The Scholarly Educator: A Case for New Faculty Models

By March 28, 2018 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

While financial sustainability, the cultivation of effective executive leadership, and the need to respond to increasing public skepticism about higher education are among the most critical issues facing boards today, an often overlooked challenge is the seismic shift in the composition and nature of the faculty in the past 40 years. In 1969, amid well-publicized campus unrest and dramatic social and cultural change, nearly eight of every 10 faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track; today, the proportion is nearly the inverse, with 70 percent of instructional faculty working outside the tenure track, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Most commentators argue that returning to the tenure-track model in its current form is not possible because of limited public support, lack of institutional finances for such extensive commitments, and needed flexibility for changes in academic program offerings. Yet, some trailblazing campuses have made progress in redesigning faculty roles to address the problems associated with the current contingent model as well as adjusting tenure-track faculty roles. More and more campuses are taking up the task to better serve their missions and to ensure student success. In short, neither the pole of radical contingency nor that of radical security is an adequate model for the future of the faculty.

The Delphi Project (with which the authors are affiliated and with which AGB has partnered since its beginning in 2011) has explored the problems associated with adjunct and tenure-track models alike, and has been a trailblazer in trying to educate leaders about the need to examine, strategize, plan, and implement new faculty models. Here we focus on moving toward new faculty models while providing a brief summary of the problems that motivate the need for trustees to make changes.

THREATS TO QUALITY OF INSTRUCTION

The adjunct faculty originally hired to accommodate new and expanding institutions and program types after World War II were practitioners in their fields seeking to teach classes based on their professional expertise, supplementing permanent faculty. This was enriching for professional and vocational students and beneficial to already-employed adjuncts who found other advantages in teaching alongside their day jobs.

Today, the current two-tier system of faculty roles is broken. The contingent faculty model has shifted in proportion and purpose, and now primarily serves to provide instruction at minimal cost. In essence, it has evolved into a staffing model that is administratively convenient but has minimal, if any, employer-side obligations associated with traditional faculty, such as benefits, a degree of job security, or professional development. The need for adequate pay and working conditions has driven many would-be faculty to leave academia for more desirable roles. Others languish in roles that neither match their professional needs nor provide an environment in which to thrive. And in the past decade we have seen dramatic news media coverage that draws attention to the moral challenges facing the growing numbers of contingent and adjunct university faculty, including the growing frequency of problematic on-campus incidents and the drastic measures underpaid adjunct faculty take to ensure their income aligns with their expenses. To be sure, these concerns fall on traditional tenure-track as well as contingent faculty roles, and both need examination. But these issues of institutional integrity are fundamental to mission and purpose, and tip into trustees’ fiduciary duties.

Current non-tenure-track roles limit the ability of faculty to be excellent instructors who contribute to student learning and instead circumscribe a narrow focus on the delivery of educational content. Contingent faculty typically have limited or no professional development opportunities or procedures for constructive evaluation, and often do not have the support or resources to access effective and innovative pedagogies, practices, and strategies despite growing evidence of their association with supporting student learning.

Moreover, the bifurcated faculty system results in only a small subset of faculty—tenured and tenure-track—having the characteristics of a profession. It is true that the tenure-track model puts a disproportionate emphasis on research and publishing and renders teaching and other institutional missions such as service, leadership, and civic engagement less important. Some tenuretrack faculty members spend as much as 80 percent of their time on research, which is narrowly defined as what is published in peer-reviewed journals. The research and scholarship race for rankings contributes to ballooning administrative costs that typically are conjoined with higher student-faculty ratios and reduced instructional quality.

While adjuncts do not have the time for progressive pedagogies, the tenure-track model does not include incentives to emphasize student learning and conduct innovative teaching; it downplays the faculty’s role as educators and instructors by providing little incentive to be expert and skilled teachers. For the same reason, it also downplays faculty opportunities to engage in other roles related to civic engagement and leadership.

IDENTIFYING BARRIERS AND CONSENSUS POINTS

Due to the complexity in institutional transformations and required collaboration across many different groups, we determined that the best way to approach the issue of faculty roles was to survey a wide range of stakeholders to identify areas of agreement around which collaboration for change could occur, and to determine some key facets of a future faculty model. We disseminated the survey between February and March 2015 to faculty, unions, disciplinary societies, federal and state policymakers, accreditors, administrators, deans, provosts, presidents, and board members. The results, published in late 2015 as The Professoriate Reconsidered, help guide institutions in undergoing their own evaluative processes to redesign faculty roles.

The survey helped demystify some false barriers to change and provided consensus for new faculty models. Three misconceptions about barriers preventing change in faculty roles are slowly dissolving, and board members can lead institutions by challenging these assumptions:

  1. There is no agreement between different groups (such as faculty and administrators) on solutions;
  2. Unions refuse any and all changes to faculty structures; and
  3. Costs preclude the possibility of changing faculty roles.

Based on the stakeholder survey data, we instead found agreement on several solutions (discussed in greater detail below). In addition, the survey indicated that union members are equally open to changes in faculty roles and, finally, that institutional funding typically is structured around the priorities of the institution— leaders can redirect funds to support the fulfilment of institutional missions through transforming faculty roles if that is a priority.

