How Universities Work


Week 6: Faculty Careers

Faculty represent the capital stock of the university. Following a business model, we might imagine that the buildings, equipment, books, and other tangible goods represent the university's capital stock, but these assets are better understood as costs related to the support of the faculty. Students like to believe that they are the reason for the university, but this is not so. Students come to the university because of the faculty, and without the faculty, no university exists. Moreover, faculty drive the largest part of the cost of any institution of higher education. Some costs appear directly through salaries and fringe benefits, but many more come indirectly through libraries, laboratories, classrooms, offices, staff support, and other elements required for faculty productivity.

The corporate model that sees faculty primarily as labor does not accurately capture the importance of faculty in the university's productive activity. Faculty, in this business view, simply represent some form of knowledge worker, and in response to economic difficulties many faculty take advantage of this misconception to construct labor unions and other structures that reinforce this mistaken notion. While it may certainly be the case that faculty require a union under some circumstances to protect themselves against an institution's corporate-style labor and wage policies, the existence of the union simply overlays the cost of its bureaucracy on top of the institutional cost of managing faculty capital stock. The reason capital is the best way to regard faculty is that tenured faculty represent a long term investment not easily transferred, sold, or otherwise liquidated.

Once faculty hired to teach and do research achieve tenure after their sixth year at most institutions, they become as permanent an investment as any building. Faculty careers may run for thirty or forty years, and the institution carries an obligation to pay for this asset with all of its attendant costs at some reasonable level regardless of its productivity or its contribution to the institutional mission.

As is the case with many physical assets, management cannot easily transfer faculty functions from an original purpose to a new purpose. If the original purpose becomes un-economic, obsolete, or otherwise unneeded by the institution, the faculty assets associated with that purpose do not simply flow into another more productive use. As would happen for factory production lines constructed for a now obsolete purpose, a change in function for faculty implies significant new costs if the retooling of the faculty member is even possible. Like many buildings on the historic register, faculty who no longer serve an economic purpose can only be reconstructed at such a high cost that it is often more efficient to buy a new faculty member rather than reconstruct an old one. In this circumstance, the institution pays the extra cost of maintaining obsolete professors rather that incur the political and social costs of removing them from the payroll.

This characteristic of the faculty comes from the specialized nature of their expertise. Historians do not teach chemistry, Elizabethan scholars do not teach Spanish, engineers do not teach sculpture. Each faculty guild, especially in research institutions, has strict requirements for entry and permanent status and generalists tend to disappear from, if ever allowed to enter, the employment stream before receiving tenure. In most cases, the investment in the capital stock of faculty proves wise and the faculty continue to deliver high returns on any investment made in their careers throughout their useful professional lifetimes. Nonetheless, no one engaged in the management of universities should ever think of faculty as a work force, they are the university's capital stock.

Finally, faculty serve as institutional capital stock because the research university's mission, purpose, and goals succeed or fail on the basis of this investment. The administrators, staff, buildings, students, and alumni do not create the value of the university. They contribute to it, they support it, but it is the astute investment in the capital stock of faculty that produces the institution's value to its constituencies and owners.

Being highly individualistic in temperament and each possessing a specific and virtually unique set of skills, individual faculty do not much appreciate the perspective that sees them as part of an aggregate capital asset. And they are right in this attitude, for the management of faculty is an individualized art, as any department chair will only too eagerly explain. Our interest here is to identify the structure of faculty life and careers. Only by understanding the way faculty interact with their institutions and their guilds can universities improve their operations.

Faculty, along with their supporters and critics, spend time and energy on the analysis of promotion and tenure. These topics elicit much controversy but often for the wrong reasons. Promotion recognizes cumulative accomplishment at various levels of guild-established productivity and quality. Tenure, represents the institution's and the guild's investment in the future productivity and accomplishment of a faculty candidate. While many critics worry that tenure protects the incompetent and subversive, this is not the major issue for the university and its guilds. Very few tenured faculty prove to be incompetent. Instead, the issue is more subtle and complex.

Universities have only a fixed amount of capital stock to spend on the production of quality. Every faculty member whose productivity and quality becomes less than optimal represents a less than optimal use of the institution's resources. The test of optimal use is whether, using the same amount of money invested in a current faculty member, you could get a better faculty member in the market. Positive tenure decisions represent a bet by the guild and the institution that the capital investment in faculty members will deliver a high value over their professional lifetimes, a value that is as good or better than any other investment in faculty members that the institution could make. The decision about tenure is much more important than the decision about promotion. Promotion sets standards of performance for all members of a guild, but tenure makes a one-time long-term investment of scarce capital in an asset that we expect will produce nationally competitive quality over a lifetime of service.

