The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) was established in 2007 in response to the explosion of hiring and turnover costs and to persistent challenges in diversifying the academy. It is a consortium of over 150 colleges, universities, and systems across North America committed to making the academic workplace more attractive and equitable for early-career faculty—the cohort most critical to the long-term future of their institutions.
COACHE gives presidents, provosts, and deans both peer diagnostics and concrete solutions for informing efficient, effective investment in their faculty. The member institutions focus on issues critical to faculty success and on steps academic policymakers can take to improve faculty recruitment, development, and retention.
The core element of COACHE is the Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, which was designed, tested, and validated in focus groups and a rigorous pilot study. Each section of the COACHE instrument is built to generate a report not simply of “interesting” data, but of actionable diagnoses. The COACHE model is designed to take participating institutions from data collection to policy action in less than one year. Because of COACHE, we know what more than 15,000 tenure-track faculty think; highlights are presented in this paper.
What Always Mattered Still Matters, but Times Have Changed
What’s important to pretenure faculty—clear and reasonable tenure requirements, support for effective teaching, scholarship, and professional development, work–life balance or integration, and a sense of community and collegiality—is not new and is not specific to Gen Xers (born 1964–1980); rather, these themes have been at the heart of the academic enterprise for decades. However, a lot has changed for those working on tenure-track lines (Trower 2008) since 1940 when the American Association of University Professors codified tenure and academic freedom (AAUP 2006).
What’s different today? Just a few major factors: knowledge production and dissemination (there are new methods, technologies, and venues for publication); resources (institutional, state, and system-wide budget cuts); increased competition for grant funding and different funding sources; longer lead times for getting published (in top-tier journals in many disciplines and by university presses); increased pressures for transparency and accountability; and a ratcheting up of expectations for all faculty, including teaching, research, service, and, at some institutions, outreach. On the personal side, there is increasingly a 24/7 expectation for faculty work and accessibility to students. Furthermore, the new norm for faculty with partners is the dual-career household; few faculty members have a spouse or partner who stays at home to raise children. The demographics and learning needs of students have changed dramatically. In fact, just about everything is different today except the tenure system (Trower 2009).
While tenure-track faculty may want the same things as their predecessors, younger Boomers (born 1956–1963) and Gen X faculty live and work in a very different world than older Boomers (born 1946–1955) and Traditionalists (born before 1946). Because of this, Gen Xers, in particular, have been vocal about wanting increased flexibility, greater integration of their work and home lives, more transparency of tenure and promotion processes, a more welcoming, diverse, and supportive workplace/department, and more frequent and helpful feedback about progress.
Tenure is Still The Goal, and So is Staying Put
Those who study generations and make comparisons between them have wondered whether Gen Xers will have loyalty to the companies for which they work, since data show that most in this age group have already moved around more than older generations, and find it less troubling to do so. A common perception of Gen Xers is that they lack commitment to their jobs and employers, and are constantly seeking “the next best thing.” It is natural, therefore, to wonder if Gen X faculty themselves hold this viewpoint.
COACHE data show that a relatively small percentage (13 percent) of pretenure faculty report they will likely leave their institution after achieving tenure there. Of those who plan to leave their current institution after achieving tenure, the majority (70 percent) plan to move on to another academic institution—one in a better geographic location (e.g., closer to family; better city/community/schools; lower cost of living), that pays better, that is more prestigious, or that offers more dual-career opportunities, childcare, or parental leave.
In addition to survey data, interviews also have revealed that most tenure-track faculty seek “roots not rungs” (COACHE 2010). When asked about their intentions to stay or leave, most of those Gen X faculty interviewed (Helms 2010) reported no desire to leave. One placed the likelihood at zero, saying “something pretty drastic would have to happen” such as an “immediate tenured position at a more prestigious institution that’s in a location that my wife and I can both be employed,” which just “won’t happen.” Another placed the likelihood of leaving as “extremely low” saying, “I’ve [actually] had two [other] schools approach me this year, and I’m not inclined to go anywhere. I’m homegrown from this school” and “invested” in its success and the people the institution has hired.
A statement by one faculty member nicely summarized the overall sentiment of the participants:
I want some stability. I want a place to call home. I want to put some deep roots in, and fully invest, and commit, and serve a community (Helms 2010, 6).
