Liberal Education

The Morphing of the American Academic Profession

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 (Orr 1978).

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 continue.

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 1984).

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 polity

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 means?

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 functions.

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 2002).

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 follows:

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, mathematics).

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 attention?

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 challenge.


Martin Finkelstein is professor of education at Seton Hall University.


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