These decisions (that set the standards of cumulative performance through promotion and make the institution's capital investment in future performance) are of such importance that faculty and administrators create elaborate validating procedures. The process of promotion and tenure represent a form of academic due diligence similar to what a business employs when deciding whether to acquire another company, a new plant, or new equipment. In the academic world, the process is no less formalized, no less rigorous, and overall, no less effective in making good decisions. The added complication in the academic world is that these decisions directly involve not inanimate physical or financial objects but real people.

Tenure in particular represents a life-challenging experience for the candidate. For this reason faculty advocates tend to develop complex bureaucratic measures to protect candidates against negative decisions in these processes. Only the most rigorous research universities use a decision process that measures a tenure candidate directly against quality available in the marketplace. In most universities, the process is biased in favor of the candidate. This bias works through the mechanism of satisfactory continuous work. In the event a faculty member does a good job, a job that meets the minimum or at best the average standards of the guild, then the presumption is that the institution will make the permanent investment in granting tenure. In the most rigorous research universities, mostly private, the presumption measures the candidate against the market. These institutions ask this question: "Is a lifetime investment in tenure for this candidate the highest and best use of the institution's funds." Or, more specifically, "Can the university find a better person in the marketplace for this position than the candidate before us, regardless of whether the candidate before us has performed up to the generally accepted standard for the profession."

A reading of the formal documents that support and define faculty personnel policies and practices provides a useful perspective on the complexity and formality of the promotion and tenure practices of American universities, both public and private. Additionally, the commentary available from the website of the principal organization that defends the tenure rights and responsibilities of faculty (American Association of University Professors) and one of the more aggressive trade union representatives of faculty employees gives a sense of the profession's focus on sustaining the tenure rights of faculty.

The significance of this investment and the risks it entails often encourage universities to rent faculty rather than incur the risk and future costs of tenured faculty. While few universities support a permanent large group of non-tenured full-time faculty, most rent part-time faculty in ever increasing numbers, creating a category of what we now call contingent faculty. The inflexibility of a full-time tenure-track faculty investment has led many institutions to use industrial labor models in employing teaching and even research personnel. These contingent faculty, part-time or full-time non-tenure-track faculty, are often fully qualified with PhD training, publications, and teaching experience, but the university or college chooses to hire them on temporary contracts for specific purposes rather than making a long term commitment. This technique gives the institution the ability to immediately adjust the financial commitment to faculty personnel in response to budget changes or variations in student interest or demand. Contingent contracts provide the institution with the ability to manage faculty in accord with short term faculty productivity. If a contingent faculty member is not teaching at a high enough level of quality and productivity, the institution can hire someone else. Similarly, some parts of the academic research enterprise will employ significant numbers of contract research faculty whose job is to do research, get grants, and otherwise be productive. If they fail to perform or their specialty becomes obsolete, they can be replaced with more suitable research faculty.

The tenure-track faculty have considerable difficulty with the issue of how to deal with contingent faculty and the contingent faculty themselves have their own issues with this system. Tenure-track faculty understand that the increasing use of non-tenure-track faculty means a reduction in the importance of tenure to the university. But they also know that the use of contingent faculty may mean that in a financially constrained environment, the contingent faculty will be the first to go, preserving the continuity of the tenured staff. Most faculty argue for making all positions tenure-track to ensure strong defense of their own property rights in tenure.

Contingent faculty have many different perspectives on this issue. For some, the freedom from having to meet tenure requirements in the up-or-out atmosphere of most university tenure processes is an advantage. They see themselves as good at what they do (teaching for example), and do not want to have to engage in research or service. Others of course worry about the job insecurity involved with contingent status and in many instances, especially for part-time faculty, the benefits are poor. Also, collegial life for contingent faculty can be disappointing, and the actual responsibilities of full-time contingent faculty remain somewhat variable (do they perform service, do they vote on instructional issues, etc.). As the number of contingent faculty rises to over half the total number of faculty employed in the US, colleges and university are likely to pay closer attention to standardizing the context for these instructional and research faculty.

Given the significance of tenure in the cultural, intellectual, and financial structure of universities, consider the following issues:

  • What intellectual benefits come from the system of tenure? What other enterprises achieve similar intellectual results without tenure?
  • Has the growth of trade union structures reduced the value of tenure, replacing it with the job security of organized labor or the security of government civil service?
  • Will technology and distance education undermine tenure in the same way that part-time faculty positions do now?
  • How does an institution or guild balance the human elements of continued employment for valued colleagues against the quality enhancement that comes from rigorous application of the highest standards for tenure?
  • Can a university improve without changing its standards for tenure and promotion?
  • What is the risk of compromising academic freedom when tenure does not prevail?
  • What will the impact of contingent faculty be on the organization and operation of different types of colleges and universities?


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