'Envisioning the Faculty'

New book rejects the model of just creating more and more adjunct positions, but also suggests that the path forward probably can't include tenure track for all.

October 17, 2016

By now just about everyone has gotten the message that the adjunctification of higher education is unsustainable. Yet there's no apparent sense of urgency by administrators to address the problem, as academe continues to "react" -- rather than thoughtfully "respond" -- to the changing makeup of the faculty and the factors driving it, argues a new book from Adrianna Kezar, founder of the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success at the University of Southern California.

True to the project's mission -- and the book's title -- Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century: Moving to a Mission-Oriented and Learner-Centered Model (Rutgers University Press) doesn't just offer criticism. It also seeks to establish common ground among faculty members, administrators and even students and accreditors, and explores possible solutions.

The book may attract criticism from some corners for not putting forth tenure-track positions for everyone as the way forward. But it's sure to start conversations on a number of campuses about what Kezar's been pushing for years in her ongoing research and advocacy: more "intentionality" in designing the faculty role. Inspiration for future models comes from some surprising places, including medical schools.

Kezar co-wrote and edited to the book -- which also contains contributions from other thinkers on the faculty role -- with Daniel Maxey. Formerly a co-director with the Delphi Project, Maxey is now a provost's fellow at Santa Clara University. They begin Envisioning the Faculty by undressing the myth, held by some, that the "traditional" faculty model -- in which the vast majority of faculty members are all considered for tenure, based on their teaching, research and service records -- isn't that traditional at all. It's largely a 20th-century phenomenon, they say, and should be seen as one chapter of professorial history.

They don't condone what they call the recent "devolution" of the faculty role, to a predominantly part-time workforce, however, and spend a significant time reviewing the literature suggesting it's bad for students, instructors and institutions alike. Some examples: poor working conditions for adjunct faculty members (no job security, relatively low pay and lots of instructor turnover) have been shown to have a negative impact on student retention, transfer from two-year to four-year institutions and graduation or completion rates. That's regardless of how skilled or committed adjuncts are.

Yet there's room for improvement in the tenure-track model, as well, Kezar and Maxey argue, or at least what's become of it. A disproportionate emphasis on conducting research undervalues teaching -- including innovations in teaching -- especially in the pretenure period, along with service, the book says. There's also little room for flexibility in hiring to teach in new fields or account for "market fluctuations" -- a common argument among administrators against more restrictive tenure-track hiring. Plus, tenure-track professors, now a minority across academe, feel the burden of service and shared governance previously spread across a great proportion of the faculty.

The book notes that academic freedom is often intertwined with tenure, but says the two ideas are not synonymous. Especially where trust exists between an administration and a faculty, it says, academic freedom can be protected -- absent tenure -- through the establishment of clear procedures to investigate alleged violations of academic freedom.

Building Common Ground

While some of the book’s arguments will sound familiar to followers of Kezar’s work, it includes the results of a new study gauging levels of agreement about the direction of the future faculty among various higher education groups. Survey participants, numbering 1,553, included disciplinary societies, full- and part-time, non-tenure-track faculty members, tenure-track professors, unions, provosts and deans, administrators, and accreditors. They revealed potentially surprising levels of consensus, especially regarding the notion that the faculty role should remain a professional one, with clear career paths and academic freedom (but not tenure).

“There was almost uniform agreement among all stakeholders in our survey on all the items related to ensuring that faculty members have academic freedom, equitable compensation and access to benefits, involvement in shared governance, access to resources needed to perform their role, opportunities for promotion, clearly defined expectations and evaluation criteria, clear notification of contract renewal as well as grievance processes, and continuous professional development,” the book says.

Yet “this level of support is at odds with hiring practices over the past 20 years that have moved away from the professionalization of faculty.”

The book recommends meaningful discussions as to why beliefs about faculty professionalism don’t meet employment practices, but flags faculty “autonomy” as something that merits rethinking. “Faculty as professionals in today’s environment may need to emphasize working collectively toward community, institutional or departmental goals, since it is unclear how well autonomy has served the academic enterprise as a whole.”

Survey participants also tended to agree that there’s an overreliance on part-time faculty and a need to move toward hiring more full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members. Open-ended comments seem to suggest that academic leaders are beginning to think more strategically about this, as well, and current full-time faculty members also commented about the “value” of their positions, in terms of professionalism. One full-timer said, for example, “I hold a nontenurable, full-time, continuing position, with health and retirement benefits. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty darn good situation. I’m also more fortunate than most anyone else I know who is not on a tenure track.”

