 weeks of the summer for vacation and research and writing. The classes I teach fall into 2 categories: cross-departmental research courses (which typical have 15 students in them), or higher education specific seminars (which are generally 8-10 students). For the past few years, my courses have really been limited to: Introduction to Research Methods, Writing for Research (Adv. Research Methods), Higher Education Leadership, Strategic Planning in Education, Student Affairs Administration, and I will often pick up another research course (Stats I, Advanced Qualitative, or Mixed Methods Research).

When it comes time for course scheduling, my Dept. Chair will generally lay out the classes that need to be taught in a given semester, and ask the faculty what he/she wishes to teach, and the dates/times. As a senior faculty, my Dept. Chair and I will often negotiate which classes she needs me to teach; and being the only pure higher ed guy, I get to teach those seminars automatically. I usually have the freedom and flexibility to choose the format I wish to teach in, as well as the days I wish to teach. Some of my classes are strictly face-to-face with no online component; others are a hybrid in which we meet for 24-30 hours of face-to-face time, supplemented with online work between our class sessions. Some classes are taught during the week in the evening, some are taught on a Friday and Saturday (usually over 2-3 weekends) again usually with online work between meetings, and still others I teach on Saturdays only (over 3-4 weekends). The days and time depend on the class I am teaching, how I think the course could best be structured to maximize teaching and learning, as well as my own personal schedule and availability. Some classes are taught over an 8 week period, while others I teach over the full semester. I have a very supportive Chair who trusts me to be able to put together the kind of schedule for each class I teach that serves both students, and the institution.

Josh's Question: Can you give us a quick glimpse of what one of your "typical" days might look like? Do you think this "typical" day differs from a professor at a traditional non-profit?

Sean's Answer: I only wish I had a typical day! On any given day I am generally doing a combination of: grading papers, reviewing a student's dissertation work, reading and responding to discussion questions online for a course, consulting with a student regarding a class issue or dissertation problem, reading and prepping for class, working on my own research/writing. Aside from my actual teaching time, I am on campus usually 3 days per week, which means I am also engaged in any of the following "bonus" activities: IRB meetings, Student Conduct Committee meetings, Departmental meetings, meetings with other faculty, meetings with students during office hours, competing administrative paperwork, meetings with my TA or my RA, talking my Dept. Chair off the cliff for the week, talking to prospective students, dealing with obligations and activities related to my work in a professional association……..All in all, I do think that my typical day, and my typical week are very similar to my colleagues at other institutions.

Josh's Question: Can you describe a typical student in your program or at your institution? How do you think they differ from those attending more traditional programs in a non-profit institution?

Sean's Answer: I don't think there is a typical student in our programs. I can certainly say that we are not a homogenous campus, or department. There are a few characteristics, though, that I think differentiate our students, but seem to be par for the course for other EdD programs around the country: most work full-time, and have families as well; most are practitioners seeking to make that next career leap; a majority are women (60%); approximately 60% are non-Caucasian, and include international students (to be expected given our location in DC). Few of our students expect to go on into a faculty role; most are pursuing administrative positions. Many of our students are challenged by research and the dissertation process. This translates into more coaching, teaching, editing and sometimes hand holding during the dissertation than I would like to give, but in the end, I think it gives students the confidence to succeed, and it makes for a stronger effort and outcome that they can be proud of.

Josh's Question: What professional organizations do you participate in? Do you find that your position in your discipline and in the professional organizations is impacted by your employment in the for-profit sector?

Sean's Answer: I am heavily involved with ACPA, most recently serving as the 2010 Next-Generation Faculty Co-Chair, am the outgoing Chair for the Commission for Graduate & Professional Student Affairs, and in the fall elected as a Trustee Associate on the ACPA Foundation Board. I am also involved with NASPA, AERA, and ASHE, but on a much smaller scale. I have found that being a faculty my institution has caused some issues in terms of my peers at "traditional institutions" not believing that I teach in a "real" program at a "real" institution. This stems mostly from a lack of understanding (again, which is way I agreed to participate in this interview). I think that once I engage with people, show them that I can meet them on their level, that my background is just as solid as theirs, that my work is just as meaningful and involved, most understand that my world isn't so different. I have to work hard at dispelling the myths and stereotypes that exist and at proving my legitimacy and credibility--things other faculty or administrators at "traditional" institutions often take for granted. Once we get down to sharing our stories, most often we find more common ground exists than not. The challenges are similar, the politics are similar, the rewards similar. In essence, the what, how and why overlap greatly. It's the where that is different.

