October 24, 2012
Today's Faculty: Stressed, Focused on Teaching, and Undeterred by Long Odds
As the economy slowly mends and statehouses adopt austere budgets, colleges, particularly public ones, continue to struggle with the ramifications of tight finances. Professors are reporting that they feel the stress. And, as part-timers who are not on the tenure track make up a growing share of the faculty, they express conflicted views about their job prospects. Many recognize that the chances of landing a full-time job are slim, while also seeing their position as a gateway to a career.
This was the first time that the survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, asked professors about budget cuts as a source of stress and broke out responses of the part-timers from those of the full-time faculty. The latest edition of the survey, which is conducted every three years, was administered during the 2010-11 academic year to 23,824 full-time and 3,547 part-time faculty who teach undergraduates at four-year institutions.
'Foot-in-the-Door Disease'Hopes for a fresh start on a new campus were felt at all levels of the professoriate. Nearly half of all professors responding to the survey said they had considered leaving their institution, but only one-quarter reported having received a firm job offer, highlighting the lack of job mobility for faculty.
Prospects were bleak for part-time faculty. The vast majority, or three-quarters, of them reported working off the tenure track involuntarily, meaning they envision full-time teaching as their career.
The survey brought to light a disconnect in how those faculty members see their career unfolding from their current position. Nearly 59 percent of involuntary part-timers said they had accepted their current job believing it would be a steppingstone to a full-time appointment. But nearly 68 percent recognized that such transitions rarely occur at their institution.
The disconnect can be attributed to "foot-in-the-door disease," said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for professors who work off the tenure track. The responses reflect the dawning awareness of part-time faculty who initially take their job with optimistic assumptions, she said, but later come to see the realities they face. Many institutions, she added, tell prospective part-timers, either ignorantly or disingenuously, that accepting such a position will make them good candidates once a full-time position opens up.
"Most people in that involuntary category get into it thinking it'll be a steppingstone," she said. "Once they're there for a couple of years, you realize how long the odds are."
And the odds are long, other studies have shown: About 20 percent of faculty members who were in full-time positions and had held an academic job previously reported that their first post had been part time, according to a draft study produced earlier this year by Martin J. Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, and Jack H. Schuster, a professor emeritus of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University.
A move from a part-time teaching job to a full-time one rarely happens within the same institution, said Mr. Finkelstein, while the odds are somewhat improved for faculty in the humanities and at community colleges.
"The decks are stacked against moving from part-time to full-time, off-track to full-time, on-track," he said in an e-mail. But some optimists may choose to view the glass as 20-percent full instead of 80-percent empty, he said. "A significant minority do make the transition."
That sliver of hope may be part of what is driving the dissonant findings, though laws of supply and demand in the labor pool and longstanding stereotypes also play important roles, said Adrianna Kezar, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.
Graduate programs continue accepting more graduate students than can possibly land jobs in academe, leading to a glut in the job market, she said. Cultural and psychological attitudes also come into play, she added, as tenure-stream faculty hold a mistaken stereotype that adjuncts don't have what it takes to make it to higher education's promised land.
Some long-term, part-time faculty members have noted that their employment status taints their job prospects; many keep working despite their dislike for their working conditions because they become attached to teaching or devoted to their discipline.
"People still don't recognize how much the labor market has shifted," Ms. Kezar said. "All of these factors add up to a stark and bizarre trend."
The optimism that many part-timers seem to feel about their prospects, even in the face of stark odds, suggests that the academic job market has similar characteristics to the one facing entrepreneurs and aspiring restaurateurs, said Don A. Moore, an associate professor of management of organizations at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. People entering those fields may recognize that the odds are long in general, he said, but many still believe they alone have a good shot.
Doctoral programs are partly to blame for accepting students even when the programs have poor records of placing their graduates in jobs. But students will keep coming, overestimating their chances, he said. "The results are tragic."
The glimmer of hope has been enough to persuade part-time faculty members like Kelli R. Marshall to keep searching for that tenure-track job. Ms. Marshall earned her Ph.D. in humanities, film studies, and Shakespeare in 2004 from the University of Texas at Dallas. She covered classes for her dissertation adviser who was on sabbatical, and then entered the job market in 2006. She has applied for about 50 jobs each year in both media studies and English departments, landing job interviews on campuses and at annual meetings of the Modern Language Association, as well as a series of short-term visiting professorships.
