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Provosts are confident in the academic quality of their institutions, despite negative changes brought about by the pandemic, according to the 2021 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, published today by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research.

While expressing confidence, the provosts were not blind to the costs of the pandemic and academic leaders' choices about how institutions should respond. About one in four provosts said that their institution had cut faculty positions during the pandemic. They said most of the positions were adjuncts (67 percent), but also cut were nontenured, tenure-track faculty (19 percent).

More provosts from private institutions than public ones said that the humanities disciplines were disproportionately cut (33 percent versus 4 percent).

Provosts also said:

  • Institutions will probably offer more hybrid and online courses after the pandemic.
  • About six in 10 provosts indicate that their faculty members feel at least very or extremely engaged with their work, but far smaller percentages report that their faculty feel very or extremely connected to (18 percent) or supported by (38 percent) the administration.
  • Their institutions are re-examining their curriculum to assure it is inclusive and diverse (64 percent) as well as adopting new diversity goals for faculty and staff hiring (52 percent). More provosts from private institutions (69 percent) report that their faculty were very or extremely receptive to these changes than do those from public ones (49 percent).

More on the Survey

Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers was conducted by Hanover Research for the first time this year. The survey included 183 provosts from public, private nonprofit and for-profit institutions. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Wednesday, May 26, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.

The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers was made possible in part by support from Oracle, Wiley Education Services, APL nextED, D2L, AWS and the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.

  • Although provosts believe that a liberal arts education is essential for a quality education, they also indicate that it is in decline. While 93 percent agree that a liberal arts education is central to undergraduate studies, 73 percent said that they expect to see the number of liberal arts colleges decline significantly over the next five years. Additionally, most (92 percent) say that liberal arts education is not well understood in the U.S.
  • Most provosts (84 percent) agree that a high-quality undergraduate education requires healthy departments in fields like English. But they also note that politicians and board members are prioritizing STEM and professional programs over general education (72 percent). Furthermore, only 28 percent believe that there will be major allocations of funds to arts and science programs in their institution's next budget.
  • Around nine in 10 provosts report that their college responds effectively and fairly to allegations of sexual harassment.
  • Sixty percent do not believe graduate students should be able to unionize, and only 4 percent of provosts indicate that their colleges have graduate student unions. The biggest factor guiding those who do not want graduate student unions is the belief that graduate students are primarily students, and employees second.

This year's survey was completed by 183 provosts (or at institutions without a provost, the person who is vice president for academic affairs). All answers were anonymous but sorted by sector.

Academic Health of the College

In evaluating the health of their institutions, the provosts offered a split view. For the fall 2020 semester, the first full semester of the pandemic, they thought quality was good. Eighty-three percent of provosts thought the quality of courses was good or excellent, but only 45 percent said that student engagement was good or excellent, and only 31 percent saw faculty research as good or excellent.

But the provosts were then asked how the fall 2020 semester compared to previous semesters.

 Much WorseSomewhat WorseAbout the SameSomewhat BetterMuch Better
Quality of courses1%41%47%9%6%
Faculty research6%45%44%3%2%
Student engagement7%69%15%7%2%

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said, "It is not surprising that provosts reported perceptions that the quality of courses in the fall semester was worse than before the pandemic. Many faculty had never taught online and were learning new technologies and pedagogies."

She also said it is important to remember that many faculty members -- especially women and minority faculty members -- "were juggling caregiving responsibilities."

Pasquerella also said that the statements on courses still being good were striking to her. "The findings remind me of the Inside Higher Ed survey showing that presidents believe race is a problem on college campuses, but not on their own. There is a reluctance to admit that the quality of courses falls short because administrators are trained to create an ascendant narrative," she said.

Cuts to the Faculty

On many campuses, one of the most painful cuts involved eliminating faculty jobs. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of provosts said that they had cut faculty positions because of the pandemic.

Of those that made cuts, adjunct faculty were the top target, with 67 percent saying that they had lost positions. But the tenure track was not fully protected. Nineteen percent said they had eliminated positions of faculty members who were on the tenure track but not yet tenured, and 14 percent said that they had eliminated tenured faculty positions.

On some campuses, these cuts were deep. Ten percent of those making cuts said that the cuts were 10 to 25 percent of the total faculty, and 29 percent said the cuts were 5 to 9.9 percent of the faculty.

For cuts to the tenured faculty, the American Association of University Professors has guidelines that state that such layoffs should come only when an institution has declared financial exigency. Only 9 percent of provosts at institutions that eliminated faculty jobs said they "heavily consulted" the guidelines. Of the remainder, half "somewhat consulted" the guidelines, and half did not consult them at all.

Irene Mulvey, national president of the AAUP and a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, said via email, "In institutions of higher education, where the primary mission is academics, cutting faculty should be the absolutely last resort. If cuts need to be made, faculty should be involved through their shared governance body and/or faculty union. What we have seen is that on campuses (like Rutgers and Hofstra, to name a couple) when the faculty are at the table in a meaningful way they can often work collaboratively and creatively with administrations to save faculty and staff jobs."

She added that "the pandemic was extremely difficult on faculty. At the beginning, faculty had to move all instruction online with very limited time for preparation or training. The work needed to teach last spring was overwhelming and exhausting. The added burdens of trying to teach classes in extremely difficult circumstances, and with students facing their own personal challenges related to the pandemic, brought most other work to a grinding halt."

The provosts were also asked if the faculty cuts disproportionately hit the humanities. Over all, 14 percent said they had, but that was split between 4 percent at public institutions and 33 percent at private institutions.

Faculty and the Administration

The provosts' answers showed that they believe faculty members are engaged with their work, but not with the administration.