Josh's Question: Can you briefly describe your research, and talk about the degree to which research is expected and rewarded in your position?

Sean's Answer: My research is ever-evolving, and it is multi-faceted. In my own doctoral program at UW-Madison, I was "schooled" under Chris Golde, now at Stanford, who turned me on to examining the world of doctoral students. Given my current environment, there are several issues that intrigue me most, all of them stemming from my work at Argosy. These include the experiences of doctoral students as it relates to learning how to "be" a scholar and researcher within a scholar-practitioner program; the role of mentoring for minority students in the educational pipeline; and the role of teaching, learning, and communities of practice in blended or virtual environments. A second and unrelated line of research for me is the psychosocial and identity development of today's LGBTQ youth. This harkens back to my early days of working in student affairs, and I am now finding my space once again in that arena. My institution appreciates research by faculty, and certainly expects it, but the pressure to publish is not as intense as most institutions. This is primarily because we are teaching-oriented, not research-oriented. Given that I teach several research courses a year, I know that I can't be a good role model for my students if I'm not actively engaged in my own research work. My institution also supports research with a modest professional development budget, and we are encouraged to present papers at conferences as part of our PD plan. Promotion, and annual evaluations do include a research component, but again, it is weighted a little less than teaching. I love my research and writing, and often do it more for my own professional development than for my institution. I just wish I had more time to do it.

Josh's Question: What would a career path look like for someone who wants to stay in a full-time faculty position at a for-profit?

Sean's Answer: That’s a tough question. For someone who is content to stay a faculty member, it would be easier than moving up the administrative ranks. Moving up the faculty ranks is a challenge, just like most institutions (for clarification, my campus offers promotion, but not tenure; what I have to do to move up is very similar to most of my peers at other institutions--evidence of success at research, service, and teaching). One of the keys to being selected for a job at a for-profit is having plenty of practical experience to support the practitioner needs of students. In graduate programs, there is also the expectation of research and involvement in one's professional associations. Moving from a for-profit might be harder than being selected for a first job at such an institution, but this is very much dependent on field and discipline. I have found that administrators are not usually drawn from the internal faculty ranks. Most often they are from outside the institution, and typically have other private-industry experience as well. The idea that administrators are homegrown or that they have grown up through the faculty ranks does not hold true in most for-profits. Many administrators are career administrators rather than faculty who have moved over into that type of position.

Josh's Question: Are you unusual in your department as a full-time faculty member with a PhD from a top-ranked institution? Or do you think your background, and full-time status, are pretty representative of your colleagues?

Sean's Answer: In my department, I am happy to say that I am not too much of an anomaly. My colleagues have degrees from the University of Southern California (Rossier School), George Mason University, George Washington University, the University of Maine, the University of Virginia, New Mexico State University, and my former department chair had her degree from Columbia University's Teachers College. I think that having colleagues that I can relate to and with whom I can collaborate makes all the difference for me. It's important to be around colleagues who were trained in a more traditional manner, who also understand the research-scholar-practitioner model. My colleagues also have very high standards and expectations and we all support each others' endeavors; if this weren't the case, I wouldn't be at Argosy.

Josh's Question: What do you think the for-profit higher ed sector has to teach the non-profits? What do you think Argosy in particular and the for-profits in general do better than non-profits?