Looking back at her experience, she believes she was given, perhaps inadvertently, a false sense of hope about what lay ahead for her.
"I was under the impression that I was somehow 'special' and, moreover, that the postdoc world would take advantage of what I had to offer," she wrote in a recent essay on her blog. "But as we know, that was/is not necessarily the case."
Now she's teaching two courses in critical theory for television at Columbia College Chicago and an introduction to film at DePaul University. She would be delighted if one of the two institutions kept her on full time, but she's also realistic.
"I've seen it work," Ms. Marshall said in an interview. "I also do not think that's the norm."
Other survey findings about part-time faculty mirror the results of two other recent studies of this growing sector of academic labor.
The institutional resources made available to part-time faculty are meager, the UCLA researchers found. About 18 percent said they had a personal office in which to meet with students. About two in five said they had access to a personal computer, a phone, and voice-mail on their campus.
"There is a convergence within the research community and advocacy organizations in terms of demonstrating that, while institutions are reliant on part-time faculty, they're not matching it with institutional support," said Kevin Eagan, assistant director for research at the UCLA institute.
Mismatch in TeachingAmong the three areas on which faculty performance is traditionally judged—teaching, research, and service—respondents, both full time and part time, placed the greatest value on teaching. But, they said, they get little support in improving how they teach and spend less time in class than in the past.
Teaching was rated as personally "essential" or "very important" by 97 percent of the faculty, which was more than 18 percentage points higher than research and 34 points higher than service. Less than one-quarter of respondents said they had attended a paid teaching workshop outside their institution.
Signs of changes in teaching methods could also be seen in the survey, even though lectures remain the dominant form of instruction, especially among men. Eight professors in 10 said they used discussions in all or most of their classes, which is about 10 percentage points higher than in the last survey, in 2007-8. More than half broke students into small groups to learn cooperatively or assigned them problems from real life.
Faculty members also reported spending less time teaching and preparing to teach than in years past. Nearly 44 percent of professors teach nine hours or more per week, a number that stood at 63 percent two decades ago. The share of faculty members who spent nine hours or more per week preparing for class also saw a decline, though it was smaller, going from 66 percent to 59 percent.
The decreases in time spent teaching and preparing are evidence of the larger effects of higher education's growing reliance on part-time or contingent faculty, said Ms. Maisto. Full-time, tenured, and tenure-track faculty have less time to devote to students, she said, because they have fewer people with whom to share the burdens of shared governance, institutional service, and research.
"Contingency affects all of the faculty," she said. "The idea that tenured faculty are continuing to perform at an optimal level is false."
Stress and Its EffectsSelf-imposed high expectations, lack of personal time, and working with underprepared students were the leading sources of stress for faculty.
Institutional budget cuts came next, with 74 percent of faculty members citing such cuts as a cause of stress during the previous two years. That finding was especially pronounced at public institutions: More than 86 percent of faculty at public universities said institutional budget cuts had caused "some" or "extensive" stress, as did 83 percent of faculty at public four-year colleges. Less than half of those at private universities said the same.
Budget cuts can have wide effects on faculty, including years of frozen pay, departmental shutdowns, and turnover, said George S. Stanley, a professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University who has seen all three outcomes on the Baton Rouge campus.
"There's been a lot of discontent, which I believe is directly related to stress in not having a pay raise for five years," he said, though his department has escaped major cuts. "Associate professors and younger professors are getting squeezed."
In recent months the system's president and chancellor, several administrators, and faculty have left or announced plans to leave the university. Mr. Stanley attributed many of those departures to the strain of coping with budget cuts. The Baton Rouge campus has seen $92-million in cuts since 2009, which has resulted in the loss of about 10 percent of its faculty, the university has said. With interim leadership left to manage uncertain state finances, planning tends to take a back seat, he said. "Things sort of get frozen."
Faculty members often perceive different levels of stress depending on their discipline, said Roger G. Baldwin, a professor of educational administration at Michigan State University. Faculty in the natural and physical sciences and in engineering have more avenues to win grant money than their peers in the humanities and social sciences. Access to grants can insulate professors from budget cuts and talk of program closures.
"Market forces are so powerful in higher education," Mr. Baldwin said, "that we're seeing the same kind of stratification in higher education that we're seeing in the larger society."