Standards for Excellence are Higher and Make “Balance” Elusive in the Early Years
Faculty of every generation have a great deal to say about the three primary areas of faculty work—teaching, research, and service—and how the focus of one’s work necessarily changes over the course of an academic career. While views about who should do what and when may vary by institutional type (e.g., greater focus on teaching at liberal arts colleges compared to research universities) and by rank (e.g., probationary faculty are typically protected from doing a lot of service, and at many research universities they have a lighter teaching load than their senior colleagues), one thing all seem to agree on is that it’s tougher now than it used to be—the expectations for excellence in all areas are higher than ever before. Consistently, in interviews with junior faculty, I hear that time is their most valuable commodity and time management is their greatest challenge. The challenge to spend the most time on what matters most to achieving tenure (whether that’s research or teaching, depending on institutional mission) without neglecting something else that’s important, or alienating departmental colleagues by saying no to additional teaching or service work, is paramount and sometimes a struggle.
Support for Professional Development Before and After Tenure is Desired
Most faculty members of every age think about their academic career as a long-term proposition; lifetime job security, after all, is a benefit of tenure. Doctoral students work for many years to earn the necessary academic credentials and spend several years in a probationary period striving for tenure; therefore, the costs of shifting to a career outside the academy are quite high.
Our earlier work (Austin, Sorcinelli, and Trower 2001; Trower 2000, 2002) showed a certain amount of ambivalence about tenure among junior faculty that still exists today. Tenure-track faculty worry about clearing tenure’s hurdles and then stagnating, either because of burnout or lack of incentive. Said one associate professor in a recent (unpublished) interview, “Is this all there is? Is this what I worked so hard to achieve?” Such sentiments are not uncommon.
Prior to tenure, junior faculty place high importance on travel funds to present papers or conduct research (4.53 on a scale where 5 indicates “very important” and 1 indicates “very unimportant”), professional assistance with finding external grants (4.09), and peer reviews of teaching and/or creative work (4.05). Also important, though to a lesser extent, is professional assistance to improve teaching (3.70). After tenure, associate professors tell us they would like professional development to help them achieve full professor status—whatever that entails at their campus. Most typically, they would like guidance from senior colleagues, resources for research and travel, assistance getting large grants, and high-quality graduate student assistance.
Mentoring Matters, Maybe More Than Ever
In fact, mentoring is necessary and expected. Faculty members we’ve interviewed talk a great deal about both formal and informal mentors and are quick to say that one size mentoring does not fit all. Because formal and informal mentoring differ, these concepts require definition. Formal mentoring provides a process by which protégés are matched with a mentor or team of mentors. Formal mentoring implies an expectation to coach and be coached, to advise and be advised. Many pretenure faculty members have come to expect formal mentoring and prefer to work at institutions that provide it. An informal mentor is one who advises or coaches others without being part of a formal program; informal mentoring “just happens” and may occur alongside formal mentoring (Trower 2007).
COACHE survey results show that informal mentoring is rated as more important to pretenure faculty success than formal mentoring; on a 5-point scale where 5 indicates “very important” and 1 indicates “very unimportant,” the scores are 4.32 and 3.87, respectively (a statistically significant difference.) Informal mentoring occurs organically, not because of any official program. Females feel that both forms of mentoring are more important to their success than males but rate informal mentoring even higher than formal. Pretenure faculty also reported that informal mentoring on their campuses is also more effective than formal mentoring, with scores of 3.49 and 2.93, respectively. As a recent COACHE report noted:
Pretenure faculty are no different than most others when it comes to needing support from people they trust on the job as well as institutional support in other forms (time, money, resources). But they do differ in what they want from a mentor. Indeed, some say they do not want or need a mentor at all; the choice is acutely personal. It is also unrealistic to expect that one or two assigned mentors will provide all of the guidance and advice an early-career faculty member needs to succeed (Trower and Gallagher 2008).
Work–Life Balance Still Matters, But it is Ever More Elusive
Most professionals would say that it’s important to them to be able to strike some sort of balance between their work and their home lives. A recent survey of over 9,000 full-time faculty at thirteen top research universities showed that 72 percent have employed partners whose careers need to be taken into consideration and 36 percent have an academic partner (Schiebinger, Henderson, and Gilmartin 2008). Because so many academics are partnered with other academics—something especially true for women scientists—dual-career issues are often at the forefront of challenges tenure-track faculty face. The COACHE survey asks pretenure faculty to rate the effectiveness of their institution’s spousal-partner hiring program, and the average rating is 2.66 (on a 5-point scale where 5 indicates “very effective” and 1 indicates “very ineffective”).
