Liberal Education, Fall 2003
The Morphing of the American Academic Profession
By Martin Finkelstein
A temporary dislocation? Or, the dawning of a New Order?
We take as our point of departure what is, on the face of
it, an absolutely astonishing observation: Quite beyond the
surge in part-time faculty appointments over the past quarter
century, the majority (i.e., over half) of all new full-time
faculty hires in the past decade have been to non-tenure-eligible,
or fixed-term contract positions (Finkelstein and Schuster
2001). Put another way, in the year 2001, only about one-quarter
of new faculty appointments were to full-time tenure track
positions (i.e., half were part-time, and more than half of
the remaining full-time positions were “off” the tenure track).
This is nothing short of what Jack Schuster and I have labeled
elsewhere a new academic “revolution”—albeit a largely silent
one. That silence may be a function of habit—historically,
American higher education has always balanced its ledgers
on the backs of the faculty. During the colonial period, only
those of independent means could afford to survive on their
faculty salary (Veysey 1965); during the Great Depression,
colleges and universities made do by “cutting” faculty salaries—in
some cases, by as much as half—while maintaining full loads
That silence may also be a function of the “noisy” or hyperactive
context: So many new developments are buffeting American higher
education—the emergence of a new “for-profit” institutional
sector, the new “technology transfer” incubation parks now
encircling most research universities, the decline in the
traditional liberal arts and in the allure of academic careers,
the advent of distance education degrees in every imaginable
field, the intrusion of politicians and businessmen (and their
methods) into the first ranks of campus executive leadership—that
it is hard to focus for too long on any one of them. Whatever
the reason, the signs are unmistakable that something big—and
troubling—is happening in (all too frequently, to) American
higher education—and the silent faculty revolution is at its
center, organizationally and fiscally.
What I am proposing to do in the following pages is to offer
an interpretation of the systemic and long-term meaning of
the current restructuring in American higher education, and,
upon the basis of that interpretation, to sketch out the likely
scenario to which we are headed—to the extent that these trends
I am not Chicken Little; and this is not intended as an exercise
in expository hysteria. Rather, this is intended to be a realistic,
if sobering, assessment. While I have sought not to exaggerate,
I have, more importantly, sought not to minimize. My purpose
is to provide a realistic assessment of what we in higher
education are up against—as the framework for a constructive
conversation about what form our future stewardship of the
enterprise may best take—a conversation whose constructiveness
depends on the quality of our “problem definition.”
The central point can be stated succinctly: Higher education,
however stridently it has argued for its “uniqueness” as a
social institution, has never been isolated from broader economic
and social forces and periodic quantum shifts in its social
role. I have suggested elsewhere that American higher education,
viewed historically, has proceeded through discernible stages
in its societal role, from the preparation of the Puritan
community’s leadership (Morison 1936) prior to the American
revolution, to serving as an engine of industrialization in
the late nineteenth century and as an agent of democratization
in the post World War II period—and finally, now, as engine
of the information-based, globalized economy (Finkelstein
Current changes in the industry are no different: They reflect
the increasing centrality of colleges and universities to
the new global order that is restructuring the national economy,
and they predictably accompany the explosive growth of our
newly “critical” (in the sense of the National Defense Education
Act) national systems of higher education. Every societal
transformation in the role of higher education has brought
in its wake a concomitant transformation in the faculty role,
a role that is absolutely central to the functioning of the
enterprise. And it is within this “historically relative”
and rapidly changing crucible that the future of the American
academic profession will be shaped. Such an understanding,
I would argue, will be required if we are to fulfill adequately
our obligations as “stewards” of the new American academy.
The big picture: The concomitants of growth and success
Thirty years ago, Martin Trow (1973) first observed that
national systems of higher education qua systems change fundamentally
and structurally as they grow/expand over time. Trow argued
in The Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access,
that the fundamental character of a nation’s higher education
system —its attitudes toward access, its academic standards
and curriculum, its internal governance, the permeability
of its boundaries with the political system, etc.—changes
as the proportion of a society’s young people attending colleges
and universities grows. He identified 15 percent (elite to
mass) and 50 percent (mass to universal) participation rates
as the threshold transitional values. At each threshold, quantitative
growth in the system is associated with the qualitative “morphing”
in the character of the system—from elite to mass to universal.
Basically, the argument is as follows: As the proportion
of stakeholders in the higher education system grows (higher
participation rates translate into higher proportion of stakeholders),
the centrality of the system to the society and its basic
institutions (including political institutions) increases,
to the point where the system becomes a quasi-public utility.