To What Extent Do You Believe That Faculty Feel …

 Not at AllSlightlyModeratelyVeryExtremely
Engaged in their work?<1%7%34%55%4%
Supported by the administration?1%13%48%36%2%
Connected to the administration?2%17%63%18%<1%

Mulvey of the AAUP said, "My reaction to the survey data for the question on faculty engagement and support is that when provosts are reporting, on behalf of faculty, that faculty feel 'very engaged with their work,' this 'engagement' could be an indication of the fact that faculty are working harder than ever just to keep up with the teaching classes and advising students. The fact that only one in five feels 'very connected' to the administration points to faculty that have been working harder than ever over the last 14 months but are burned out, overwhelmed, overburdened and exhausted."

The provosts also were asked if their institution had adjusted tenure policies during the pandemic, and 40 percent said that they had, but 43 percent said that they should have.

On tenure (irrespective of the pandemic), the provosts continue to believe it is important, but not with the numbers that faculty members might like. Sixty-three percent of provosts believe tenure "is important and viable at my institution."

However, the provosts also said that they rely on non-tenure-track faculty members for teaching (72 percent). And 65 percent of the provosts said that in the future, their colleges will remain as reliant on tenure as they are now. Another 25 percent said that their institutions would be more reliant.

And provosts are open to other ways to protect academic freedom. More than half of provosts (51 percent) agreed that they would favor a system of long-term contracts instead of tenure.

It is clear from the answers that the provosts -- much as they like the tenure system -- are thinking about other ways to protect academic freedom.

Is Your College Doing the Following for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members?

 My College Has Not Considered ThisMy College Has Considered ThisMy College Has Done This
Multiple-year contracts39%13%49%
Voting rights as a faculty member40%13%47%
Better recognition of the roles of those who are only teachers35%24%41%
New job titles51%20%29%

Professional Development

The provosts generally said they offer professional development tools for faculty members in certain areas, but at some institutions, not in others.

They said that professional development is offered in:

  • Teaching with technology: 97 percent.
  • Promoting active teaching techniques: 90 percent.
  • Promoting student success: 85 percent.
  • Using assessment systems: 68 percent.
  • Measuring the effectiveness of digital tools: 46 percent.

Liberal Arts Education

The provosts, as they have been in past years, are generally supportive of liberal arts education, but they expect continued attacks on it. They think it is shrinking.

Ninety-three percent of provosts believe that the liberal arts are "central to undergraduate education -- even in professional programs."

But 92 percent agree that the liberal arts aren't understood in the U.S., 73 percent expect to see the number of liberal arts institutions "decline significantly in the next five years," 66 percent believe "politicians, presidents and boards are increasingly unsympathetic to liberal arts education," and 54 percent believe "liberal arts education in all types of institutions in the U.S. is in decline."

On general education, the provosts are, again, strong supporters. Ninety-three percent said that general education is a crucial part of any college degree.

But only 26 percent agree that "students at my college understand the purpose of our general education requirements."

More Online After the Pandemic?

The provosts see their institutions becoming more online in the wake of the pandemic. A minority, however, responding perhaps to the criticism of online courses during the pandemic, see the online role shrinking.

 Significantly FewerSomewhat FewerThe SameSomewhat MoreSignificantly More
After the pandemic, do you believe that your institution will offer fewer or more hybrid courses than before the pandemic?4%5%17%54%20%
After the pandemic, do you believe that your institution will offer fewer or more online courses than before the pandemic?4%6%17%63%10%

The provosts who are considering adding online courses are planning to do the work themselves. Asked if they are considering working with an outside provider to help them design or deliver the courses, 82 percent said no, 7 percent said yes and 11 percent already have an outside group.

Confronting Racism

The last year has seen an enormous push to make college campuses more welcoming of diverse students and more inclusive. The provosts indicated that they are working on this issue, and that their campuses are as well.

The top areas cited were the curriculum and hiring. The last area, cutting ties to local police departments, had the support of only 1 percent.

Name the Changes Your Campus Is Taking or Considering to Deal With Structural Racism in the U.S. (can name more than one item)

  • Re-examining the institution's curriculum to assure it is inclusive and diverse: 64 percent.
  • Adopting new diversity goals for faculty and staff hiring: 52 percent.
  • Further expanding the institution's recruiting of students from underserved communities: 45 percent.
  • Implementing changes in curriculum: 39 percent.
  • Mandating diversity training for employees: 32 percent.
  • Implementing changes in student orientation: 31 percent.
  • Adopting new diversity goals for student enrollment: 27 percent.
  • Cutting ties to local police departments: 1 percent.

Generally, the provosts said that the faculty was very receptive to the changes under consideration, with 13 percent of reporting campuses saying that their faculties were extremely receptive and 47 percent very receptive.

Sex Harassment

On sex harassment, provosts generally agreed that a finding of sexual harassment should be treated as grounds for dismissal, but they didn't agree that such findings should be made public.

Agreement With …

 Strongly DisagreeDisagreeNeutralAgreeStrongly Agree
A finding of sexual harassment by a tenured faculty member should be treated as grounds for dismissal.0%3%12%39%45%
I believe colleges should bar all romantic relationships between faculty members and students.0%9%16%35%40%
Higher education has tolerated sexual harassment by faculty members for too long.2%8%24%39%27%
When a faculty member is found responsible for sexual harassment, the college should make that finding public.4%38%34%18%6%
I am surprised by the number of cases of alleged or actual sexual harassment that emerged in the past year.11%46%25%13%5%

A final question: asked how the pandemic affected their responsibilities, 92 percent said they had increased, 7 percent said they had stayed the same and 1 percent said they had decreased.