'The Faculty Factor'

Book argues that faculty’s diminishing influence puts higher education at risk. Suggested interventions include changing tenure to save it -- namely by ending it for professors at 70 years of age.

November 15, 2016
 

Ten years ago, a book called The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers argued that academic life was experiencing a revolution -- “seismic shifts” in the way professors work -- of lasting significance. It noted, in particular, growing numbers of non-tenure-track appointments. While the book was resonant with anyone paying attention a decade ago, it’s perhaps even more so now.

That is, the pace of change to the professoriate has only continued to accelerate, making a follow-up to The American Faculty urgent to its authors, Martin Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and Jack H. Schuster, senior research fellow and professor emeritus of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University. So they picked up a new co-author, Valerie Martin-Conley, dean of the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and got to work.

The result, The Faculty Factor: The American Academy in a Turbulent Era, was published recently by Johns Hopkins University Press. The book’s central argument is that increasing costs and demands for efficiency as enrollments grew over the last 20 years have resulted in a half-baked restructuring of the faculty -- at great risk to higher education over all. And this haphazard change is happening just as global institutions -- with whom American colleges and universities increasingly collaborate and compete -- are looking to emulate the U.S. system.

The rub? The key to that system has been the “faculty factor,” or the extent to which professors are central to the academic enterprise, the book says. So, as Finkelstein argued in a 2014 essay he co-wrote for Inside Higher Ed, institutions diminishing the faculty role risk “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

A ‘Third Paradigm’ for Higher Ed

The Faculty Factor proposes that higher education has entered a its “third paradigm” since the post-World War II enrollment boom, after the faculty’s rise to influence in the modern “multiversity,” and increasing market pressures on higher education, respectively. This new era, the book argues, is one of “reconstitution,” in which the faculty is being more narrowly repurposed and, as a consequence, its influence significantly diminished.

Elements and drivers of this new paradigm include rapid advances in technology across campuses, increased faculty specialization, persistent market pressures, decreased shared governance and, of course, the growth of non-tenure-track appointments. And its essence? Calling into question “the centrality of the faculty.”

Where has the focus gone? Toward student learning, the book says -- not a bad thing. But the interests of student learners won’t be adequately served until some rebalancing occurs, and soon, lest the costs to higher learning “become irrevocable.”

Among other potential costs, Finkelstein, Martin-Conley and Schuster warn that deteriorating working conditions for professors constrain academic career advancement and will likely “undermine the attractiveness of such careers to those highly talented would-be faculty members, perhaps deflecting prospective faculty on other competing career options.”

The risk is real, the book argues, as there are more diverse pathways both into and out of academic careers, and faculty jobs are becoming increasingly complex and specialized. At the same time, growth in faculty compensation is essentially flat.

The book includes a detailed study of faculty jobs and characteristics. It finds major stratification of teaching positions since over the past few decades, for example, coupled with gains in faculty diversity -- but only off the tenure track. The authors released some of those findings earlier this year in a paper funded by TIAA.

What the Faculty Looks Like Now

The study relies on data from the National Center for Higher Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System from the years 1993, 2003 and 2013.

Underrepresented minority groups held approximately 13 percent of faculty jobs in 2013, up from 9 percent in 1993. Yet they still only hold 10 percent of tenured jobs, according to the study. Women now hold 49 percent of total faculty positions but just 38 percent of tenured jobs.

The researchers’ point of departure is basic IPEDS data illustrating what the researchers call the dramatic “redistribution” of faculty jobs. While the number of head count, or overall, faculty members grew by about 65 percent over the 20-year period studied, the number of part-time faculty more than doubled (115 percent).

Yet the number of full-time faculty expanded by just 31 percent. Tenured and tenure-track jobs increased by just 11 percent, as full-time, non-tenure-track or contract appointments grew by 84 percent.

Age is also of concern to the authors, who argue that the end of mandatory retirement for professors has added to higher education’s sense of faculty “flux” and therefore added to an at least perceived need for more flexible appointments off the tenure track. Many college presidents, for example, say that their planning is hindered by a lack of certainly over who will be retiring when.

Finkelstein, Martin-Conley and Schuster urge several higher education interventions, including federal revitalization of the Pell Grant and other programs providing “purchasing power” to those seeking access to higher education. Crucially, they also say the faculty factor needs monitoring -- namely through the restoration of the U.S. Education Department’s comprehensive National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, which ceased after 2003.

Regarding stratification of faculty appointments, the authors recognize that some part-time instructors prefer that role. But broadly, they recommend institutions collect more data about the makeup of their faculties -- including by discipline -- and share that information with students, parents and the broader community.

“The goal, at minimum, would require institutions of higher education to more precisely tabulate the types of academic appointments distributed across the different academic units on their campus, as well as some indicators of the distribution of workload across appointment types; this will make it possible for a more nuanced picture to emerge and to enable identifying trend lines that can be more accurately ascertained and comprehended.”

Ultimately, the book urges the academy to establish and publicize norms -- guidelines, not limits -- for the proportion of faculty members that are full time. Of course, they would change by institution type, but extreme outliers could nevertheless be identified, especially by students.

End of Tenure at 70?

And what of tenure? The Faculty Factor argues -- admittedly controversially -- for the mandatory end of tenure at age 70. Different from a mandatory retirement age, from which higher education lost its exemption in 1994, the mandatory end of tenure would mean that professors could keep teaching after 70 if they so desired (and also that they’d be otherwise protected by legislation against age discrimination and enjoy academic freedom). But they’d have to continue to meet job expectations and pass reviews.

