Valuing the Faculty

New report argues for more investment in instruction in higher education, to promote student success.

September 17, 2015

Who needs the faculty? A new working paper by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a coalition of faculty unions and other academic associations, asks that question and answers resoundingly that face time with faculty members is key to student success. Unfortunately, it says, colleges and universities continue to divert funds away from instruction in an attempt to cut costs -- a strategy that actually hurts them in the long run.

While the report is more a summary of the existing research on the effects of non-tenure-track faculty employment on student learning than new data, it brings together the perspectives of prominent faculty advocates. It also offers a discussion of what this funding shift looks like within one university system.

“Although 50 years of research has shown that faculty/student interaction is crucial to student success, recent trends and newly adopted practices in higher education actually decrease the possibilities for faculty to interact with students in the amounts and the ways that matter most,” reads the paper, called “Back to School in Higher Ed: Who Needs Faculty?”

“If research were driving higher education policy, investing in faculty would be a top priority at every college and university,” it says. “But what is happening in our country, instead, is a growing disinvestment in faculty.”

Case in point? In 1969, permanent tenured and tenure-track positions accounted for three of four faculty appointments. In 2013, they were one in five, according to the campaign. Meanwhile, administrative ranks have swelled. In 1990, according to the campaign, colleges and universities, both public and private, had more full-time faculty positions than administrative ones on average. And also in 1990, nonresearch institutions had about twice as many full-time faculty as administrators. Twenty years later, those numbers are roughly equal.

“Providing all students with real opportunities for success in college will require a shift in institutional priorities, particularly as reflected in their budgets, to better align our colleges and universities with the core mission of higher education and the role faculty play in carrying it out successfully,” the campaign says.

There’s a “remarkable irony that as students are paying more and more [in tuition] and accruing greater and greater debt, less and less money proportionally is being spent on instruction,” said Gary Rhoades, a member of the campaign and professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

That’s problematic because faculty-student interaction -- not just in the classroom but also in an advising capacity -- is one of the biggest keys to student success, said Adrianna Kezar, professor and director of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California. Kezar studies the effects of non-tenure-track faculty employment on student learning, and her work is the backbone of the paper. Evidence suggests that more faculty face time leads to higher grades, better self-confidence and graduate school aspirations, among many other indicators of success, and those outcomes are even more pronounced among students of color and first-generation students, she said.

Underrepresented minority and first-generation students make up a large proportion of the students enrolled in the California State University System. And yet, the campaign says, the number of full-time faculty members increased by 8 percent between 2004 and 2013, compared to a 20 percent student enrollment increase and 19 percent increase in the number of administrators. Many campuses have compensated by hiring large numbers of part-time faculty members. (A number of Cal State campuses have started major faculty hiring campaigns in the last year, with improved state appropriations, although those hires are unlikely to restore prerecession faculty-student ratios).

Jennifer Eagan, a professor of philosophy and public affairs and administration at California State University at East Bay, and president of the California Faculty Association, a systemwide faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union, highlighted the paper’s inclusion of a system faculty study. Among the study's findings is that half of instructors make less than $40,000 per year. Eagan, who spent years as a department chair, said many non-tenure-track faculty members are supremely qualified for their positions but the university’s hiring and employment policies makes it challenging for them to be effective.

Rhoades said students can help bring about change by highlighting quality of education, not just cost, in their conversations with lawmakers and college and university officials about student debt.


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