The Gen X Professor

The new cohort of scholars is not just younger and more diverse -- new research suggests a values gap colleges need to address.
April 5, 2006

It may seem like just a few years ago that college professors were being told that they needed to understand the values of their Generation X students if they were going to reach them. With the student population now made up of Millennials, it's time for colleges to recognize that some of those Gen Xers (you know, the ones people thought were destined for tenure only at the Gap) are now joining college faculties.

Cathy A. Trower, co-principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a major Harvard University research project, outlined some of her findings on these Gen X professors Tuesday at the annual conference of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining, a research center of the City University of New York's Hunter College.

On issue after issue -- from workload, to how research should be conducted, to the preferred structure of tenure reviews -- Gen X faculty members have radically different ideas about higher education should work, Trower said. And these younger faculty members are willing to give up both money and prestige to find institutions that provide "a good fit," Trower said, potentially changing the way colleges recruit and strive to retain faculty talent.

Trower's generation gap work is an outgrowth of her work on the push from younger faculty members for policies that are more "family friendly" and the anger many younger scholars feel over the way tenure standards have gotten so much tougher in recent years -- and are frequently presided over by senior scholars who couldn't meet those standards today. While looking at what she called "a culture clash of generations" doesn't make those issues go away, it helps explain some of those tensions.

So what are the key ways that Gen X faculty members differ from their more senior counterparts? Trower’s research is based both on focus groups and surveys of professors in the older “boomer” generation and the Xers, for whom Trower uses birth years of 1965-1980.

On the pivotal issue of tenure, she found profound differences. The older generation (Trower says these professors have “embedded” views) thinks that strict confidentiality is the best way to get honest analyses of candidates, which in turn will result in only the best candidates getting tenure. Gen Xers (or as Trower calls them, “emergent” professors), however, are deeply skeptical of such procedures and tend to value transparency as the key to avoiding unfairness or bias.

Gen Xers see the process for getting tenure as something like “archery in the dark,” and want the process opened up.

Beyond questions of openness, the generations differ on how tenure should be granted, Trower said. Embedded professors see research as the key factor, value research done individually over group projects, and see an “almost Darwinian struggle” in the process in which the competition results in the best possible departments. The younger generation, in contrast, is more likely to value the teaching component of an academic career, perceives collaborative research as a good thing, and sees little gain in hypercompetitive departments. Trower stressed that the younger generation is not trying to avoid hard work, and will in fact embrace hard work, but on a new model.

Still there is the question of how much work should be required for tenure. Embedded faculty members believe that “serious scholars chose work over all else,” while emergent professors believe there is more to life than work. In some cases, this belief is because these scholars are more likely to be women, or to have young children.

But Trower stressed that this dichotomy was present even among Gen X professors without kids or partners. “They want to have a life,” she said. “This is not a gender or race issue. White men also want to have a balance.”

There are important implications from these differences on efforts to reform tenure and faculty life, Trower said. For example, her center at Harvard has for several years now been trying to push the idea of “tenure by objectives.” In such a system, faculty members would be informed as they move through their careers that they had, for example, demonstrated the level of teaching required or had a sufficient publishing record or were demonstrating a good level of service. Likewise, they would be informed of shortcomings, in time to do something about them.

Under such a system, a tenure candidate might know by year four that he or she was in good shape (or not), and know exactly where weaknesses existed. This would remove the subjectivity and mystery about the process, Trower said, adding that Gen X faculty members want “clarity” above all in the tenure process.

It’s not just administrators who need to pay attention to these demands, Trower said, but faculty unions as well. While the American Association of University Professors has indicated that it will be flexible about things like the tenure clock, Trower said “more flexibility” is needed. Even if faculty groups have good reasons for wanting tenure reviews done on a precise time frame, such rules are the sort of inflexibility that Gen Xers reject, she said.

While colleges have not rushed to institute “tenure by objectives,” Trower said that she thought tenure reforms being considered by the Modern Language Association -- including a move away from using the traditional monograph as the main measure of research quality --  demonstrated that academics were starting to take Gen X concerns seriously.

Trower noted that another key quality about Gen Xers generally, including those in the academy, is that they don’t have the patience of their elders. Gen X faculty members are less likely to see inherent value in staying at one institution for a long time, or to give administrators lots of time to work on reforms. As a result, she said, senior faculty members and administrators can’t assume they will hold on to their Gen X talent -- unless they start to rethink policies that make no sense to the members of that generation.


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