Peer Review

Navigating the Future of the Professoriate

We are living in a time of profound change in the realm of American higher education. Students entering college today, often called “the Millennials” (Howe and Strauss 2007), are increasingly diverse, more technologically adept, and more globally aware than any previous generation. Traditional teaching methods, based on the model of faculty as repositories of knowledge, are not as successful with students who view knowledge as freely accessible through the Internet. There are increased pressures on the faculty to rework their pedagogical strategies for learners whose characteristics include the tendencies to comprehend visually, to shift attention easily, and to expect interaction and collaboration in the classroom. And, following the lead established by legislation requiring new standards in K–12 education, accrediting agencies are demanding increased accountability and evidence-based assessment of student learning. These are only some of the educational transformations that are taking place in colleges and universities. To further complicate matters, the current climate of financial insecurity has resulted in diminishing resources at the time they are most needed.

How do the faculty adjust to this morphing of the academy? Most members of the faculty who teach now were trained at a time when professors tended to be secure employees of colleges and universities, who taught full-time students mostly in their teens and twenties. This description no longer fits many faculty members and students. There is a growing divergence between the traditional conception of the professoriate and the changing realities of modern higher education. How we collectively respond to this tension will shape the future of the professoriate in the twenty-first century (Austin 2003)

In this issue of Peer Review, we attempt to navigate these uncharted waters with the goal of understanding the challenges and proposing creative yet realistic solutions. Our reflection on this subject coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Faculty Resource Network (FRN), a consortium of diverse institutions that continues to have a positive impact annually on the professional lives of hundreds of faculty members, and, in turn, thousands of their students.

The Faculty Resource Network

The FRN was established at New York University in 1985 to address the challenge of how a large research institution can help small and medium-sized colleges address their pressing need for faculty development in the face of limited human and financial resources. With seed funding from the Ford Foundation, the FRN was created as a partnership dedicated to faculty development. Ten colleges in the New York metropolitan area became the founding members.

The early years of the 1990s ushered in the next phase of growth for the FRN. Ten historically black colleges and universities in the South joined the consortium with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which led to a corresponding expansion in faculty development programs. In particular, the FRN summer faculty enrichment seminars have become our flagship program for cross-institutional collaboration within and across the disciplines, attracting approximately three hundred faculty participants to the New York University campus each June.

Over the years, additional colleges and universities joined the partnership and significantly enhanced its diversity. These new members included community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, a native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander institution, a military academy, and a tribal college. Today, the FRN’s membership stands at fifty-three institutions, spanning twenty states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Framing the Dialogue

We decided to hold a special forum on the future of the professoriate during the FRN’s Fall 2009 National Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hosted jointly by Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. The title of the symposium—Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times—echoed the famous words of Charles Dickens from another time of upheaval and uncertainty. Our plan was to mark the occasion of the FRN’s anniversary with a discussion that would examine the current status and future prospects of the professoriate, with the goal of generating transformative solutions that would benefit both faculty members and their institutions.

To gain from the widest possible range of institutional perspectives, we invited our partner consortium, the Leadership Alliance (LA), to join with us in determining how to address this subject. The Leadership Alliance, based at Brown University, is an academic consortium of leading research and teaching institutions that was established in 1992 to address the shortage of underrepresented minorities in graduate programs at competitive universities. Through summer internships and annual national symposia, the LA has successfully mentored students across critical transitions along the academic pipeline.

In bringing together two consortia representing more than eighty colleges and universities, the first task we faced was identifying the most important issues to discuss within the wide range of possible topics. A steering committee composed of senior administrators and faculty members was convened from among the institutional membership of the FRN and the LA. All of the committee members had extensive experience with faculty recruitment, retention, and development. After several conference calls and e-mail exchanges, the steering committee converged on five key questions (table 1).

Table 1. Discussion questions on the future of the professoriate

  • In what ways are higher education institutions, student populations, and faculty roles changing in the twenty-first century? What challenges and opportunities arise from these changes?
  • Why are well-qualified candidates not entering the professoriate? How is this situation affecting the recruitment of minorities to faculty positions?
  • How are different types of institutions meeting the challenges of diversifying their faculty within the context of their institutional missions?
  • What steps are being taken by different types of institutions to retain and develop their faculty? How are institutions meeting faculty needs such as professional development, work–life balance, and family care?
  • How does reliance on adjunct instructors affect our understanding and cultivation of the “professoriate” in higher education? How can institutions achieve the appropriate balance between traditional and part-time instructors?

Once the questions were selected, five committees were formed to thoroughly examine each question and write position papers that would be presented at the joint FRN/LA forum at the National Symposium. The makeup of the committees reflected the diverse membership of the two consortia, including representatives from liberal arts colleges, community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and research universities. This structure provided a rare opportunity for dialogue among different types of institutions with widely varying academic missions, faculty, and student populations. We were curious to learn if certain faculty challenges were shared across this broad range of institutional types. If these challenges could be identified, it would be possible to pool our collective experience and insights to propose creative and practical solutions.

