Almanac of Higher Education 2010

August 22, 2010

More Pressure on Faculty Members, From Every Direction

Changes in the American professoriate’s employment patterns and types, demographics, and work life are the greatest we have seen in over half a century. The model of the white, male, tenured teacher-scholar that emerged during the great expansion of higher education in the post-World War II decades has given way to an increasingly diverse, splintered, specialized, and transitory work force.

These changes are spurred in part by fiscal pressures. Underneath the difficulties caused by the recession are structural deficits in state budgets, the result of a demand for social services that cannot be met by current tax structures. Meanwhile, higher education’s costs have risen faster than even those of health care. States—and, increasingly, debt-ridden students—are struggling to meet those costs.

IN THE RIGHT COLUMN: Charts and Graphics on the Profession
BROWSE THE ALMANAC: More Statistics and State-by-State Profiles

Colleges and universities have responded in part by attempting to reduce their largest personnel expense: faculty salaries. With increasing frequency, colleges have hired part-time and full-time contingent faculty members, often poorly paid—who now make up 49 and 20 percent of the professoriate, respectively. Their growing presence represents a trend that threatens to render moot the heated debate over tenure.

An increasing proportion of new faculty members, permanent and contingent, are women and persons of color. Both groups tend to cluster at less-prestigious and lower-paying institutions, in junior and contingent positions. Full-time female faculty members earn less than their male colleagues at every rank and every institutional type, and they express less satisfaction with their careers than do male faculty members. Campus efforts to increase the numbers of minority faculty members are at risk in the current recession.

Although faculty salaries rose by only 1.2 percent during 2009-10, the increases have, on average, exceeded inflation in most years. But averages obscure the widening salary ranges on campuses, particularly between presidents and faculty members. The differentials within the faculty are correlated with institutional type, discipline, appointment status, and gender. Colleges are also beginning to reduce other elements of the compensation package, such as health and retirement benefits.

Contingent faculty members generally have specialized duties, focusing exclusively on teaching or research. But even within the tenure-track and tenured ranks, the traditional triad of teaching, research, and service has changed.

The drive toward institutional prestige that most professors consider a high priority at their four-year institutions has intensified the focus on research there. Some faculty members, permanent and contingent, are expected to cover their full salaries with grants. With the tenure bottleneck narrowing, junior faculty members are often advised to focus on research, do a reasonable job of teaching, and avoid service.

Faculty members report spending more than half of their time on teaching and classroom-related activities. Professors are increasingly expected to use new technologies in both distance education and on-campus courses, and to be more systematic about assessing student learning at both course and program levels. The scholarship of teaching and learning, in which faculty members examine the effects of their teaching strategies, is spreading; the advent of conferences and publications marks its increasing acceptance as serious scholarship.

The “corporatization” of institutional administrations in the face of fiscal distress and severe budget cuts imperils faculty governance, which falls increasingly to the shrinking number of permanent tenured faculty members. Tenure-track professors, too, are not only warned to avoid institutional service in order to do research but are also at risk if they spend time and energy on the community service that institutions are committed to.

In light of changes in technology, states’ financial struggles, an increasingly challenged and challenging student population, and President Obama’s attainment goal of five million more graduates by 2020, the faculty’s job is not likely to get easier.

Margaret A. Miller is a professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.