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Today's provosts are a skeptical lot. That may come with the territory, as they must constantly prioritize some ideas (and some people's careers) over others -- tasks that are never easy and have been made more challenging by the economic downturn.

But the 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers finds evidence that in some areas of higher education (MOOCs or massive open online courses, for example) provosts aren't yet ready to jump on the bandwagon, and relatively few see these offerings playing a positive, transformational role in higher education.

In other areas (tenure), provosts see established practice as the norm at their institutions, but an apparent skepticism for tenure shows up in the very high percentage who are open to the idea of long-term faculty contracts in its stead.

And while provosts appear to be well aware of the extent to which most colleges and universities today rely on non-tenure-track faculty members, two-thirds of provosts are skeptical that this will change -- and of those who expect change, CAOs are nearly twice as likely to anticipate increased reliance on adjuncts as they are to envision growth of the tenure track.

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When it comes to their own career paths, provosts appear skeptical of the desirability of their bosses' jobs. Relatively few provosts want them.

The survey, conducted for Inside Higher Ed by Gallup, is based on responses from 1,081 college and university provosts. (On some campuses, people with other titles -- such as vice president for academic affairs -- have the duties of provosts, and the results of this survey and references to "provosts" in this article include them as well.) For overall results, Gallup calculates that, with 95 percent certainty, the margin of error is 2.4 percentage points. Respondents were given complete anonymity, but institutional characteristics were collected to allow for breakdowns of some questions by institutional sector. A copy of the survey report can be downloaded here. Last year's survey of provosts (with some identical questions and others that have changed) may be found here.

Many of the issues discussed in the survey -- which also features questions about assessment, academic quality and the impact of budget cuts -- will be discussed at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, which kicks off today in Atlanta.

Faculty Careers in Flux

Given that provosts lead the academic affairs divisions in higher education, they are key players in defining the make-up of the faculty and how professors are hired, evaluated and promoted. This year's survey featured a number of questions on the tenure system, much prized by those who are on the tenure track and sought by many others who see it as the path to job security and academic freedom.

The survey found that 70 percent of provosts at public and private four-year institutions (and 54 percent of those at community colleges, where tenure is less common than it is at four-year institutions) agree that tenure "remains important and viable at my institution." (Not surprisingly, the figure was only 3 percent of provosts in for-profit higher education, where tenure is rare.)

But while 70 percent see that as the status quo, support for tenure among provosts appears soft at best. Asked if they favored or opposed a system of long-term contracts for faculty members over the existing system of tenure in higher education, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of provosts said that they favored such a system. Support was strongest among for-profit provosts (80 percent), but at majority-plus levels in every sector of higher education, two-year and four-year, public and private. At private doctoral universities, 67 percent of provosts favor such a system.

Another question sought provosts' thoughts on the long-term future of tenure. They were asked to agree or disagree (on a five-point scale) with the statement: "Future generations of faculty in this country should not expect tenure to be a factor in their employment at higher education institutions." The percentage agreeing or strongly agreeing:

  • Public institutions: 58 percent (with community colleges at 68 percent)
  • Private nonprofit institutions: 53 percent
  • For-profit institutions: 87 percent

The Adjunct Future

At many colleges and universities, a majority of instructors are already off the tenure track (even if the institutions have tenure). In recent years, adjuncts and their supporters have been pushing for changes in the system, with many arguing that colleges and universities need to improve the pay and working conditions of adjuncts, and also move to hire more people on the tenure track, with job security. One hypothesis put forward by those working on the issue is that many college leaders are unaware that their institutions rely on adjuncts, and that they might push for change if they understood the extent of adjunct use (and abuse).

The Inside Higher Ed survey finds that provosts -- across institutional sectors -- are well aware that their institutions rely on those off the tenure track. Asked if their institutions "rely significantly on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction," 65 percent said yes. The highest percentage (93 percent) was in the for-profit sector, but 71 percent of public provosts agreed, as did 55 percent of private provosts.

Notably, they don't appear to anticipate much change. And to the extent they do see change, they expect more reliance on those off the tenure track, not less.