Out of these rich conversations, both within the committees and at the National Symposium, two themes emerged as defining issues for the future of the professoriate:

  1. The need to provide ongoing professional development for faculty members at all career levels and at all ranks—including adjunct faculty—through mentoring, collaborations, and training in new pedagogical methods and technologies
  2. The critical importance of increasing the diversity of the professoriate and of developing strategies for recruiting, retaining, mentoring, and promoting faculty members from underrepresented groups

Supporting Faculty

From the inception of the FRN, its members recognized that professional development is key to fostering and reinvigorating a sense of purpose within the faculty. In turn, a more energized and dynamic faculty offer a greater benefit to students and to the higher education community at large.

A common lament among faculty members is that they lack time—to learn new pedagogical strategies; to focus on scholarly research; to develop or revise curricula; to produce manuscripts; to write grant proposals; and to keep up with recent trends and new knowledge in their fields. Given the current economic pressures, institutions across the country continue to impose more demands on faculty. From heavier teaching loads to increased administrative roles to more responsibility for assessing student achievement, colleges and universities expect more from their faculty as they continue to cut back on resources. Thus, the need to carve out space and provide support for faculty development is more critical than ever.

Leaders in the field of faculty development have identified the top challenges facing faculty members and their institutions. As Mary Deane Sorcinelli (2007) has stated in this journal, the three primary factors driving the need for faculty development are:

  • the changing professoriate
  • the changing nature of the student body
  • the changing nature of teaching, learning, and scholarship

This finding is based on a far-reaching survey of faculty developers at higher education institutions throughout the United States and Canada, which included research universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges (Sorcinelli et al. 2006).

In thinking of these challenges as opportunities, which is in keeping with the theme of our Atlanta conference, we find ourselves in a position to reimagine faculty development for the changing landscape of higher education in the twenty-first century. Although they address different questions, the five Practice articles, the Research article, and the Reality Check in this issue of Peer Review all contribute insights and propose strategies for supporting the faculty, which often overlap. This highlights what should be a guiding principle: We need strategies that address the totality of a faculty member’s experience, rather than solutions that are compartmentalized. One challenge that a faculty member faces, such as new roles and responsibilities, often affects another, such as work–family balance. Our approach to dealing with these challenges, then, must be holistic.

Achieving Diversity

Having experienced the considerable benefits that derive when there is dialogue and collaboration among diverse groups of faculty from across a range of institutions—which is a hallmark of FRN programs—we are keenly aware of the rewards that are possible when our colleges and universities succeed in achieving faculty diversity in their departments and on their campuses.

At a time when our society is deeply divided politically, religiously, economically, socially, and culturally, the academy must do a better job of advancing diversity and inclusiveness to fulfill its role in sustaining a democracy wherein all are valued and respected. Our entry into the century of global citizenship only reinforces the necessity of preparing our students to engage productively across difference.

The reasons we need to achieve faculty diversity are clear. The percentages of minorities and women within the faculty are well below their representation in the student bodies on our campuses, not to mention the general population. Also well-known are the multiple challenges that women and faculty of color confront in pursuing academic careers. Nonetheless, with the great push for access to higher education for underrepresented students, through President Obama’s agenda and the work supported by the major educational foundations such as Lumina and Gates, the need for faculty members who can serve as role models and mentors is ever more critical.

Conclusion

To end where we began, we are living in a period of major transition for our institutions of higher education. Large waves of faculty members are on the verge of retiring, and those who replace them must be prepared to meet the new challenges facing the professoriate while representing the diversity of our population. If we continue to operate with the same campus politics, policies, and cultures, we will fail to afford ourselves of the greatest opportunity of all—to cultivate the promise of an entire generation.

For the history, mission, programs, and current membership of the Faculty Resource Network, see www.nyu.edu/frn. More information about the Leadership Alliance can be found at www.theleadershipalliance.org.

References

Austin, A. E. 2003. Creating a bridge to the future: Preparing new faculty to face changing expectations in a shifting context. The Review of Higher Education 26 (2): 119–144.

Howe, N. and W. Strauss. 2007. Millennials go to college: Strategies for a new generation on campus (2nd Edition). Great Falls, VA: Life Course Associates.

Sorcinelli, M. D. 2007. Faculty development: The challenge going forward. Peer Review 9 (4): 4–8.

Sorcinelli, M. D., A. E. Austin, P. L. Eddy, and A. L. Beach. 2006. Creating the future of faculty development: Learning from the past, understanding the present. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Debra Szybinski is the executive director of the Faculty Resource Network, and executive director, Office of Faculty Resource; Trace Jordan is the associate director of the Morse Academic Plan, and director of special projects for the Faculty Resource Network—both of New York University.

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