Sean's Answer: I think that there is a lot of learning that can, and should, go both ways. The issue, as I have seen over the past 6 years, is that for-profits approach education as a business first, some aspects of which may be perceived to be to the detriment of teaching and learning. Traditional, not-for-profits often focus on the teaching and learning, forgetting that they are also businesses. There are some great "business practices" that not-for-profits could learn, including the role of innovation and entrepreneurship, especially as it relates to both curriculum development, and course delivery. I think that for-profits have also developed some good accountability metrics and systems for the purposes of assessment. However, the downside is overreliance on such "assessments" and hard numbers as the only measures of learning, teaching, or what is working/not working (that's the qualitative researcher in me coming out). I think that our ability to respond to changes quickly and efficiently is important to acknowledge as well. If something isn't working, we have the ability to come together and create/implement a new initiative, process, procedure, or policy. I am lucky that my campus has historically had a culture of "let's try it and see." Unfortunately, this is less than it used to be, given the current climate of accountability and oversight, and the state of the economy..

Josh's Question: What aspects of the non-profit higher education culture or practices would you like to see more widely adopted at for-profits?

Sean's Answer: One thing I don't see often enough is faculty governance. Policies and procedures are often dictated from the top down, often by those who aren't the ones to be affected by the changes and often little input is requested upfront from those in the trenches. While I see this in the for-profit setting, this may also be the case in higher education in general. Faculty autonomy is also not a given in the for-profit arena. Luckily, my department, and my campus, allows a fair amount of flexibility and autonomy, particularly in the classroom. We have to teach certain course and achieve stated program outcomes, and utilize certain materials for some courses, but we are free to add additional resources that work for us. Likewise, how we get to those final outcomes is entirely up to us. Unfortunately, again this is not the standard for some for-profits. And, many traditional institutions are moving toward such standardization of courses and curriculums as a factor of increased scrutiny and accountability of teaching and learning. This may be a trickle effect of high-stakes testing and accountability within the K-12 setting.

Josh's Question: One of the concerns I'd have about teaching full-time at a for-profit would be the loss of academic freedom, specifically the ability to offer independent constructive critiques of my institution and of the education sector? From your experience, would you say this concern is valid?

Sean's Answer: I actually think this concern is valid for many in higher education these days. I'm not going to pretend that everything is rosy when it isn't. Likewise, I won't say that things are incredibly awful, because they aren't. There is plenty of grayness in there. I can, and do, offer constructive, thoughtful criticism when asked. I'm more likely to talk about systemic issues, or process-oriented concerns, rather than playing the "blame game" aimed at individuals. But I still do believe that I can assert my position, as long as it is informed. I have certainly offered up my ideas and perspectives to my peers and superiors. But, as I said previously , we are very much top-down.

Josh's Question: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about for-profit higher ed?

Sean's Answer: The first misconception people might have is that those of us teaching or working in a for-profit university couldn't get a job elsewhere. For some small minority, that may be the case. In today's highly competitive job market, it's more an issue of supply and demand for those who might be looking to move to another institution, but it's not for lack of qualifications. A second misconception is that all for-profits are diploma mills or career schools. I agree those are out there But one must actually consider the institutional mission and the role of the institution. Just as one would not lump all not-for-profits into a single category, one should not lump all for-profits together. There are technical certificate programs, there are those colleges offering associate degrees, there are those that offer bachelors, and a few, such as Argosy, are comprehensive doctoral degree granting institutions. We are not all the same, and should not be characterized as such. A third misconception is that our students couldn't get accepted elsewhere. I have had a number of students who transferred from private or public universities in the area. Their reasons for transferring? They wanted or needed a different learning format or they were drawn to our modified accelerated class structure; others appreciated being able to take classes on a Friday or Saturday rather than weeknights; some the appeal of having a blended class because it fits into their work and personal life better. And then there is the personal touch--I have had a few students who decided to come into our program because their professional colleagues have had such a great experience with our faculty and our department that they wanted it for their own academic path.

Josh's Question: What are the main things you would want the readers of Inside Higher Ed to know about the life of a faculty member at a for-profit institution?

Sean's Answer: Not to be redundant, but I think it's important for readers to understand that most of the time my day to day life is pretty similar to faculty in not-for-profit institutions, especially private institutions with a teaching mission. I experience similar challenges, and joys, like many of my peers. I encourage folks not to discount me, my peers, my students, or what I do and how I do it. I am a very "traditional" educator, with a very "traditional" academic background….the world in which I operate just happens to be a very "non-traditional."


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