Provosts' Predictions on Their Institutions' Future Reliance on Those Off the Tenure Track

 AllPublicPrivate NonprofitFor-Profit
Expect less reliance11%11%12%8%
Expect same level of reliance66%67%64%66%
Expect greater reliance23%22%23%26%

Another topic discussed by some who are worried about the academic market is whether doctoral programs should be admitting fewer students. Provosts appear divided on this issue. On a 1-5 scale, with 5 indicating strong agreement, 17 percent gave 5 as their response to the statement: "Graduate programs at higher education institutions are admitting more Ph.D. students than they should, given the current job market." Another 30 percent answered 4. But 29 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed by answering 1 or 2.

About the Survey

The 2013 Inside Higher Ed 
Survey of College and University
Provosts is part of a series of surveys of senior campus officials about key, time-sensitive issues in higher education.

Inside Higher Ed collaborated
with Gallup on this project.

The Inside Higher Ed survey
of provosts was made possible
in part by the generous financial support of ConnectEDU, InsideTrack, Jenzabar, McGraw-Hill Higher Education and PeopleAdmin.

Further, the strongest disagreement on the question came from provosts at the doctoral institutions that run the Ph.D. programs. Among all public institution provosts, 17 percent strongly agreed with the statement, but only 5 percent at public doctoral institutions agreed. Among all private institutions, the percentage saying 5 was 16 percent, but just 13 percent at doctoral institutions.

On other topics related to the faculty role at colleges and universities, some highlights of the survey:

  • Only 8 percent of provosts strongly agree that their faculty members understand the financial challenges facing their institutions.
  • Only 3 percent of provosts strongly agree that faculty unions benefit higher education, with the figures 4 percent at public institutions (where many have faculty unions) and 2 percent at private institutions (where such unions are rare). This question received very high "strongly disagree" responses, with 45 percent strongly disagreeing with the statement.
  • Relatively few provosts believe that faculty members can earn tenure based on research success if they are poor instructors. Only 2 percent strongly agreed and 5 percent agreed with that statement.

MOOCs and Other Reforms

The last year saw many colleges embrace numerous ideas to change the way education is delivered and -- in some cases -- how credit is awarded. Elite institutions launched MOOCs without any sense that they would award credit, and then development after development created ways for students to receive credit for MOOCs that are completed. Meanwhile the movement to award students credit for work they did outside traditional academic settings ("prior learning assessment") took off, as did the idea of awarding credits based on competency, not seat time. And some colleges considered making greater use of outside companies to run general education or remedial courses.

The impetus for many of these trends was a belief that traditional higher education isn't going to completely recover from the economic downturn of recent years, and that states are not going to be as reliable a source of funds as they once were. In this environment, proponents of these new approaches argue that higher education needs radical ideas both to add to the capacity of institutions and to improve teaching methods. And some say these approaches have the potential to either save colleges money or produce revenue for those leading the way.

The survey asked provosts about a variety of these trends -- both whether they would have a positive impact on higher education and whether the developments posed a threat to the business models of their institutions. The answers on MOOCs -- which much of higher education is rushing to embrace -- were striking in that the provosts are divided about whether these courses will have a positive impact, but are concerned about a possible impact on their business models.

Asked to respond to the statement that MOOCs would have a positive impact on higher education, 12 percent of provosts strongly agreed and 12 percent strongly disagreed, while another 24 percent agreed and 25 percent disagreed. Clear majorities of provosts believe that other types of reform initiatives -- such as prior learning assessment or competency-based learning -- will have a positive impact on higher education. But these other initiatives -- while making progress -- have yet to be showered with the high-level support and constant media attention of MOOCs.

One other reform that only a minority of provosts favor is the outsourcing of some courses, such as remedial and general education courses. But substantial minorities of provosts -- across sectors -- believe that such outsourcing benefits higher education.


When it comes to whether MOOCs and other innovations will hurt the business models of higher education, many provosts are worried. In fact they are decidedly more worried about MOOCs than about other reforms.