At that point, boundaries between higher education and the
political system blur as higher education becomes a central
venue for the achievement of public policy goals, and the
faculty becomes the servant of a new academic order with new
rules, new opportunities, and new dangers.
What is so important about Trow’s argument is that it identifies
developmental transitions in higher education that are at
once predictable and structural in nature, i.e., as evidenced
by the fact that they are encountered not only in the United
States, but in all nations of the world at a similar threshold
phase in higher education participation. And indeed, if we
look at Great Britain, Australia, and a few other nations
who rival the U.S. in participation rates (Canada, Japan,
Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries), we find each system
grappling to one degree or another with the same constellation
of forces and issues.
That current developments are in no small part structurally
determined and analogous to developments in far-flung and
less individualistic and capitalistic venues provides an important
interpretive context for understanding our current situation—and
our place in the world. What are the precise contours of this
developmental situation? What is idiosyncratic and what is
common in our situation? And how does the particular economic
context (the transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based
economy, the rise of the personal computer and the Internet)
within which we find ourselves shape the specific contours
of the developmental transition we are now experiencing?
The context of growth: The new economy and the new
While Trow’s framework provides a much-needed structural/developmental
perspective on social (academic) change, it does not (nor
can it, given its genesis more than a generation ago!) illuminate
how such developmental transitions are shaped by new economic
circumstances—the decline of the industrial economy and the
rise of information technology—and new political and cultural
circumstances. These broader social forces are shaping higher
education and its transitions as profoundly as they are shaping
all the other sectors of our economy and our political lives.
The Economy Restructured. As society moves from
a goods-based to a service- and knowledge-based economy, and
as globalization expands the arena in which all businesses
(industries) must compete, a greater premium must be placed
on organizational efficiency, flexibility, and nimbleness.
This has led in the larger global economy to a restructuring
of work: the end of secure, long-term employment for most
workers (where there exists work at all) and the shift to
“non-standard” employment, including more part-time work,
leaner “core” staffing levels, and greater emphasis on self-employment
and entrepreneurship. Indeed, Charles Handy (1994) describes
the new “shamrock” organization of the workplace as three-pronged:
a shrinking core of professionals whose skills reflect the
organization’s core competencies; a growing corps of self-employed
or “freelance” professionals and technicians who are hired
on an ad hoc project basis; and an expanding corps
of contingent workers who work by the hour—and who lack any
discernible career track. These freelancers and contingents
are not only clerical or blue-collar workers; they increasingly
include lawyers, physicians, engineers, and, we will argue—professors.
The Enterprise Reconceptualized. While Handy does
not apply his ideas directly to college and university organization,
Twigg (2002) and increasing numbers of policy analysts surveying
higher education are now viewing it as an industry or a business—indeed
as the core business of the new economy. Gumport (1997) has
decried the uncritical application of the “higher education
as business” paradigm to the formulation of public policy.
She reminds us that, historically, higher education has been
viewed by the larger society as a social institution, as steward
for a broad set of societal responsibilities to prepare young
people for democratic citizenship and to expand knowledge,
at least in part, for knowledge’s sake. Increasingly, however,
public policy debates view colleges and universities less
as social institutions to be supported for the long-term good
of the order, than as businesses producing a product (skilled
labor, new technologies), or a consumer service—and proponents
of this reconceptualization choose to apply to them the same
standards that they would apply to any other business: To
what extent does this entity add value? And at what cost?
And can comparable value be added more efficiently by other
The point here is that supporting the seismic economic realignments
to which we have alluded is an ideological posture, a basic
change in how government and the public generally have come
to think about higher education and the academic profession.
The increasing focus on performance, accountability, value-added,
and cost containment (or cost reduction) reflects a conception
of the enterprise qua enterprise, and accepts—indeed,
embraces—a fundamental trade-off: the reduction of social
benefits to achieve immediate short-term satisfaction of economic
growth needs. This reflects as well the broader view of higher
education as a private rather than a public benefit and invokes
the application to higher education of the sovereignty of
the marketplace. These trends have given broad impetus to
what Slaughter and Leslie (1997) and Rhoades (1997), among
others, refer to as “corporatization” and “privatization.”
Not only must education in this new era be treated as a commodity
in the global market (witness, for example, the inclusion
of higher education certification and degrees as commodities
subject to free trade policies as part of the General Agreement
on Trade and Tariffs [GATT]; see Altbach 2002), but, so the
new conceptualization would have it, this sector of the economy
should be responsible for paying increasingly larger shares
of its own freight.
