Liberal Education

From the Editor

Clearly, liberal education would not be possible without faculty. But would it still be possible with only contingent faculty? Would it be possible without tenure and academic freedom? Without faculty engagement in research, scholarship, and service? Without faculty participation in shared governance or curriculum development? The answers to these and other, more finely grained questions about the relationship between an institution’s commitment to its faculty, on the one hand, and its commitment to academic integrity and educational quality, on the other, ought to be obvious. Yet as several broadly consequential trends threaten seriously to undermine the integrity of the academic profession, few seem to “connect the dots” between the deteriorating conditions of faculty work and the corresponding deterioration of the conditions for student learning.

Consider, for example, the dramatic changes in faculty appointments that occurred over the two decades between 1975 and 1995: tenure-track appointments decreased (by 12 percent), while both part-time and full-time nontenure-track appointments increased dramatically (by 103 percent and 93 percent, respectively). This trend has continued, with the result that, as Maria Maisto and Steve Street point out in this issue’s lead article, the percentage of postsecondary faculty on contingent appointments rose to nearly 75 percent in 2010.

What difference does this make to student learning? Consider the conclusion reached by Paul Umbach after studying the impact of contingent faculty on undergraduate education in 2007: “it is clear that, currently, contingent faculty tend to be less effective than their tenured and tenure-track peers in how they work with undergraduates.” More specifically, Umbach found that, by comparison, “part-time faculty interact with students less frequently, use active and collaborative techniques less often, spend less time preparing for class, and have lower academic expectations”; full-time nontenure-track faculty also “interact with students less frequently” and “require slightly less effort from their students.”

The same year Umbach published his findings about the relative effectiveness of contingent faculty, AAC&U released the LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century, which includes “A Guide to Effective Educational Practices.” This coincidence presents an opportunity to connect the dots by asking with Paul Umbach, “is it reasonable to expect that contingent faculty will engage in effective practices as frequently as their tenured and tenure-track peers?” And so as AAC&U continues to document the effectiveness of the ten high-impact practices recommended by the LEAP report, shouldn’t we also sound the alarm about the fast-shrinking number of faculty members who are more likely actually to use them?

In this same vein, the articles in the Featured Topic section explore several trends affecting today’s faculty, connecting dots between the casualization of academic labor and the ideals of liberal education and academic democracy; between the commitment to faculty diversity and the emergence of a two-tier professoriate; and between institutions’ responses to the economic recession and the implications of fiscal decisions for faculty work and student learning.

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