Institutional budgets in noninstructional areas such as athletics, administration, and auxiliary services have grown significantly over the past 30 years. Universities will often spend large sums on administrative, research infrastructures, development, athletics, and some elite faculty salaries, even when the returns are not always clear. When the returns are clear, they often are tenuously related to student learning. Realigning institutional spending with institutional missions and student success emerges as a significant factor to overcoming the financial issues associated with redesigning the faculty. To address concerns about financing new faculty models, we created Dispelling the Myths, a resource for presidents and provosts that presents a range of possible faculty modifications at different cost levels and redirect funds that could reconfigure spending in line with institutional priorities.

NEW FACULTY MODELS

The broad and representative range of stakeholder groups surveyed in The Professoriate Reconsidered are in consensus that current non-tenure-track faculty structures are unsustainable. In indicating their openness to particular approaches to redesigning faculty roles, those surveyed were in broad agreement on several key features of comprehensive and effective solutions. We have developed the emergent objects of consensus into a model for the future of the faculty.

The model centers around the scholarly educator. Scholarly indicates a professional role with robust involvement in one’s field through activities such as attending conferences and engaging in a range of forms of knowledge generation. Educator indicates the integral role of all faculty, including research faculty, in teaching students formally and informally. Student success is at the center of the model, encompassing a commitment to supporting students in areas directly and indirectly related to academics. Our study yielded several influences that should guide campuses in redesigning faculty roles, which we grouped into four thematic arcs:

1) Mission, goals, and values: Faculty roles and contracts must be better aligned with the various needs of our higher education system, which comprises a diversity of institutions with different missions. Stakeholders further agreed that roles should be customized in ways that are conducive to the satisfaction of specific institutional goals and involve greater flexibility to meet multiple, complex needs. With learning as the central goal of higher education, robust and wellthought instructor roles will remain a key aspect of institutional success.

2) Responsiveness to external factors: Higher education increasingly interacts and integrates with other domains such as the economy, government, and social institutions. Stakeholders agreed that faculty roles need to be defined in ways that incorporate key external factors, especially those that are related to student success and meeting the institutional mission.

3) Re-professionalization: The deprofessionalization of non-tenure-track faculty roles is surprising in the context of the historically valued position of the professor. While higher education is concerned with stewarding knowledge in our society, the work of education and scholarship is allocated to non-tenure-track faculty. All stakeholders in higher education agree that a new faculty built on cornerstones such as professional development, participation in shared governance, equitable compensation, and academic freedom will contribute most to student success and institutional effectiveness.

4) Key values: The higher education enterprise is based on historical values that stand to be reiterated and deepened. Stakeholders felt that certain historic values (academic freedom, autonomy, commitment to the public good), established by the American Association of University Professors at its founding, need to be incorporated into new faculty models. Stakeholders also indicated that new values, including collaboration, appreciation for diverse and customized faculty roles, and a greater commitment by faculty to their institutional mission and goals, need to be embraced. A key theme is collective responsibility.

Board members can use the chart above as a heuristic model in asking questions of campus leaders about their work to redesign the faculty at their institutions. This model also can guide institutions and their boards in guaranteeing an orientation around the goals of the higher education enterprise while fleshing out the institution-specific contours of new faculty roles.

A PATH FORWARD: ADAPTING BY DESIGN TOOLKIT

Boards should ensure that campus leaders are engaged in conversations about new faculty models. The Delphi Project has developed a report, Adapting by Design, that provides a rationale for why new faculty models are needed; it includes examples of new faculty models that already have been implemented in the academy, including teaching-intensive tenure-track positions, creativity contracts, and medical schools’ experiments with customized faculty roles.

In addition, the Delphi Project has created guides in the Adapting by Design Toolkit to assist campuses with these discussions. The toolkit provides campuses a comprehensive set of methods for the evaluative and planning stages of the redesign to help guide faculty and administrative leaders, followed by a process for considering current faculty models. In addition, the toolkit advances ways to develop a plan to redesign the faculty. This stage includes a gap analysis worksheet to help bridge current faculty structures and desired future outcomes— perhaps the most difficult stage and the one in which board encouragement may be particularly impactful.

The toolkit’s details will aid presidents and provosts in conducting a creative and effective evaluation of the current state of the faculty and the path forward for their institutions. Boards may consider having their presidents and provosts report to them on the process to determine the allocation of further resources to aid in the implementation of the new faculty roles through potentially modified hiring practices and other changes.

Building the infrastructure for a new faculty over the course of a planning process may confer advantages over shorter-term, incremental improvements. Concentrating resources on the transitional period and making broader changes to different interlocking aspects of the complex systems at universities all at once may reduce the number of adaptive changes needed overall. An objective analysis of risk—both upside and downside—will be important to determining the scope, speed, and impact of any changes to the faculty model.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Over the past 200 years, the nature and composition of the faculty have changed dramatically, and in that time surprisingly little discussion has focused on intentional design of faculty roles to meet the collective—and sometimes conflicting—needs of students, parents, policymakers, faculty, administrators, and other key stakeholders. As John Dewey said in 1915, we need “a more intense consciousness of our common vocation.” With the growing visibility and increasing understanding of the misalignment between non-tenure-track faculty roles and the goals of higher education, universities have begun the process of transforming faculty work. New faculty models and best practices have emerged. Boards are in a unique position to lead change by indicating and reiterating the key values that should ground efforts to transform faculty work—and by holding university leaders accountable for fulfilling institutional mission. Boards are also instrumental to prioritizing and initiating discussions about new faculty models. Every board member should ask the institution’s president about his or her work to design faculty models that support collaborative faculty work and student learning and success, and help meet the institutional mission in ways that serve the public good.