The information age has profoundly restructured the world
economy. Knowledge, not industrial production, is the coin
of the new realm, and all developed nations and most developing
nations have acknowledged that their higher education systems
are the key infrastructure element for achieving economic
growth and competing in the new global economy—an at once
enviable but uncomfortable position for higher education.
The stakes have clearly been raised. This translates into
at least two practical imperatives: 1.) the imperative to
expand access to prepare the workforce for the new information
economy, and 2.) the imperative to harness the innovation
potential of higher education’s research and development core
to the nation’s future economic competitiveness and prosperity.
Information technology as the driver and instrument
of structural realignment
Moreover, in meeting these new imperatives, the information
technology revolution has provided new sets of analytical
tools and laid bare the contingent character of previous economic
and organizational arrangements for delivering higher education.
Carol Twigg (2002), as part of the newly organized Project
on the Future of Higher Education (see www.pfhe.org), posits
that the major historic functions of the university in general
and scholarly activity in particular—the creation, presentation,
and dissemination/preservation of knowledge—are based on a
set of familiar technologies (the book, the classroom) and
economic arrangements (the face-to-face course and the full-time
integrated faculty role). As the technology and economic requirements
change, so does the structure of institutions performing those
Information technology makes it possible to disaggregate—or
unbundle—educational activities and processes and thus to
reconfigure the landscape of the industry. Accordingly, “truly”
new providers may emerge who target specific activities/processes
of the enterprise as sources of new businesses, and the pieces
are re-aggregated under new arrangements that are different
in kind from the old arrangements. Consider the outsourcing
of various platforms for online campus courses and the emergence
of new kinds of organizations like Blackboard and E-College
that allow colleges to outsource their instructional platform.
Or the development of the new “college textbook” business
by publishing conglomerates and media companies. Or the outsourcing
of student remedial and supplemental education services or
counseling through reconfigured organizations such as Sylvan
Learning Systems or Stanley Kaplan.
Less radical, from an institutional perspective, but no less
momentous for the academic profession, has been the emergence
of new, albeit related, types of institutions, such as the
open mega-universities, enrolling hundreds of thousands of
students in non-traditional distance education programs. The
UK has exported its own Open University to countries around
the world, and indigenous models, frequently based on the
British Open University, are emerging, especially in the developing
countries of Asia (Granger 1990, Daniel 1996). The analogue
in the United States has been institutions like the local
branch of the Open University and the University of Phoenix,
whose online division alone enrolls some 30,000 students in
business degree programs (Sperling 2000).
Traditional universities are taking on new initiatives to
serve global as well as local demand. In the United States
as well as Australia, universities have come together with
other indigenous providers to provide educational opportunities
across the globe, ranging from the establishment of foreign
campuses to the establishment of consortia with foreign universities
to offer education on-site. Finally, new “private” providers
have emerged, most frequently as for-profit operations, aimed
at responding to new educational needs whenever and wherever
they arise, in ways that most national governments are ill-equipped
through structure and resource constraints to do (Altbach
Moving toward new models of academic work
At the core of previous economic and organizational arrangements—at
least during the twentieth century—have been the course and
credit as the standard units defining student academic performance
(almost strictly temporal). Most importantly for our purposes,
the full-time professor concurrently engaged in teaching,
research, and institutional and professional service has been,
at least since World War II, the standard unit of academic
labor—the prototypical American scholar (Boyer 1990). Since
higher education has historically been a labor intensive industry,
characterized by high and fixed labor costs (the fixity a
function of traditional tenure systems), restructuring has
focused on reducing the level and fixity of labor costs. This
has inevitably meant a reconfiguration of faculty work and
work roles. In the United States and throughout Europe and
Asia, this has meant widespread experimentation with entirely
new models of delivery of instruction (the “open university”
model), aided and abetted by new developments in information
technology, most notably the advent of the Internet. That
allows for widespread access to content worldwide and allows
savings through the unbundling of course design and development,
on the one hand, from course delivery and student interaction
and assessment, on the other (see Jewett 2000).
In the U.S., Europe, India, Australia, and in Japan, this
has also meant extensive tinkering at the edges of the traditional
model of faculty work and careers via a surge in the appointment
of part-time faculty (see Gappa and Leslie 1993, Sloan Foundation
1998, Ministry of Education of Japan 2002) whose role and
compensation are limited to instruction in a particular course;
not only do they have a teaching-only role, but their teaching
constitutes a kind of “piece-work” where they are paid by
course, or, as in France, by the hour (see Chevalier 2001).