An item on the COACHE survey, satisfaction with “balance between professional time and personal or family time,” is consistently one of the lowest-rated (an average of 2.88 on a 5-point scale where 5 indicates “very satisfied” and 1 indicates “very unsatisfied”). For those with children, two other items that consistently receive low agreement ratings are: “The institution does what it can to make having children and the tenure-track compatible” (3.00) and “The institution does what it can to make raising children and the tenure-track compatible” (2.84).
A Sense of Collegiality and Community Still Matter, But Networks are Broader
In her paper, Helms (2010) said that the quest for a sense of community may very well be the “essence of Generation X.”
…it is perhaps the lack of community, and Xers’ attempts to find it, that truly define the generation, providing a unifying theme for their experiences, and encapsulating what has changed for them from previous generations (Helms 2010, 20).
Autonomy has long been a defining desirable aspect of academic life for most faculty members. Older generations of faculty have long been content to live a “life of the mind” that, by some younger faculty standards, seems rather remote and isolating. Gen X faculty are likely to enjoy collaboration and many have extensive networks of colleagues around the world, something technology has enabled. Their relationships with students are reportedly less formal, arising, in part, as a result of twenty-four-hour access through e-mail.
Gen X is more mobile than prior generations, but not necessarily by choice. Because there are fewer tenure-track jobs and because these faculty members are likely to have a spouse or partner who also works outside the home, they oftentimes have to move to accommodate the family. Many Xers place a premium on working efficiently because they have so much to juggle. They long for time with students and colleagues, but there’s just not much to go around.
The COACHE survey asks tenure-track faculty members to rate their satisfaction (5 indicates “very satisfied” and 1 indicates “very dissatisfied”) with the amount of personal and professional interaction they have with peers (other pretenure faculty) and with tenured faculty; results are shown in table 1 below.
Table 1: Satisfaction with personal and professional relationships
Overall Average Rating
The amount of personal interaction you have with pretenure faculty in your department
The amount of professional interaction you have with pretenure faculty in your department
The amount of personal interaction you have with tenured faculty in your department
The amount of professional interaction you have with tenured faculty in your department
In conclusion, there will be increasing demands on the part of the public for accountability and transparency surrounding the costs and benefits of higher education. The academy will be pressed to educate an increasing number of first-generation students. Institutions will continue to expect high faculty productivity in the classroom, the laboratory, and beyond.
What will be the future of tenure-track faculty?
- The tenure track will continue to exist, albeit with smaller numbers, and a declining percentage of all faculty will hold tenure-track lines.
- The demand for better teachers able to work with students of various backgrounds, preparation, and learning needs will intensify.
- There will be increased pressure on tenure-track faculty to excel in research even as traditional publication venues decline.
My hope is that the academy will make the needed changes to policies and practices so that the best and brightest will continue to be attracted to faculty positions. This will require significant changes to the current one-size-fits-all approach to tenure, including: more flexibility (including different paths to tenure, with some faculty concentrating on teaching and some on research); better work-family and dual-career policies; concerted efforts to ensure that mentoring happens and is effective; an increased focus on collaborative teaching and research; and rewards for interdisciplinary research as well as research with undergraduate and graduate students.
American Association of University Professors. 2006. Policy documents and reports. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Austin, A. E., M. D. Sorcinelli, and C. A. Trower. 2001. Paradise lost: How the academy converts enthusiastic recruits into early-career doubters. AAHE Bulletin 53 (9): 3–6. Washington, DC.
COACHE. 2010. Study challenges perceptions of Gen X faculty as career climbers. News release, March 4. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic436591.files/20100304_COACHE_
Helms, R. M. 2010. New challenges, new priorities: The experience of generation x faculty. A report of the collaborative on academic careers in higher education. Cambridge, MA: COACHE, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Schiebinger, L., A. D. Henderson, and S. K. Gilmartin. 2008. Dual career academic couples: What universities need to know. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research
Trower, C. A. 2000. Your faculty, reluctantly. Trusteeship 8 (4): 8–12. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards.
——.. 2002. Can colleges competitively recruit faculty without the prospect of tenure? In The Questions of Tenure, ed. R. Chait. Boston: Harvard University Press.
——. 2007. Effective faculty mentoring. Unpublished report commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania. www.upenn.edu/provost/images/uploads/Trower.pdf
——.. 2008. Amending higher education’s constitution. Academe 95 (5): 16–18.
——.. 2009. The faculty of the future. Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (41): B29–30.
Trower, C. A., and A. S. Gallagher. 2008. Why collegiality matters. Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (11): 50–51.