Forty-seven percent of all provosts strongly or very strongly agree that MOOCs could threaten "the business model of my institution." The highest level of concern is in for-profit higher education, where 65 percent of provosts believe that to be the case. Among nonprofit colleges and universities, the provosts most likely to strongly agree that their business model could be threatened are those at private bachelor's institutions (a group that includes many liberal arts colleges), where 19 percent of provosts strongly agreed with the statement.

The State of Academics, Assessment and the Economy

Provosts in the survey see a broad range of economic and academic issues facing their institutions in the year ahead. As was the case last year, public institution provosts are feeling more pressure on many issues than are their private counterparts. For instance, the issues identified by the most provosts as pressing for their institutions (across sectors) were improving retention and degree completion (first) and budget shortfalls and improving academic performance of underprepared students (tied for second).

On each of these issues, larger shares of public than private provosts reported that this would be a top issue. For instance, dealing with budget shortfalls will be a major challenge at the institutions of 51 percent of public provosts, but only 34 percent of private provosts.

Provosts also report greater levels of institutional effectiveness overall than they do on key areas. Across institutions, 65 percent of provosts said that their institutions were "very effective" in providing a quality undergraduate education. But the figures for specific parts of that education -- support services for students, preparing students for jobs, preparing students for engaged citizenship, using data on student outcomes -- were much lower.

Percentage of Provosts Ranking Their Institutions 'Very Effective' in Key Areas

 AllPublicPrivate NonprofitFor-Profit
Providing a quality undergraduate education65%61%72%50%
Using data to aid and inform campus decision-making25%26%23%38%
Undergraduate support services40%35%47%40%
Preparing students for the world of work43%39%45%57%
Identifying and assessing student outcomes21%19%22%34%
Recruiting and retaining talented faculty39%35%45%20%
Controlling rising costs for students and families22%26%17%22%
Preparing students for engaged citizenship27%19%38%22%

These self-evaluations of institutions raise the question of how college and university leaders can feel confident about the overall quality of undergraduate education when they don't feel that way about so many factors that are important to many students and families. For-profit provosts give themselves a lower grade over all on undergraduate education, but they are more likely to express confidence that they are preparing students for jobs, and that they are using data to inform decision-making.

Various questions in the survey show that chief academic officers across sectors report that their institutions have and use multiple tools to assess student learning. The most commonly used are the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. Those tools are dominant in the four-year and two-year sectors, respectively. In the more competitive space for measuring value-added learning and critical thinking in undergraduate education, provosts report institutions using the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, Collegiate Learning Assessment, Educational Testing Service Major Field Tests and other tests. But provosts continue to give their institutions poor grades when it comes to using data and assessment results, with relatively few reporting effective use of the information.

The Nature of the Provost's Job and of the President's

At a discussion last year at the AAC&U meeting of the results of last year's survey, several provosts suggested that a key evolution in their positions had taken place over the last decade, such that they were no longer strictly focused on academic affairs. Rather, some (but not all) of the provosts said that they had become charged with more financial duties, and those on the financial side of the house were more involved than ever in what once would have been strictly academic matters. This year's survey featured some questions based on those comments.

One question asked provosts to respond to the statement that "financial concerns ... are prevalent in my institution's discussions about launching new academic programs." Half of all the provosts strongly agreed, and another 36 percent agreed. Those who wish that intellectual and pedagogical factors were all that were considered in such debates might consider this fact: The sector with the smallest proportion of provosts strongly agreeing with that statement was for-profit higher education (only 41 percent).

Across sectors, provosts agreed (most of them strongly) that their jobs have grown beyond academic affairs, with 51 percent strongly agreeing and only 1 percent strongly disagreeing that this shift had taken place. Among community college provosts, not a single one strongly disagreed.

While provosts are clearly in no way shielded from the difficult economic choices facing many institutions, the survey results suggest that they don't necessarily long for the top job on campus, as once might have been the norm. Among all CAOs, respondents were more likely to strongly disagree (31 percent) than strongly agree (22 percent) that they aspire to presidencies. Community colleges are the sector where the highest proportion of provosts (27 percent) do strongly agree that they aspire to presidencies.