Less obvious (but no less widespread) have been attempts
to functionally re-specialize the full-time faculty role:
that is, create full-time positions that do not require the
“integrated”(and costly) Humboldtian model, to a more functionally
specialized model wherein full-time faculty are now hired
as teaching-only or even lower division/introductory courses
teaching-only; or in the natural sciences and the professions,
research- or clinical-only; or even primarily administrative
roles in program development and management (see Schuster
and Finkelstein, in press). This has been happening not only
in the United States, but also in Australia (McInnis 2000),
Europe (Enders 2001), and now even in Japan (Yamanoi 2003)—among
the more traditional non-Western systems of higher education.
And tenure, of course
The tinkering with the traditional model of faculty roles
has also addressed the high fixity of labor costs. As perhaps
the common, defining condition of academic employment worldwide,
the concept of faculty tenure has undergone searching
critique, reevaluation, and, in many cases, reconfiguration
(see Chait 2002).
Tenure, of course, is the perquisite of the faculty’s civil
service status in many Western countries as it has been in
Japan. Faculty are indeed employees of the national government,
employed as civil servants within the Ministry of Education,
much as career diplomats are employed as civil servants in
the Foreign Affairs Ministry, or as career military officers
are employed in the Defense Ministry. Most openly in Great
Britain, tenure as a condition of faculty appointments was
eliminated as part of the Thatcher/Major reforms of the 1980s
(Fulton and Holland 2001). These developments suggest, of
course, that global massification of higher education is spawning,
among other far-reaching changes, a largely invisible restructuring
of traditional faculty appointments and roles, and similar
developments appear to be underway quite rapidly and quite
invisibly in very diverse higher education contexts worldwide.
In summary, then, we can characterize the axes of change as
Academic appointments are being restructured. Writ
large, college teaching is moving toward a contingent work
force. While part-time appointments have risen to constitute
nearly half the pie, contingent or term appointments became,
during the past decade, the modal form of new full-time appointments.
The content of academic work is being restructured.
Quite beyond the duration or exclusivity of academic employment
contracts is the matter of the substance of the work itself.
My work with Jack Schuster (Finkelstein and Schuster 2001;
Schuster and Finkelstein, in press) shows conclusively that
while research requirements have suffused at least the four-year
sector, the research function has largely been limited to
the work of the regular, full-time, core faculty and has largely
been squeezed out of the workload of those holding contingent
appointments (except, of course, for those on research-only
appointments, including research professorships as well as
post-docs in the natural and health sciences).
Contingent appointees in the four-year sector are purely
teaching faculty (again with the exception of soft-money research
positions, including many post-docs, at the research universities).
And that role encapsulation is reinforced by a related trend:
the decline in the proportion of time that most faculty, but
especially the contingent faculty, spend in matters of administration
and governance. That is, institutional administration and
governance are shrinking spheres of faculty work (notwithstanding,
or more to the point, precisely because of the increase
in the number of administrative staff to do administrative
work). The triumvirate of teaching, research, and service
has, for the contingent faculty, become a single-function
role—teaching; or, in the case of research-only appointments
and post-docs, research.
Some likely scenarios over the next decade
The Institutional Nexus of Restructuring. In the
first place, it appears that the elite providers —the Ivy
League and the major research institutions, totaling perhaps
100-200 institutions —are most likely to maintain the most
traditional staffing patterns. The data suggest that while
non-traditional full-time appointments continue to grow, even
at the elite providers, they continue by-and-large to maintain
predominantly traditional, tenured, full-time faculties. Indeed,
the research universities, in particular, have always had
a modicum of specialized (research-only) appointments to which
some teaching-only appointments are now being added (especially
in a few “service” fields such as foreign languages, writing,
The case of the mass provider and convenience institutions
(Finn 1999)—the remaining 3,200 institutions—is less clear
and clearer, respectively. The latter of course, principally
the community colleges, have already transitioned to a contingent
workforce with a small core of permanent faculty buttressed
by a growing corps of part-time faculty (see Gappa and Leslie
1993, Palmer 1999). The mass provider institutions, principally
four-year campuses, have typically moved to a contingent workforce
in a different way: While they have increased their part-time
workforce marginally, they have sought to move to a system
of full-time term appointments (indeed the majority of their
new hires in the 1990s fit into this category!). We can anticipate,
however, that over the first decade of the twenty-first century,
some of these institutions will gradually move to staffing
entirely by contingent faculty, while others will maintain
a bare majority full-time core. Indeed, it is in the category
of the mass provider institutions that we are likely to see
the most frenetic staff restructuring on campus as well as
the development of autonomous academic subunits that operate
entirely with a contingent and part-time staff (e.g., online,
continuing education ventures).
