Innovation is the catchword of the day. You’ve heard the speeches and read the op-eds. Higher education needs to innovate: teach differently and use more high impact practices, improve completion rates, integrate new technologies, assess student learning, engage in interdisciplinary teaching and research, help students transition successfully to college – among other improvements.
I have been involved with many such reform efforts in the past two decades, but the same problem emerges persistently as we try to innovate – there are no core faculty to do the work over time, no plans for faculty engagement, no blueprints for professional development. There are no provisions, in short, to meet these goals. Great novel curriculums are developed, important new pedagogies tested and codified, and new forms of assessment instituted, but no one there to implement these key innovations.
One large national project after another fails to meet its goals because it does not provide a way to work with the faculty who keep our institutions functioning.
As we know, the composition of the faculty has changed. Numbers of non-tenure-track faculty, particularly part-time, have ballooned in proportion to the declining population on the tenure track. I have never found an innovation-focused project that includes plans to integrate non-tenure-track instructors or consider how the shrinking tenure track faculty members are too stretched with additional research and service work to be meaningfully involved in innovating.
As just one example, the MDRC evaluation of Achieving the Dream noted how the lack of integration of adjunct faculty negatively affected its success. Our employment practices are broken. Yet higher education is a service profession relying on human capital for success.
I have reached out to most national foundations, agencies and higher education associations to help them understand that without addressing the faculty role, the funded initiatives will be largely failures – if we are speaking about deep and meaningful scaled changes, not fringe marginal side efforts. Most foundations don’t want to fund superficial changes, but that is what the current landscape is set up to do.
We want innovation, but we aren’t willing to examine the capacity issues that thwart important and needed innovation. In fact, higher education’s capacity to innovate in important areas for student success is becoming increasingly hampered by the longstanding and escalating shift to a contingent workforce that is obliged to work with no support.
Others reformers hope to move away from a labor-intensive model – using technology to replace faculty. Technology, the thinking goes, can be programmed to teach as we want, can assess learning, and perhaps provide student support and guidance now missing at some institutions.
This is erroneous thinking. Technology alone does not engage students or use pedagogies that can instill critical thinking. Current high-tech pedagogies largely reinforce memorization or cater to highly privileged learners.
Technology as we know it now also cannot provide the human touch, which sparks learning. Learning is after all a social process. Technology alone cannot offer complex assessments. The support it provides is rote; it cannot offer career advice, help with time management, or assist students in thinking about life purpose and one’s role as a citizen.
Technology to replace faculty is magical thinking, an empty promise. And building technologies that can offer anything close to resembling human capacities is extremely expensive, not cheap. While technology is essential as higher education moves forward, for example, as can be achieved in hybrid classrooms, it is not a substitute for human beings.
If we are to engage in meaningful reform so that higher education can innovate, we need a strategy to develop new faculty employment models. Rather than ignoring the faculty or imagining that we can do without professors, we need a plan that can help redesign the faculty role to meet student needs institutional mission.
Some institutions are trying – tinkering with turning part-time roles into full-time non-tenure-track positions, providing access to important resources like professional development, creating a promotional track, and elevating teaching within the rewards and incentive system. But these experiments are fragile as there is no national vision for the faculty or support within the system for these new roles.
Without a funded, large-scale initiative to help connect disciplinary societies, faculty and academic leaders, students, unions, accreditors, business and industry, and policy makers, it is unlikely that any initiative will represent the interests of the key groups in the system. Such an effort would include some of the following steps:
- Create a set of Future Faculty Career Pathways through research and vetting with knowledgeable and diverse stakeholders
- Develop a major report on Future Faculty Career Pathways
- Work with leading scholars on economic models to support new career pathways
- Disseminate and achieve buy-in for Future Faculty Career pathway models using a strategic array of existing stakeholder groups, including trustees, presidents, academic administrators, policy makers, higher education associations, accreditors, disciplinary societies, unions, and faculty associations.
We need the best ideas advanced for redesigning faculty roles, which can come through garnering ideas from all the key stakeholders and having these groups help move that vision into the overall system. We need courageous funders to invest not just in innovations – but in the capacity to innovate.
Adrianna Kezar is professor at the Rossier School of Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. She also directs the Delphi Project  on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.