The authors say that a tenure cap at 70 is somewhat arbitrary and would likely be challenged in the courts (though they contend that limiting this one aspect of academic life doesn’t conflict with Age Discrimination in Employment Act). But the idea is to break -- or at least crack -- tenure to save it.

“We think that such a limitation on tenure’s reach would strike an important blow to the all-too-common criticism that once tenured, tenured forevermore -- in effect a perception of lifetime employment security. … The effect of such a change would be mainly psychological, to discourage faculty and their institutions from reacting to tenure as if it were a guarantee of protected employment in all but egregious misbehavior or extreme malperformance.”

The book links an initial spike in non-tenure-track appointments in the late 1980s to the lapse in mandatory retirement, saying that a small but growing uptick in the number of professors retiring after 70 has made administrators reluctant to fund new tenure lines.

Adjustments to tenure must include widespread posttenure review and more attractive phased retirement options, argues The Faculty Factor. Periodic posttenure reviews must be conducted by faculty peers and should be “consequential” -- a factor in determining compensation and promotion decisions, for example, or even termination in cases where significant “deficiencies” are shown to persist.

The process must be constructive, transparent and deep, considering all those aspects of a faculty member’s activity (instruction, scholarship, service) deemed relevant.

The authors take no position on frequency of such reviews, but note that meaningful assessments take time and therefore can’t be too frequent -- or too rare. They merely suggest that five to seven years is a current norm for formal reviews, which may be supplemented by more informal ones in the interim.

“In the main, we advocate for more feedback rather than less,” the book says.

Accreditors Share Blame

The Faculty Factor also suggests accreditors -- both regional and specialized -- have played a role in “diluting” professors’ influence over their institutions. For example, it says, accreditation standards over the past several decades have shifted dramatically toward “outcome” metrics, including retention, degree completion and job placement rates, and away from “inputs,” such as faculty qualifications, library holdings and financial resources.

“This notable transformation continues, but in our view has swung so far toward complying with performance and output criteria promulgated by government entities and, too, regional accreditors -- virtually disregarding the proportion of full-time faculty -- as to seriously compromise at least two traditional core values accreditation: the importance of peer review and institutional and program autonomy.”

With accreditors’ increasing role as gatekeeper for establishing minimum standards for a program or institution to continue to receive federal student financial assistance, the book continues, the faculty’s “very complex and nuanced task of assessing and assuring academic quality” in the accreditation process has been sidelined.

Schuster said the new book paints a picture of changes to the professoriate and academe generally that have “have been wide and deep, sometimes subtle but sometimes quite graphic.” And one net result “is the faculty’s diminishing influence on their respective campuses.”

Finkelstein said that over the last 30 years, “we have seen the resources dry up and the academic career-work infrastructure built post-World War II disintegrate in the face of the appointments revolution.” The largely positive expansion of access to higher education did make it necessary to modify the traditional, full-time model of higher education to some new set of arrangements that could “scale,” he said, but U.S. institutions and the federal government have responded to the challenge “helter-skelter.” That’s without regard to sound educational practices and functioning or the future attractiveness of academic careers “critical for the long-term health of the enterprise.”

“Not only are we not focused on monitoring the situation, but we are actually getting rid of the major data sources that allow us to monitor such developments at the national level,” Finkelstein added. Consequently, the “prominence of the system is at long-term risk.”

Many faculty members on and off the tenure track will surely appreciate The Faculty Factor’s call to action regarding adjunct faculty appointments -- including a push for more institutional transparency about faculty teaching and employment conditions. But the book’s most controversial proposal is sure to be the age cap on tenure.

Pushback and Praise

Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said his organization would likely oppose any such cap. Tenure simply isn’t a “job for life,” he said, as tenured professors can be -- and are -- dismissed for cause.

Tiede said ending faculty tenure at 70 seemed a lot like moving long-serving professors to contingent appointments, and therefore would be closely linked to -- if not exactly the same as -- mandatory retirement. And that’s something the AAUP has opposed on the grounds that it’s discriminatory.

“Our basic position is that the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom,” he said. “It’s not as if the need to protect academic freedom ends at a certain age. If the concern is about the professional fitness of an individual faculty member, that should be addressed on an individual basis and not across the board on the basis of age.”

Finkelstein said the issue nevertheless remains the “elephant in the room,” as leaving retirement decisions in the hands of the individual professors has “created enormous uncertainly for colleges and universities.” Moreover, he said, it’s made them “very reluctant to bring in new faculty on tenure-track contracts in an economically volatile environment where student consumer tastes can change a lot and abruptly.”

Cathy Trower, a longtime governance consultant who co-founded the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, endorsed the book over all for its attention to the fact that faculty roles are being “rearranged, redefined, redistributed and repurposed,” and for being a kind of one-stop shop for data on the changing makeup of the faculty.

Trower said The Faculty Factor captures the fact that the academy “will never go back to a simpler time,” meaning that both the research model and what drew many academics to faculty work in the first place have shifted.

“Personally, I think this is good,” she said. “Institutions need to change to stay in step with the times -- they need to be more responsive, diversified and nimble.”

While the authors argue that erosion of tenure has diminished faculty influence, Trower said she wasn’t sure it “ever made sense to expect all faculty to be excellent in all ways,” or the “triple threat” of teaching, research and service. “There are just only so many superstars. So I think it makes sense to have faculty do what they do best, either teaching or research, and for some, the teacher-scholar thing works.”

Trower acknowledged the authors’ finding that non-tenure-track posts are increasing just as women and people of color are entering academe in greater numbers, however, saying that this is “not good from a diversity and inclusion point of view.”

She said she remained “more optimistic than pessimistic that the academy will adapt, change and flourish,” however. “It must and it will.”

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