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NEW YORK – What’s the purpose of higher education in the 21st century? It’s a lofty question that participants at a symposium on changing faculty models here acknowledged they didn't have the answers to. But the administrators and other higher education experts here agreed that colleges and universities have to define their evolving mission before they can figure out how to reallocate their faculty work force.

“The question we need to get our heads around,” said Gregg Kvistad, provost at the University of Denver, a private research institution that has few private competitors for hundreds of miles, “is what does higher education do in the 21st century? If we can understand that better, we can get a better consensus about what this work force should look like.”

Centuries-old “church” and German-research university models on which the American higher education system is based -- and the tenure system imported along with them -- may no longer be “appropriate” for today’s “violent and fluid” higher education landscape, he said.

Even as colleges and universities consider the evolving purpose of higher education, said Paul Yakoboski, senior economist for the TIAA-CREF Institute, which sponsored the event, it seems they need to begin to hire professors of all stripes with greater “intentionality” about the roles they want those instructors to play at that institution.

Until now, the increasing employment of adjuncts has been a “rational,” but largely “reactive” response to changes in higher education, Yakoboski said. But in an era of intense financial pressures and demand for a more diverse set of faculty roles, administrators have to do more than “play good defense.”

Some administrators present noted that playing “good offense” meant doing something controversial: acknowledging that there’s a problem.

One of the things "creeping into my head-scratching,” said Valerie Martin Conley, chair of the department of counseling and higher education at Ohio University, is “if we take on creating policies around these individuals in these positions, it becomes much harder to ignore that we’ve ‘devolved’ into that environment. Once we say we need to think about the hiring and promotion of these individuals, it sort of says it's O.K. to have them."

Kvistad, of Denver, said such “memorializing," or formally defining, adjuncts’ roles, as his university has in moving some faculty to multiyear contracts, also means tension with some tenure-line faculty -- particularly when contracts ensure some role for those non-tenured faculty in shared governance.

At the University of Michigan, which also has multiyear contracts for lecturers with the presumption of reappointment, said Jeffrey Frumkin, associate vice provost for academic and faculty affairs and director of academic human resources, lecturers often are seen as not as true colleagues but just as “someone with a Ph.D. teaching a class.”

Such tenure-line and non-tenure-line divisions play out in unions, too, said, Herman Berliner, provost at Hofstra University. Berliner said intra-union faculty relations at his campus are "dramatically" better than they have been historically, but university administrators once put forth an unsolicited raise for adjuncts in contract negotiations because they were “embarrassed” that the union hadn’t asked for one first.

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California who directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, called tensions between tenure-line and adjunct professors the “elephant in the room,” and said that these “hard conversations” need to take place out in the open. Otherwise, she said, the hierarchy among professors becomes part of a “hidden curriculum” and is ultimately a “disservice” to students.

Judith D. Singer, professor of education and senior vice president for faculty development and diversity at Harvard University, noted that minorities and women are employed at higher rates as adjuncts than in tenure lines, helping universities satisfy diversity requirements in non-ideal ways that also become part of that hidden curriculum. 

Such a practice "raises questions about what message we're sending to students," she said. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version.)

Kezar, a tenured professor, was the most vocal advocate for change regarding non-tenure-track faculty working conditions at the conference (there were no featured speakers who are adjuncts). She said research shows that many administrators hold a “not on my campus” view of adjuncts, underestimating their institutions' dependence on them.

Other administrators, such as Curtis Lloyd, vice chancellor for human resources for the State University of New York System, said adjunct employment was a key and permanent feature of their institutions’ cost structure. (The system recently lost $1 billion in state funding.) Lloyd said data about student success in relation to adjunct instruction would be the most compelling data to drive any decision about how to employ them going forward, he said.

Kezar said that there are negative correlations between student success and adjunct employment, but that adjuncts’ working conditions – not the quality or competence of adjuncts themselves – are to blame. Forming bonds with faculty members in the early months and years of college is important to student success and retention, she said. But that’s challenged when adjuncts lacking time and resources teach so many introductory-level courses.

Other participants, including Donna Desrocher, principal researcher for the American Institutes of Research, pointed out other data gaps in the solving the faculty model problem. Desrocher asked those administrators present if they’d ever run numbers to see how much money employing adjuncts on a large scale saved over all, given increased administrative work related to ongoing hiring and reappointment.  

“That would be a very mature thing to do,” Kvistad said.

Kezar said it's vital to gather such data, since "the picture may not be what we think it is in terms of cost savings."

Still, administrators present said conferring tenure for life on a professor was a costly endeavor that reduced institutional flexibility, and that instructional cost differentials between tenure-line and non-tenure-track professors – on the scale of 10 to 1 per credit hour – were undeniable.

Berliner said he was in favor of 35-year tenure, and that he was floating the idea at Hofstra.

Yakoboski, summing up the day’s conversation, encouraged administrators to view this along a faculty “continuum” rather than as two poles: tenure-line and adjuncts. Multiyear contract faculty members who teach or do research, for example, are a kind of “hybrid” who may have more in common with tenure-line professors than semester-to-semester faculty. The key is being clear about the job expectations for various faculty members.

He said the faculty model question should be considered on two levels, “macro” and “micro,” respectively. First, he said, what is the best configuration of faculty to support an institution's mission, given its financial and other restraints? Next, what are the best practices for employing adjuncts?

The economist again turned to sports to illustrate his point, arguing that the “small market” San Antonio Spurs recently won the National Basketball Association finals because not because every player was a “star” -- but because each had a unique skill set.  

“You allocate your budget across those [skill sets] and try to integrate them together,” he said. “You do it right, and you’re waving a trophy around.”

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