Differential patterns of restructuring are also
discernible by academic field. Several fields in the humanities—most
notably, English and foreign languages—and others, including
mathematics and business, are on their way to becoming collections
of transients, even at the research universities. Moreover,
both of these lines of demarcation (institutional and disciplinary)
are crossed by a third, that of gender. The great influx of
women into college teaching is substantially accounted for
by these transient and temporary positions. That is simply
a descriptive fact and offers no judgment about whether this
trend reflects an exploitation of women who may be less geographically
mobile than men or indeed an accommodation en masse to women’s
preference for more flexible and balanced careers.
What are the consequences and why do we need to pay
What can we as faculty and academic leaders do in the face
of these protean forces that are restructuring the global
economy, American higher education, and ipso facto
the American academic profession? Are we condemned to remain
on the sidelines cursing the darkness (or cheering the occasional
stray ray of light)? Can traditional “passive resistance”
strategies effectively counter such protean forces? Is there
a form of resistance that will not cast us immediately as
luddites acting out of ignorance or thinly veiled self-interest?
Should we take any action at all?
Lest the magnitude of what is at stake here remain in any
way unclear, I would point us to health care as a sobering
analogue. Over the past decade or two, we have seen a tumultuous
restructuring of the nation’s health care system —a restructuring
that has wrought havoc with the roles/careers of medical and
other health-related professions, restructured the operations
of health care training and delivery organizations, and threatened,
in the minds of many, the quality of health care.
It is important to understand that however tumultuous it
may seem, the health care system does have some “external
rudders” that, however awkwardly, are steering the restructuring
process. In particular, large insurance and drug companies
now play a critical role as arbiters of a variety of organizational,
economic, and medical decisions shaping the restructuring
process. Moreover, to the extent market mechanisms get out
of hand (i.e., important social values regarding health care
availability, expectations about service and quality control,
and costs are threatened), federal and state government can
and does provide both corrective legislation, regulation (standards
of practice and cost reimbursement), and legal recourse. A
powerful professional lobby, the American Medical Association,
seeks to protect the prerogatives of medical practitioners
and provides another countervailing force to market pressures
in the area of standards of practice.
Higher education, radically decentralized as it is, with
major education and staffing decisions made autonomously on
individual campuses, offers no such promise of powerful, purposive,
external rudders. Government, which had—both in the late nineteenth
(Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act of 1865 and 1890) and the
mid-twentieth century (Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944)—been
in a position to steer a much smaller and less diverse system,
has tended over the past quarter-century to limit its role
to student financial aid and indeed in targeting aid to individual
students rather than institutions (a national strategy that
emerged in the U.S. Congress’s 1972 Educational Amendments)
has reinforced the unfettered operation of market mechanisms.
The major external rudder to date, the regional and professional
accrediting associations, are under political fire and have,
over the past decade, begun to dismantle the set of traditional
academic standards, albeit without providing for tested alternative
quality assurance mechanisms (Schuster 2003).
The point is simply that no one is in charge, no one is minding
the store, just as it is being turned upside down. This is
not to suggest that what American higher education needs is
a coterie of external agents (e.g. the federal government,
the student loan industry) jockeying to steer the transformation.
Autonomy and diversity have, after all, been the hallmarks
of the system’s strength. What it does suggest is that the
system’s radical decentralization requires that individual
institutions and constituencies assume an especially critical
responsibility for self-consciously steering their own responses
to the transformation with a view toward the future of both
their own institution and the system itself.
While outlining specific courses of action is beyond the
scope of this essay (and, not coincidentally, beyond the ken
of its author!), what is possible—and indeed urgently needed
—is a collective sense of the nature and magnitude of the
transformation in which we are swimming and a collective determination
to do what we must, not to preserve the system for the system’s
sake (or worse yet, for our personal sakes), but to assume
our individual stewardship responsibilities for the future
of the university and of liberal learning. If American higher
education is to move ahead substantively in developing new
types of academic appointments, and creating new kinds of
institutional arrangements, while preserving the health of
the academic professions (or, at least, deliberately making
the best possible decisions about whose health to preserve
and at what cost) we will need to get well beyond the acrimonious
debates about tenure and academic standards to much more sophisticated
analyses of academic staffing patterns and personnel policies.
And each of us as individuals and each organization of stakeholders
(e.g. AAUP, etc.) will need to take more self-conscious responsibility
for the collective future health of the enterprise. That is
the challenge we face, and I trust that this exercise in problem
definition has prepared us one bit better for meeting that
Martin Finkelstein is professor of education at
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