The book proposes that some institutions adopt consortium models to meet their hiring goals, in which several colleges or universities jointly employ a single part-time faculty member so that the person has a full-time job. Survey participants strongly supported the idea, but some noted its limitations -- namely for geographically isolated institutions.

“Differentiated faculty roles,” in which professors working at diverse institutions are valued for the actual work they do -- not just the uniform expectations of teaching, research and service -- also attracted broad support. The survey asked in particular about the attractiveness of the model put forth by Ernest Boyer in the 1990 book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, in which scholarship includes that involving teaching, service and not just pure academic “discovery.”

While all survey participant groups supported notions of research and more flexible faculty career paths, they did not support further “unbundling” of faculty work, in which teaching is separated from curricular development, course design and assessment. “The responses and accompanying comments indicate that increasing the differentiation of faculty roles must be undertaken with care: the faculty role must not become so fragmented that it loses its focus on teaching -- one of the key ways in which it supports institutional missions,” the book says.

Tenure Remains Thorny

Unsurprisingly, survey participants didn’t agree on everything, and tenure was a major point of division. Tenured faculty and deans generally saw phasing out tenure as a very negative proposition. Other academic leadership groups and -- interestingly -- non-tenure-track faculty members saw it as attractive or neutral.

Notable for its universal lack of support was “termed tenure,” in which professors are given tenure for defined periods of time, such as 15 to 20 years. Some respondents in comments said it would hasten the end of tenure entirely, while others said it was too like the current tenure system to be a meaningful change.

Yet the book says term tenure is still a “viable option and one way to save tenure from being eradicated.”

Moving Forward

Four main faculty models have emerged as alternatives to the tenure track: use of adjuncts; full-time, non-tenure-track faculty; online, for-profit higher education (nearly all faculty members are adjuncts); and clinical faculty within medical schools, Kezar and Maxey say. While some individual institutions have intentionally planned out their full-time, non-tenure-track faculty model, they say, only the clinical faculty medical school model has been thoughtfully adopted at scale.

William T. Mallon, senior director of organizational learning and research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, elaborates on the model in one of several contributed chapters (others include those on principles for reform and what students have to say -- spoiler alert: their accounts support research regarding the effects of poor non-tenure-track employment practices on student success).

The book describes medical school faculty appointments as categorized into three tracks: research, education and clinical. Tracks can be combined, but research faculty members’ work centers on knowledge generation, while education or teaching faculty members are charged with instruction. Clinical faculty members, meanwhile, maintain their own medical practices but teach on a part-time basis.

“All of the tracks are afforded equal status, and medical schools have worked to redefine cultural norms that often prioritized research and clinical practice over teaching,” the book says. “Faculty on all three tracks are included in governance and given voting rights. They all receive appropriate support and equitable compensation and benefits, although there are often different systems for evaluation and promotion.” Tenure is reserved for only a small number of professors conducting basic science research.

Kezar said in an interview that many aspects of the medical school model are “portable” to other disciplines, including more full-time faculty members, standard inclusion in governance, differentiation and customization of work, or role. Yet ultimately she and Maxey are reluctant to recommend any single model as the way forward.

Instead, they try to encapsulate characteristics of the future faculty in the notion of a “scholarly educator.” Kezar described a system revolving around the scholarly educator as tenured positions at some institution based on teaching; scholarly roles for all faculty -- not necessarily focused on original research, but aligned with their contract and role; more flexible and differentiated models by contracts that change over time; long-term contracts over a probationary period; more full-time employment; and emphasis on collaboration, technology, community engagement, interdisciplinary work and an international focus.

"We suggest some institutions might chose to tenure for teaching," she said. "Others might move to long-term contracts for those teaching. Some might move all faculty no matter what their focus to long-term contracts or tenure in any role. But the trend is likely toward more longer-term contracts." 

Kezar added, “Colleges and universities have changed dramatically with a significant growth in institutions focused on teaching and the faculty role needs to evolve with these changes. Within some institutions, there will be faculty who conduct traditional research but we need to dramatically expand our notions of scholarship to be aligned with the multiple types of institutions that exist and their varying missions. But we need to guard against a hierarchy that will destroy the community of faculty.”


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