Out of the Loop

International survey finds that American faculty members don't feel that they have much influence over key aspects of higher education and most feel they haven't seen major improvements in working conditions during their careers.
June 12, 2009

Sixty-four percent of American faculty members at four-year colleges believe that their institutions have a "strong emphasis" on a "top down management style," according to an international survey of professors being released today at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors. Only 31 percent said that they believed there was a strong emphasis on collegiality in decision making, and only 30 percent believe that there is a strong emphasis on good communication between management of higher education and academics.

British professors in the survey had an even gloomier view on those measures of shared governance. Professors in China saw a bit more collegiality (35 percent) and less of a top down management style (57 percent).

The research project was conducted by William K. Cummings, a professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University, and Martin J. Finkelstein, a professor of education at Seton Hall University. The survey was conducted in 2007, before the current economic downturn that has led, on many campuses, to difficult and controversial decisions that have left some professors wondering about the state of shared governance.

Generally, academics in industrialized democratic nations don't appear to believe that higher education is getting better. Asked whether conditions in higher education are "very much" or "much" improved over the course of their careers, 38 percent of Americans said Yes -- while the figures were 16 percent for Britain, 22 percent for Canada and 13 percent for Japan. In contrast, academics are much more likely to feel that they are seeing major improvements in China (61 percent), Malaysia (55 percent) and Mexico (47 percent).

Faculty members in the United States continue to believe that they are the primary decision makers with regard to faculty hiring and tenure. But relatively low percentages of faculty members believe that they have primary influence in many other factors of academic life. Some of these are in more traditionally administrative areas (budgets) but some are very much academic (evaluating teaching and research, setting research priorities, starting new academic programs). While professors in other Western nations also tend not to see themselves as the primary decision makers in many areas, American professors appear to feel less in control than do academics in Britain and Canada.

Percent of Faculty Members Who Believe Professors

Area U.S. Britain Canada
Selecting key administrators 10% 31% 33%
Choosing new faculty 62% 53% 84%
Making faculty tenure/promotion decisions 51% 51% 71%
Determining budget priorities 2% 26% 7%
Determining the overall teaching load of the faculty 11% 40% 21%
Setting admissions standards for undergraduates 20% 37% 37%
Approving new academic programs 37% 55% 41%
Evaluating teaching 26% 51% 25%
Setting internal research priorities 35% 55% 53%
Evaluating research 45% 43% 59%
Establishing international linkages 30% 57% 47%


Generally, American faculty members in the survey feel they have more influence at the departmental level than other levels of their institutions. Asked if faculty members are "very or somewhat influential" at American colleges, 73 percent said they did at the departmental level, 49 percent said they did at the level of school within a university, and only 21 percent said that they did at the institutional level.

While the survey results suggest that American (and other) faculty members don't feel that they have as much influence as many would like, they data also suggest that relatively few see this as a major crisis or worry about student involvement in decision-making. Between 1992 -- when a comparable survey was conducted -- and 2007, there was a modest increase in the percentages of American professors who believe their top administrators are competent (although that is still a minority opinion) and a modest decrease in the percentage who think their administrations support academic freedom.

American Faculty Attitudes 1992 and 2007

View % Who Agreed, 2007 % Who Agreed, 1992
Top administrators are providing competent leadership 41% 38%
Faculty are kept informed about what is going on at their institution 43% 41%
Lack of faculty involvement is a real problem 32% 43%
Students should have a stronger voice in determining policy that affects them 23% 27%
The administration supports academic freedom 59% 65%

The survey also asked faculty members around the world how much time they spend on various activities. American faculty members reported totals that, on average, well exceed a 40-hour work week and that allocate more time to teaching than those of their counterparts in many other countries. Several countries' academics reported that they spend more time on research, on average, than do their American counterparts.

Average Hours Per Week Reported by Faculty Members on Various Activities

Country Teaching Research Service Administration Other Academic Activities
U.S. 21.6 12.2 4.2 7.4 3.3
Britain 15.0 10.0 4.0 5.0 5.0
Canada 20.6 16.0 5.3 8.5 4.8
Japan 21.8 17.6 4.6 7.9 3.3
Korea 21.4 18.2 4.9 5.2 4.3
Hong Kong 19.9 16.0 4.0 8.5 3.6
China 20.1 16.4 4.8 8.3 3.6
Malaysia 20.1 10.0 2.0 10.0 2.0
Brazil 18.9 9.7 2.5 4.8 2.6
Mexico 21.5 7.6 0.9 7.9 5.6


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